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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

And I'm Michele Norris.

There's a long tradition of ethnic humor in music. Early wax cylinders presented recordings featuring entertainers doing mock Jewish, Irish, Italian and black routines. When writer Jesse Green was growing up, that tradition was being carried out by one particular talented and funny man. A CD collection of that work sent Green back to his early listening.

JESSE GREEN reporting:

Okay, quick quiz. It's summer 1963. What are the hottest pop songs on the charts? Is it Elvis, Chubby CheckER, Peter, Paul and Mary, Frankie Valley? They're all up there. But this one, strangely enough, is even hotter.

(Soundbite of song Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh)

Mr. ALLAN SHERMAN (Singer): (Singing) Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh, here I am at Camp Grenada. Camp is very entertaining, and they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining.

Mr. GREEN: Side two of MY SON THE NUT, Allan Sherman's third gold album in less than a year. Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh is a classic Jew out of water song about the boy who didn't fit into the great American outdoors, the great American story of the woods and the lake and the poison ivy and the sports and the escape from the parents. He didn't want to escape from the parents.

That was Allan Sherman's story too, and that was his gift, and amazingly soon his downfall, too. But at that particular moment in the early '60s, it was a complete shock. I remember listening to those first three albums, it was MY SON THE FOLK SINGER, MY SON THE CELEBRITY, MY SON THE NUT, with a combination of pride and intense embarrassment. Here was this guy, basically, he might as well been wearing a giant yamaka, and he was out there using Yiddish and telling the embarrassing stories that we all knew about our parents and grandparents and becoming incredibly popular for it.

Mr. SHERMAN: (Singing) Shake hands with your Uncle Max, my boy and here is your sister Cheryl. And here is your cousin Isabelle, that's Irving's oldest girl. And here is your cousin (unintelligible), Gerald and Jerome, we all came out to greet you and to wish you welcome home.

Mr. GREEN: But listening to these songs some 40 years later, it is clear why they hit a nerve. He was taking folk songs or traditional songs and replacing their lyrics with satires of Jewish-American life. And in doing that, he was offering an absolutely perfectly focused snapshot of what it meant to assimilate.

Mr. SHERMAN: (Singing) Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman, how's by you? How's by you? How's by you the family, how's your sister Emily.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She's nice too.

Mr. SHERMAN: She's nice too.

Mr. GREEN: Of course, that's Frere Jacques, a song originally set smack in the middle of Catholicism. And now it's a rundown of the great Jewish-American themes, you know, finding a mate, children out of control, getting ahead, becoming a lawyer.

Mr. SHERMAN: (Singing): How's your brother Bernie?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He's a big attorney.

Mr. SHERMAN: How's your sister Doris?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Still with William Morris.

Mr. SHERMAN: How's your cousin Shirley?

Mr. GREEN: As the albums proceed through the early 1960's, you begin to get a sense that he was uncomfortable with the role he had created for himself. His Ersatz artistry was no longer enough for him. He dropped the purely Jewish angle and began to satirize mainstream suburban America. And this worked sometimes, as long as he still appeared to be on the wrong side of the fence. But when he began to enjoy that world and be part of it, and seem to be afraid of losing it, he let the air out of his shtick completely.

Sherman now wanted you to know that he knew important people, and not just in the way he used to, where he would use them as a joke and pair them with Jewish figures and deflate both of them in the process, like the classic rhyme about Merrill Lynch, Pierce Fenner and Smith and the entire (unintelligible). Now he wanted you to know that he just knew them, Jewishness or not.

Mr. SHERMAN (Singing): Call Chief Justice Warren and tell him Sophie Lauren is worried is she married or not.

Mr. GREEN: Soon the bard of public transportation and suburban estate wagons had Bentleys and Mercedes Benzes showing up in his lyrics. Somehow this represented a fundamental contradiction of the terms of the contract he had made to become popular, and just as quickly as that popularity had come, it fizzled. After the first three albums in one year, there were five more, and none of them was particularly successful.

More than that, listening to the songs on them is very sad. There's a kind of ugly dissatisfied tone to them, as if he felt betrayed, which is weird because he seemed to feel betrayed by a culture he felt would love him for mocking it.

Mr. SHERMAN (Singing): Sorry about that. All you say is sorry about that. Yesterday you broke my watch and drank my scotch and used my razor, burnt my blazer, incidentally wrecked my Bentley. Then as I blared, you said, sorry about that.

Mr. GREEN: And pretty soon everything collapsed. His wife divorced him in 1966, citing extreme cruelty and mental suffering. His health started to deteriorate badly. And maybe worst of all, he was reduced to writing songs for promotional use by the kinds of companies, like textile manufacturers, that the tired salesmen in his early songs had had to slave for.

Mr. SHERMAN: (Singing) Encron, Encron, that new polyester stuff.

Mr. GREEN: He hung on, unheard from and increasingly embittered, until 1973 when he died just shy of 49. As sad as all this was, there was a moment toward the end of his recording career when, maybe inadvertently and certainly momentarily, in an outtake that was not released on one of those last albums, when he was able to express what may have been at the heart of his material from the beginning.

Mr. SHERMAN (Singing): I'd like to sing a short song that is not meant to be funny. Everyone lives on his own little island. Keeps to his island, oceans away. Everyone stays in his safe little center, let no one enter, that's what we say. But people need people for sharing and giving, loving and laughing, what else is living?

Mr. GREEN: He made the classic assimilationist's mistake, the mistake of believing that you can copy someone else's happiness, that knock-offs are as good as the real thing.

Well, they are for a little while, but not for long, and in any case, manufacturing knock-offs, maybe it isn't such a great career for a nice Jewish boy.

Mr. SHERMAN: (Singing) Then maybe sometime you'll come back to stay. Don't make that sometime oceans away. Thank you, you're beautiful.

NORRIS: Jesse Green is an arts writer for the New York Times and a contributor to nextbook.org. Allan Sherman's songs show different sides of his personality. You can hear a selection at our website, NPR.org.

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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