Boswell's version of Jolson's life

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The Independent Online
There is a new musical based on the Al Jolson story coming soon, and to coincide with it they are reissuing a revised version of Michael Freedland's 1972 book on the great man.

I have looked through the Freedland book and it seems a fair enough account of his life to me. However, it cannot pretend to compare with the greatest book ever written in this area. I refer, of course, to that enduring classic of biography, Boswell's Life of Jolson.

Sadly, I find that many people these days honour this book more by mentioning it than by reading it so, for all those who, to their own detriment, have never tasted the delights of Boswell's Life of Jolson, I bring you a few enticing morsels today.

From time to time (writes Boswell) I managed to induce Jolson to talk of his childhood in Russia, a country he remembered with clarity though with little affection. "Russia is a country whose size you can hardly comprehend without having been there," he told me. "It is so large that when a tsar died, it took news of his death several weeks to reach every corner of the empire, and during that time we Jews would go indoors and hide."

I asked him what the reason was for this. "Why, sir, out of sheer terror. You must know that Russians veer between gloom and exhilaration. On the occasion of the death of a tsar, they were at first in despair, but then so overjoyed at the accession of another one that they would burn a Jewish village down."

I asked him if this were not a curious form of celebration. "Not if you are a Russian, no, sir. A nation which can burn down its own capital in the face of Napoleon's troops would have no trouble in burning down a small Jewish village just to let off steam. However, my parents found it a strain living in such a volatile place so they determined to find a new life in the Promised Land."

Meaning Israel? "No, sir, not Israel. That was not to become the Promised Land for a long time yet. Or, rather, it was already the Promised Land but only because the European allies had promised it to so many countries. It had been promised to the Jews, and the Arabs, and the French and the Egyptians and, for all I know, the Welsh. Yes, you could call it the Promised Land."

At which the great man laughed, and wrote the remark down, then went solemn again. "No, sir, the United States was the promised land, with no Cossacks and where they did not burn down Jewish villages every time a president left office. It was not paved with gold, but at least it was paved."

I dared to broach the subject of Jolson's stage attire and his habit of applying burnt cork to his face in the so-called act of blacking up. Did not this, I ventured to ask, constitute an offence to black people?

"Offend black people, sir? The contrary! They must be flattered that I should bother to imitate them! Since when has imitation been an insult? Is a king offended when an actor dresses up as Macbeth? How many women are offended when a man dresses up as a pantomime dame? Should I, as a man, feel affronted when I see a chimpanzee dressed in human clothes? No, sir! I might be sorry for the chimpanzee, but not for myself.

"You must remember that when I appeared on stage, I did not come before the public fully blackened. I carried my make-up box with me and then, in the course of my performance, applied the black make-up until I had assumed my pose, but because they had seen me create the illusion, it remained an illusion for the audience. They did not think of me as a black man. They thought of me as a white man taking on another identity, whose colour happened to be ebony. This was Brechtian before Brecht arrived."

I asked the great man if he perceived no irony in the fact that he constantly sang of Dixie and the dear old Southland and being way down on the levee, although these were places he had not grown up in and probably not even visited.

"What would you have me do, sir?" growled Jolson. "Sing of Russia's steppes and the endless Mongolian vistas? I had grown up there, but saw no advantage in advertising the fact in song. I sang of dear old Dixie, and cornbread and cottonfields because that is what they wanted to hear. We entered into a compact together to share nostalgia for a past that had never existed. We created an illusion and what is art if not an illusion?"

Is it not a search for the truth? "Nay, sir," said Jolson. "There is no such thing as the truth, only different truths for us to choose from. And the one that concerns me is the fact that I am the greatest. And I shall go on being so."