How is it that the songs of an American entertainer from the 1930s are etched into the memory of people in their 40s over 70 years later? As I watched The Jolson Story, and Jolson Sings Again in the past week, I found myself singing along, with cries from another room, “I remember those. My Dad used to sing them to me when I was a kid!” Familiar tunes and vaguely familiar words resonated through my brain. Some songs I could sing word-for-word, others echoing childhood memories. Of course many of them became familiar anthems and stage numbers, yet still from an era which pre-dates me. How are they carried through in living memory today?
The songs were originally performed in burlesque and vaudeville theatres, before moving to broadway. These were essentially live performances, often broadcast live on radio. The advent and spread of the gramophone allowed these songs a second life, albeit subject to the vagaries and fickle nature of the hit parade. During the war many gained another life, as Jolson entertained American troops, only to fade away once more. When the songs were translated into the Hollywood movie and its sequel already mentioned that a new generation was introduced to them, and the life of Jolson. I am sure that the emergence of the LP, and the later shift to digital recordings via CD kept this music alive and introduced it to further generations. Now the movie resurfaces on DVD...
Stories and history are handed on from generation to generation in many and diverse ways. As Ev and I reflected on the part these Jolson songs played in our lives, we considered the impact they had made on our parents, which emerged in the songs they sang around the home, and particularly at bed time. Some of them I still sang periodically, not recalling their origin. I often found myself thinking, “that’s where I learned that song from!” as I watched the movies.
This form of history is powerful, and reflects the ways in which the early stories of Jesus were passed from generation to generation. The first disciples and those who had been impacted by Jesus would retell their experiences, even converting some to song and poem, which would be remembered for the shape they brought to new generations. It was some time before they were committed to the written form which has come to us today, perhaps highlighting their power and influence in living memory.
As I read gospel stories, I find myself being energised in a similar way: moved to act and do as the stories depict, much in the same way as the songs came to life again for me (and others!) It’s how we keep the gospel story alive: in the life we live and share.
March 12, 2006