The Jewish Museum of Maryland buttresses the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's tribute to Paul Simon
By By Adam Katzman
Dec 01, 2015 | 10:01 PM
That the Jewish Museum of Maryland, located in a predominantly black area of Baltimore, would host a Paul Simon exhibit makes sense. Simon was one of many Jewish-American artists deeply immersed in African-American art who sometimes problematically eclipsed their influences, making the museum an ideal location to explore his tangled iconography, even if the exhibit itself, "Paul Simon: Words + Music," curated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and on view through Jan. 16, is reminiscent of a themed bedroom at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Banished to the various corners of the room are stage props, biographical placards, and fragments of an interview with Simon that play like a promotional reel before a lifetime achievement award. The unintentional dissonance created by his disembodied voice overlapping with various iterations of itself ends up being the most illuminating aspect of the exhibit—primarily, that the harmonized union of Simon's work is built on a disharmonious friction between ghettoized traditions coming into contact with each other.
One early biographical tangent in the exhibit explains how baseball has informed Paul Simon's career—he discovered R&B while trying to tune into a game, eventually wrote a song about Joe DiMaggio, and featured Mickey Mantle in a music video. Compare that to a quote that fellow Jewish-American artist working in a traditionally black genre Donald Fagen, of sarcastic jazz-rock goofs Steely Dan, gave to Rolling Stone. He calls Simon "a certain kind of New York Jew, a stereotype, really, to whom music and baseball are very important . . . the parents are either immigrants or first-generation Americans who felt like outsiders, and assimilation was the key thought—they gravitated to black music and baseball looking for alternative culture." Info about discovering R&B while channel surfing is trading-card trivia apropos of nothing, whereas Fagen's quote places Simon's cultural immersion in the larger context of an evolving Jewish-American identity.
This sort of trade-off between the progeny of migrant families, aliens from abroad, and black Americans, aliens at home, had irrevocable impact on American culture in general. Take "The Jazz Singer," where a cantor's son dons blackface to express his secular dilemma through black art. It was a boon for sound cinema and inadvertently helped Jews assimilate into whiteness while having a detrimental impact on black art. Conversely, another New York Jew, schoolteacher and poet Abel Meeropol, wrote 'Strange Fruit,' one of the most incisive statements on anti-black terrorism in the U.S. But instead of any thoughtful analysis on that cultural trade-off, thanks to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame here, we instead get a terse line explaining that 'He Was My Brother*' was about a classmate, Andrew Goodman, a Freedom Rider who died doing civil rights work. That this is all interconnected is seemingly lost on the curators outside of a throwaway line about Simon & Garfunkel's early days "soaking up African-American doo-wop music and re-interpreting it through their experience as white, middle class teenagers."
The 1986 Simon album "Graceland," arguably the most controversial moment in Paul Simon's career, is de-fanged entirely. That he caught flak for defying UN cultural boycotts on apartheid South Africa to make an album there is ripe for debate on protest tactics. Simon himself, to this day, has "no regrets" because he was "invited" by his collaborators and thought lending that visibility to black musicians in a racist state was itself a legitimate contribution to the cause. While sympathetic to the African National Congress (ANC) and admiring of Nelson Mandela, Simon now thinks that the ANC's demand to be asked first denied the musicians agency, and pitted him as a Kafka-esque victim of bureaucratic machinations to which he responded "is this the kind of government you're going to be?" It's simultaneously naive and cynical, and while self-serving still makes the situation prime for unpacking, but that entire headache is absent. Instead, on display is a copy of the work visa granted for working on the album as well as a photo of Simon holding hands with Mandela.
On another placard Simon describes his solo M.O. as "'hybrid' music" because, by recording "Graceland" in South Africa, "he realized 'You could mix these elements. You could paint with a whole other palette,'" which, while sounding benign, sounds mildly colonial as well. The exhibit could note that what makes "Graceland" partly interesting is its mix of Jewish and African folk music traditions. It doesn't, but to be fair, aside from the novel combination of both, neither really illuminates the other's contributions. In a video, Simon explains the recording process went faster than expected because the musicians brought the aforementioned palette to the table, but the sense we get is that Simon just plopped his words on top of it. It's similar to his recording of 'Mother and Child Reunion' in Jamaica with Jimmy Cliff's band where the musicians, wanting to do reggae instead of ska, have to explain to a bewildered Simon what reggae is until he plays along all "yeah, that's cool. I'm happy with that. Let's do it as reggae." Another video, on the collaborations behind 1990's "The Rhythm of the Saints," has Simon astonished by an Afro-Brazilian musician's stylistic flourish until Simon relays they claimed to learn it from him, which on one level makes hybridity sound like a collaborative exchange but ultimately feels as self-serving as the rest of the exhibit.
