A Cross-Cultural Collaboration, Revisited In his new album, If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews, Irish musician and folklorist Mick Moloney celebrates the musical collaboration of the Irish and Jewish songwriters and performers of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley.
NPR logo

A Cross-Cultural Collaboration, Revisited

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121557181/121558904" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Cross-Cultural Collaboration, Revisited

A Cross-Cultural Collaboration, Revisited

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121557181/121558904" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


After a lifetime of performing and studying traditional music from Ireland and Iris-American folk songs, Mick Moloney has become fascinated by the Irish songwriters from the vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley era.

His new CD features several Tin Pan Alley collaborations between Irish and Jewish songwriters. It's called "If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews." It's his second CD of Irish-American songs from vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. He's recorded and produced over 50 albums and is a professor of Irish studies and music at NYU.

Let's start with the title track, "If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews," written in 1912 by William Jerome, who was Irish, and Jean Schwartz, who was Jewish. Moloney sings on the track is accompanied by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.

(Soundbite of song, "If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews")

Professor MICK MOLONEY (New York University): (Singing) I just returned from Europe, I've seen London and Paris and I'm glad to get back home to Yankee land. In fact, the little USA looks better now to me. It's the real place where the real folks understand.

But still I often sit and think what would this country do if it hadn't been like Rosenstein and Hughes? We surely have a kingdom, maybe no democracy if it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews.

What would this great Yankee nation really, really ever do, if it wasn't for a Levy(ph), a Monaham(ph) or Donohue(ph)? Where would we get our policemen? Why Uncle Sam would have the blues without the Pat's and Isadore's they'd be no big department stores if it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews.

GROSS: Mick Moloney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Was the pairing between Irish and Jewish songwriters different than any other pairing in Tin Pan Alley?

Prof. MOLONEY: I think it was, because first of all, the Irish had dominated American popular music really for the whole of the 19th century. You think of major figures like Thomas Moore. You think of Dan Amos, who wrote "Dixie." You think of Stephen Foster, who would've been Scotch-Irish. You think of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who wrote "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." You think of Victor Herbert, who introduced operetta to America. The list goes on and on. And I think the Irish would've come from a performing arts culture, where music and dance and storytelling were always highly valued.

And suddenly you have a new immigration from a very similar culture, a culture that - where it's very vocal, it's very much involved in the arts, it's a Diaspora. Like the Irish, they're not going back to where they came from for perhaps different reasons, and they take to the stage right away. And then in the 1890s you see people like Al Dubin arriving in Philadelphia. He's only three at the time and he won't go to school. He wants to be a songwriter.

You see people like Harry Gumbinsky arriving in Cincinnati. He won't go to school either. He's getting in trouble with his parents, he's Jewish, and he changes his name to Harry Von Tilzer. He wants to be a songwriter. And music was d�class�. It was on the fringes and both the Irish and the Jews at various times were on the fringes of society. And I think the entertainment world, the sports world perhaps in another way, has been a place for people who can't get on so easily in other aspects of life that they tend to gravitate towards those, so I think it was a very good mix.

GROSS: You mentioned Al Dubin and he's, you know, a Jewish lyricist who worked a lot with Harry Warren in the 20s and 30s. And he wrote lyrics for like Busby Berkeley musicals, lyrics for songs like: "Lullaby of Broadway," "42nd Street," "I Only Have Eyes For You," "We're in the Money." But he also writes this like Irish song that you have featured on your CD. It's called "Twas Only an Irishman's Dream." And the lyric includes, oh, the shamrocks are blooming on Broadway. Every girl is an Irish Colleen.

Prof. MOLONEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And so funny to think of this like Jewish songwriter writing from the point of view of an Irish-American who's like dreaming that everything in Manhattan is really Irish. On one level it's really phony, because he's writing from a point of view that he doesn't have. He's not Irish-American. He's Jewish-American. His story is so different. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that the song would mean any less to the people who hear it.

Prof. MOLONEY: Well, when I discovered it first, I thought it was complete absolute nonsense. You know, growing up in Ireland and growing in the rain and digging potatoes, all these Tin Pan Alley songs, they had no connection with any kind of reality that I would've known in Ireland growing up. But you know, my attitude to all that changed.

In 1995 I was part of a team of a lot of Irish academics, historians, poets, writers and musicians who traveled across America commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Great Irish Famine. And I was in places that I hadn't been before: Peoria, Illinois, Moline, Des Moines, to mention but many. And after the talk, people in their 80s came up to me in shock and said now we know for the first time why our grandparents never talked about Ireland.

