The Jews and the Blues

The New York Times, in its Friday print edition, seized the occasion of a new documentary, “Born in Chicago,” to examine how black blues musicians mentored white rockers.

You can’t help but notice (or I couldn’t, anyway) the prevalence of Jewish rockers among the younger generation.

It’s something the writer, Larry Rohter, gets around to at the very end. Was there a connection? There’s a difference of opinion.

Many of the white musicians featured in the film are Jewish, as several of them mention in passing. Mr. [Barry] Goldberg [a keyboardist] and Mr. [Corky] Siegel [a keyboardist and harmonica player] both said that was merely a coincidence. But in a telephone interview from his home in the Hudson Valley, Mr. [Marshall] Chess, who founded the Rolling Stones’ record label and is Jewish, offered a possible explanation.

“I think there’s something in the pain of the blues, something deep, that touches something ancient in Jewish DNA,” he said. “It’s not easy to put into words, maybe because it’s beyond words, but it’s a true thing. When I stand next to cantors, and they are really wailing, it opens that same thing, some similarity that connects. Etta James, now she could sing like a cantor.”

Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.