Upcoming Events

Nov 1st

The Black-Jewish Century of Music

Sunday, November 1st at 3:00 p.m.

Speaker Prof. Jeffrey Melnick, University of Massachusetts Boston


No history of American popular music in the Twentieth Century can be written without African Americans and Jews at the center of the narrative.  From the early days of Tin Pan Alley, through the heyday of Brill Building pop in the 1960s (with which Paul Simon was associated early in his career), and up through the hip hop explosion of the 1980s and 1990s, African Americans and Jews have been complexly and productively connected.  In this talk, Professor Melnick will outline this history, with a special focus on the complicated ways that Jewish Americans—as songwriters, producers, theater owners, and performers—have been crucially involved with the production of what has been understood as “Black” music.  With a cast of characters including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Sophie Tucker, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday Jerry Wexler, and the Beastie Boys, this presentation will engage the audience in a consideration of the difficult politics surrounding the Jewish involvement in African American music.

Jeff Melnick is Professor of American Studies at University of Massachusetts, where he specialize sin teaching about immigration and cultural history.  His books include A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, Black-Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South, and, most recently, 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction.  Professor Melnick served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies for many years and has lectured widely on American popular culture.  He is currently writing a book provisionally titled Creepy Crawling  with the Manson Family.


Nov 8th

“Can Analysis be Worthwhile?”: Joining Paul Simon’s “Dangling Conversation”

Sunday, November 8th

Speaker Prof. Rachel Rubin, University of Massachusetts


There are many ways to talk about the history of American popular music—as an interlocking set of businesses, as a major engine of technological innovation, as a central element of artistic life in the United States and as a crucial, if disorganized source of news and opinion. Given all the ways popular music has functioned in American life, it is no surprise that for hundreds of years now it has served as a major site for some of the most consequential conversations everyday Americans have held about a stunning range of topics—from racial identity, to war, to labor issues, to immigration, to shifting gender roles, police brutality, and various financial crises.


These conversations are not an accidental byproduct or collateral effect of the making of popular music in the United States: a central function of the production of popular music in the United States is to provide opportunities, locations, and vocabularies for speaking about the pressing matters of the moment. While it seems unlikely that in 1984 many people would head down to their local bar and announce that they were concerned about the state of American masculinity in wake of the devastation wrought by the Vietnam War, it is almost certain that plenty of people talked about Bruce Springteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” to do just that work.



This talk outlines a few important case studies when popular songs have been used to process American identity:


  • Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” as a meditation on women’s empowerment in the midst of the African American Civil Rights movement
  • Paul Simon’s work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo (and other South African musicians) on Graceland as an opportunity to talk about global politics, cultural appropriation and celebrity privilege
  • John Anderson’s “Shutting Detroit Down” as an incisive critique of the recent banking crisis and the fallout surrounding deindustrialization.


The discourse surrounding popular music is almost always unruly and unpredictable. The complexities of audience response to songs guarantees that American popular music will continue to serve as a venue for significant acts of personal, community, and national identification.
Rachel Rubin is Director of the Center of Humanities, Culture and Society at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she has taught for nearly two decades in the American Studies Department and is the recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Scholarship Award. Rubin has published widely in a cultural history, with books on immigration and  American popular culture, the history of the Renaissance Faire, Jewish gangsters, Southern radicalism, and American popular music.  She is currently completing a book to be called 60 Revolutions Per Minute, a collection of critical interviews with artist/activists, and is also writing a book on the American country music artist Merle Haggard.  Rubin has also appeared regularly as a popular culture commentator on Boston’s NPR station.

Dec 2nd

The Bagelman Sisters and Beyond: Moe Asch’s Sound Encyclopedia

Wednesday, December 2nd, 6:30 p.m.

Speaker: Jeff Place, senior archivist and curator for the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Included with admission


A young New York radio engineer Moses Asch (1905-1986) ran a small radio repair shop in New York in the 1930s. His family had fled Poland and settled there. He found that his customers were asking for Jewish recordings that none of the existing labels could provide. He soon found himself in the record business recording two sisters, the Bagelman (later Barry) Sisters singing in Yiddish. About the same time he went with his father, the novelist Sholem Asch, to see the elder Asch’s friend, Albert Einstein in Princeton. When Einstein asked Moe, what he wanted to do with his life, he replied he wanted to document all the world’s sounds in a sonic encyclopedia. Einstein told him “you’re just the guy to do it” That started his journey into Folkways Records and over 2000 titles in the next 40 years.


This very special lecture coincides with Moe Asch’s 110th birthday!


Jeff Place is the senior archivist and curator for the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He has been at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage since January 1988. He has been a collector of traditional music for over 45 years.