And you know, the penny dropped right away that these people were trauma victims, that were refugees and, you know, my friends and colleagues tell me that that's the same kind of survivor guilt among Holocaust victims, there would have been that perhaps among the Irish. What you're going to tell your children that you guarded your food supply when you watched your neighbors die or the members of your family dies? That you were the lucky ones who came to America? And suddenly I realized why Tin Pan Alley these images - which were invented images of kind of an imagined wholeness - why they were attracted to people? It was good stuff. It was really good stuff. There was nothing bad about it. And I'm sure people realized that, you know, this was kind of a -this was a fantasy world. But, you know, we need good things to think about and good things to tell our children and our grandchildren. So, I think that they were (unintelligible) for a market, that they were expert craftsman. They knew how to construct songs, the melodies are beautiful. The lyrics are clever. And "It Was Only an Irishman's Dream,� I think is one of the great songs of Tin Pan Alley and one of Al Dubin's greatest.

GROSS: Mick, a lot of people thought George M. Cohan was Jewish, the great Irish Tin Pan Alley songwriter, who wrote �Over There� and �Your Grand Old Flag� and was played by James Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." So, a lot of people thought he was Jewish, you say, because his name was Cohan and that was connected to Cohen.

Prof. MOLONEY: Well, again it was a strategic move from the family that Keohane, his grandparents, had come from County Cork to Massachusetts in the years before the famine. And they had a son Jeremiah Cohan(ph). And he is the one who changed the spelling from K-E-O-H-A-N-E to C-O-H-A-N. And it was that great deliberate ambiguity - they were vaudevillians in the 1890s. And this was the era in which Jewish immigrants started coming to the music business in a serious way. And Jerry(ph) had a look of what was happening. He said, I think it's better to change the name - the spelling of the name. And George M. Cohan broke off from the family and he started to write his own material and hit New York at 1904 with �Little Johnny Jones� and the New York stage was never the same again after that.

GROSS: The song that you featured on your CD that's by George M. Cohan is a - it's a war song and it's called �When You Come Back.� And it's a song that's to be sung to men going off to fight in World War I. And, you know, Cohan wrote several really patriotic songs like �Over There� and �You're A Grand Old Flag.� Tell us about this song and why you chose it for the CD.

Prof. MOLONEY: Well, first of all it's a great song. It is beautifully constructed. Cohan was a master of first lines of songs: From Frisco Bay, To old Broadway, today all over the USA. That's a fantastic first line for a song. I've never been a big fan of jingoistic songs but, you know, looking at it as a piece of art, it's beautifully constructed in the tradition of �Over There,� which actually he handed to Nora Bayes to record. He knew she was such a starlet. She was the one who picked Billy Murray, another great singer of the time, recorded a lot of other Cohan songs like �You're A Grand Old Flag� and �All Of That.�

I was amazed with the First World War with the number of songs written on the war. There were over 30,000 songs written and copyrighted in America in the war years. I was astonished to find that out. I didn't particularly want to sing a jingoistic song, but I ended with three songs on the album from the First World War because it was the heart of Tin Pan Alley. And I tried to balance it with other songs I recorded. But look upon it as a piece of great art rather than say support the actual sentiments, although the sentiment of somebody marching off to war and trying to do their best and the bravery of their sacrifice and the hope that they will come back, that's a theme that we can all identify with.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Mick Moloney singing from his new CD, �If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews.� And featured behind him is the band Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.

(Soundbite of song, �When You Come Back And You Will Come Back�)

Prof. MOLONEY: (singing) From Frisco Bay to old Broadway, today all over the U.S.A., we know we're fighting the foe, but we all stand steady and ready to go. We know no fear, we know no tear and all we hear is the Yankee cheer. I heard a girlie say to her boy as he march to way. When you come back and you will come back you'll hear the Yankee cry at-a boy, Jack. And when you return, remember to raise some little thing that you got from the king. And drop be a line from German de do Yankee Doodle Do. When you come back and you will come back there's a whole world waiting for you. It's rum tum tum, the fights and drum. So, march you away�

GROSS: Music from Mick Moloney's new CD �If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews: Irish American songs from Vaudeville and early Tin Pan Alley."

We will talk more with Mick Moloney after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Mick Moloney and his new CD is called, �If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews.� And it's about Irish-American songwriters during the vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley eras. But it's also about collaborations between Irish and Jewish songwriters and singers during that period.

Growing up in Ireland as you did, did you know many Jewish people?

