Were we to see film or video of Al Jolson now, we would
probably be appalled. This manic white man in blackface
—good God almighty, where was the sensitivity?
Charitably, you could say that his was one of the first
desperate attempts by white America to reach out to or at
least recognize the growing and undeniable power of black
music—a gesture that achieved its apotheosis 30 years later
in Elvis—even though he deformed it to the point of parody.
Still, when I hear old Al I feel a blast of energy that makes
me feel more human (never an easy ask). There’s a madness
in his music that perhaps catches the madness of the 1920s
as well as anything, in the way that F Scott catches it in The
Great Gatsby. Then I listen to Cab Calloway singing ‘Minnie
the Moocher’ as he did at the Cotton Club in that feverish
decade and, after a quick consultation with other executives
here at Thumbcorp, I am drawn irresistibly to the
conclusion that the lines
She had a dream about the King of Sweden
He gave her things that she was needin’
are possibly the finest song lyrics of the 20th century. Then
again, I could be wrong.