[10 September 2010]
It’s only appropriate that comedian Allan Sherman’s eight classic albums be reissued on the day before Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish holiday celebrates the beginning of a new year. Sherman’s comic recordings helped bring in an era of good feelings toward American Jews by their Gentile brothers and sisters. Jews had already been accepted into mainstream popular culture by Sherman’s time in the early sixties, as the widespread success of such movies as Gentleman’s Agreement and Exodus, along with myriad films, television shows, and other media, had shown. But two things made Sherman’s work different: He gave the main characters of his story songs identifiably Jewish names and they were ethnic suburbanites. As the decade wore on, Sherman’s topics became less prominently Jewish and more uptown, as what I call “the shock of the Jew” became clichéd.
Sherman’s first Warner Brothers album, My Son, the Folk Singer was recorded in August 1962 and was the fastest selling record ever released up to that time. According to the liner notes by Dr. Demento, the demand was so great that Warner Brothers shipped them out without covers to an insistent audience. As the title suggests, the songs parodied the latest folk revival craze and contained cracked versions of such familiar tunes as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“The Ballad of Harry Lewis”), “The Streets of Laredo” (“The Streets of Miami”), and “Greensleeves” (“Sir Greenbaum’s Madrigal”). The comedy was broad rather than deep, and relied heavily on wordplay and puns that substituted modern Jewish identifiers for traditional Gentile ones. He did this smartly, connecting Jews with liberalism (“How’s your cousin Ida? / She’s a Freedom Rider” or “How’s your nephew Seymour / Seymour joined the Peace Corps” from “Sarah Jackman”, aka “Frere Jacques”), moral behavior (“Bring me one scotch and soda / Then you’ll take back the scotch, boy / And leave the two cents plain” from “Seltzer Boy”, aka “Water Boy”), and other somewhat positive traits during President John Kennedy’s administration. This suggested both that Jews had made it into the mainstream of America and that the mainstream of America had become more Jewish.
Sherman’s next record clearly showed that he had made it, as the title My Son, the Celebrity suggested. This disc relies more heavily on ethnic humor without the folk music conceit and pokes fun at the upscale ambitions of his era (“When I Was a Lad” remade Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruler of the Queen’s Navy”), television (“Al ‘n’ Yetta”, aka “Alouette”), and other such topical concerns. Recorded a quick three months after the first album, there is a pastiche quality to the affair, but it also contains some of his best work. The record includes his paean to the rise of Jewish Americans of the third generation, “Harvey and Sheila” (“Hava Nagila”), in which the couple go from graduating college and working for JFK, to buying a nice house and having twins, to taking European vacations and turning Republican. Sherman also gets off some of his best one- and two-line jests on this disc, such as his take on “Aura Lee”: “Every time you take vaccine / Take it orally / As you know the other way / Is more painfully.” Silly, sure, but that’s the charm.
On his next album My Son, the Nut, Sherman’s third in a row to reach number one on the charts, the comedian hit the big time with a hit single: “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter from Camp)”, based on Ponchielli’s 1876 composition “Dance Of The Hours”, reached number two on the pop charts for three weeks in late 1963. Sherman continued to parody New Frontier life. He takes on suburban lawns (“Here’s to the Crabgrass”, previously “Country Gardens”), Playboy clubs (“You’re Getting to Be a Rabbit with Me”, originally “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me”), conformity and mechanization in the workplace (“Automation”, from “Fascination”), as well as sending the kids to summer camp, as with his best-selling 45. There was little distinctively Jewish about the record, and not a single song contained a Jewish main character or used a recognizable Jewish tune. Instead, the melodies were mostly drawn from old standards and peopled by typical non-ethnic types.
American culture experienced a radical shock between the release of Sherman’s third and fifth records, For Swingin’ Livers Only. Some attribute this to the assassination of President Kennedy, who was known to be a Sherman fan, while others connect this to the sweep of Beatlemania. Sherman takes on the Fab Four on the gloriously stupid “Pop Hates the Beatles” (“Pop Goes the Weasel”). Sherman pokes fun at all the typical criticisms of the band of the time, such as the members’ long hair, the crowd noise of the young audience, the heavy marketing of Beatles merchandise, etc., as well as the musicians lack of talent (“Ringo is the one with the drum / The others all play with him / It shows you what a boy can become / Without a sense of rhythm”). Sherman’s popularity had ebbed. This album only reached number 32 on the pop charts. His comedy now belonged to the older squares, not the hip kids. His style had not really changed much during the two short years, but the milieu in which he released his records sure had. Sherman did go back to having Jewish main characters on “Grow, Mrs. Goldfarb” (“The Glow-Worm”), “J.C. Cohen” (“Casey Jones”), and “Bye, Bye Blumberg” (“Bye, Bye Blackbird”). However, not only do the characters not display Jewish traits, they exhibit Gentile ones, such as the consumption of bacon by Mrs. Goldfarb. While there are exceptions, such as the eating of pastrami on “Shine On, Harvey Moon” (“Shine On, Harvest Moon”), Sherman also takes on an Italian identity on “America"s a Nice Italian Name” (“Funiculi, Funicula”) and even does a Xmas song with “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” (“The Twelve Days of Christmas”).
Sherman recorded all of his albums before a live audience. (Incidentally, Sherman’s fourth record Allan in Wonderland was not sent for review by the record company.) The laughter and clapping cued audiences when to laugh and were part of the experience. But Sherman’s popularity continued to fade, and he died at the age of 48 in 1973. He continued to work in various media up until his death, and references to him still find their way into the culture, whether it’s through a Misfits song, an utterance by one of the Simpsons, a poster of him on the wall in Judd Apatow’s movie Funny People. These four albums reveal Sherman at his funniest and offer humorous insight into what America was like and found comic during the era when its Jewish citizens found their way into suburban acceptance.