Prof. MOLONEY: I knew very few Jewish people. I met them later on I went to college in Dublin. But I was very conscious growing up in Limerick, a very shameful episode in our city, and Frank McCourt and myself talked about this quite a bit. We were at the only city in Ireland ever to have a pogram against the Jews. And we kicked out the Jews - the Jewish population. It was all sparked off by historical series of sermons of one very anti-Semitic priest. And it was a shameful episode in my home city and I always had it at the back of my mind that I'd like to do something to celebrate Irish-Jewish cooperation. And when I stumbled across Tin Pan Alley and then all the things that came after Tin Pan Alley like the Kelly's(ph) and the Cohans and Abie's Irish Rose, it seemed just right. On a purely personal level, it made me feel good to be able to do something like that.

GROSS: Were you alive when the incident that you described happened?

Prof. MOLONEY: Oh, no. It was in the early 20th century, but it was something that we - it's a dark past of Limerick's past and it's something that most people would have preferred to forget about. And it was a very small population anyway and it was a long time ago. But it's still part of our history.

GROSS: Was that something that was talked about when you were growing up or something that you had to discover as a folk historian?

Prof. MOLONEY: I discovered it later on. It was not talked about at all.

GROSS: Right. Mick, you were telling me that you actually performed at Frank McCourt's memorial service and, you know, McCourt was best known for his memoirs about growing up and - his memoir about growing up in Ireland and then his memoir about being a teacher in New York. You and he were friends. And you were telling me that you actually performed the title track from your new CD, �If It Wasn't for The Irish and the Jews.� Why that song?

Prof. MOLONEY: Well, because Ellen McCourt, who was directing the whole memorial�

GROSS: This is his wife?

Prof. MOLONEY: �she, yeah, Ellen McCourt is Frank's wife, and I've been great friends with Frank over the years - both come from Limerick. She asked me as a favorite to sing that song, and also "Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder� because it's such a terrible song but we both loved it. The song is really, really about bad. It deserves to be honored, it's so ridiculous. But particularly to sing �If It Wasn't for The Irish and the Jews� because both Frank and myself were both very conscious of that unfortunate part of our native city of Limerick and in a sense, it's kind of not only remedial, but it - Frank's - some of his best friends in New York and some of mine have been Jewish.

And you just like to set the record straight, that's just a small number of people at another time and place. But it's kind of like, you know, turning the circle, as it were.

GROSS: Mick, I'm going to ask you to perform an excerpt of one of the songs on your CD called, �The Old Bog Road.� And I think this is a really good example of the, you know, I'm in New York, but I'm yearning for my home in Ireland kind of song. And it's not a song I've heard before. So, tell us the story behind this one and why you chose it.

Prof. MOLONEY: Yeah, it's a song I heard, in fact, far too many times before. Every bad tenor in my native Limerick, when he got drunk, felt obliged to sing it and inflict it on the whole population. So, I hated the song with a passion. I always thought it was a Tin Pan Alley song from Broadway and in a sense it was because it was written by a woman called Teresa Brayton who was a poet, and she was married in - her maiden name was Boyle. She was married and living in Broadway and had a real strong sense of being detached from home and meeting people who never had gone home and couldn't go home.

And she wrote it and the music was put on later. But my great mentor, Frank Harte, sang it with a mournful style, not melodramatic at all. And I suddenly realized the beauty of the song and all my resistance went away. And it goes�

(Soundbite of song, �The Old Bog Road�)

Prof. MOLONEY: (Singing) My feet are here on Broadway. This blessed harvest morn. But oh, the ache that's in my heart for the spot where I was born. My weary hands are blistered through work in cold and heat. But oh, to swing a scythe today through fields of Irish wheat. Had I the chance to wander back, or own a king's abode. I'd sooner see the hawthorn tree by the Old Bog Road.

GROSS: And growing up in Ireland did this song make no sense to you because look, were you thinking exactly what are you yearning for?

Prof. MOLONEY: Well, it made sense on one level because almost everybody I knew in Ireland had immigrants in England or America, so the idea of being away from home, of being in an exile as we called it, culturally, that made sense. But it was kind of schmaltzy, you know. And when you're young you're not nostalgic, generally speaking. You want to get on the things and I was more interested in listening to the Beatles and the rock and - and the Rolling Stones than I was listening to �The Old Bog Road.� Then when I came to America, my attitude to the song changed, and the more years I spent here, the more I can empathize with those people who never could go home.

GROSS: That song, �The Old Bog Road� is featured on Mick Moloney's new CD, �If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews.� Well, Mick Moloney, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Prof. MOLONEY: It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Mick Moloney is a professor of Irish Studies and Music at NYU. His new CD again is called, �If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews,� Irish-American songs from vaudeville and early Tin Pan Alley.

I'm Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.