Unsurprisingly, Paul Simon's own work does the heavy lifting, as seen in a wall projection of his 'Boy in the Bubble' video, the first track on "Graceland" and possibly the #staywoke-est song of his career. Amidst a children's morning-show-style collage of trees and animals Simon howls about surveillance, "lasers in the jungle somewhere, staccato signals of constant information, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires" like a cross between Thomas Pynchon and a public-access crackpot on Adult Swim's infomercials. Simon's secret strengths are his Bruno Schulz-ian flights of surrealism and the disreputable wryness lurking in his harmonies, like ' Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard' using criminality as a metaphor for letting your Jewish parents down. To the exhibit's credit, it does note that Simon's comic tendencies made him a good fit for "Saturday Night Live," but in a compilation of sketches, the specific why is left up to the viewer. One can read a sketch of the impish Simon playing gargantuan Harlem Globetrotter Connie Hawkins as toying with the both nebbish-y and Napoleonic relationship Jews have to black-dominated American sports. Another, of Simon dressed as a turkey, struggling with Lorne Michaels over playing "Mr. Alienation," seemingly speaks to the overlap between diaspora existentialism and Vietnam-era disillusionment.
The exhibit is basically just one big Great Man tribute without any of the rough patches or high stakes on which the alleged greatness is achieved. One large placard reads: "I'm trying to be forthright about what I say . . . I think that the history of this music is really fascinating and goes into the rest of our history. It's a way of learning about who we are." What he's saying in his songs remains ambiguous at best. On one video he recounts that "I'm going to Graceland" was a placeholder that eventually led him on a father/son trip to Memphis and a subsequent realization of why Elvis was great, but nothing about, say, Sam Phillips, the record producer who cut Elvis' first record, saying "if I could find a white boy who could sing like a black man I'd make a million dollars," which in Elvis he did. And the exhibit notes how Simon & Garfunkel were one of the first acts to de-anglicize their stage names (from the cartoonishly goy Tom & Jerry) and go full Jew on the pop charts, but as another brief factoid it's one of the only moments where the exhibit even acknowledges what should probably be foregrounded in a Jewish museum.
To the Jewish Museum of Maryland's credit, it picked up the slack and curated its own much smaller but more thoughtful display in the hallway that offers a glimpse into what the Simon exhibit would have been like in the Jewish Museum's hands. Titled "I've Come to Look for America," it connects 20th-century Jewish and black American musicians, exploring the politics of collaboration amid racial discord, and asking if they gravitated to the genre for "its emphasis on angst alienation and protest" or "a chance to cross cultural boundaries—Jewish/Christian and white/black" and possibly, less radically, "simply a case of entering a line of business that needed little starting capital and a lot of wit." For the Hall of Fame, Simon's symbiotic attachment to whatever black musical style his album's hybrid experiments find relevant is a blip on the radar. For the Jewish Museum, its political significance is fleshed out as a central part of the narrative.
The period is specified as "post-WWII" and, though not explicitly mentioned, a reconfiguration of Jewish identity that links up with the subjugated class of their country of residence can be seen as post-Holocaust as well. A passage on how "Jewish liturgical music has been borrowing musical forms and stylings from host cultures for centuries" would have been enlightening in the Hall of Fame's exhibit with regard to the spiritual riffs in a few of Simon's works, but it's nice to see the Jewish Museum place it here in a way that trades individual iconography for community identity. Simon & Garfunkel are placed with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and some others as Jewish folk artists that broke from Yiddish and Israeli folk traditions without necessarily denying their origins.
Part of another exhibit, "I've Come Looking For America," discusses Tom Wilson, the first African-American producer on Columbia, was a key force behind Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel going electric. Collaborations, such as those of multi-racial The Tarriers (including a young Alan Arkin, Bob Carey, and native Baltimorean Erik Darling), Ella Jenkins teaching folk guitar at the JCC, or Bob Dylan first appearing on Harry Belafonte's "Midnight Special," are placed under a quote reading "He Was My Brother." Simon's 'Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.*' is placed in its proper context on a list of "Jewish Folk & Protest Songs." It's an exclusively benign reading of history as a shared struggle without a lot of friction outside of establishment and resistance, but it's a step in the right direction.
Across the hall, in an exhibit titled "Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore" which explores the relationship between Jews and the area, boycotts finally appear in the form of Jewish housewives in 1910 protesting kosher meat prices. Community dialogue appears in early 1900s gatherings between Yiddish Socialists, anarchists, and Zionists. The knotty relationship between Jewish migrants and black Americans, sometimes collaborative under social unrest, sometimes fractious, appears too—stories of Flag House Courts public housing and the riots after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination touch on the increasing disconnect between upwardly mobile Jewish Americans that left slums for greener pastures and poor black Baltimoreans left with dehumanization of crumbling infrastructure.
The exhibit speaks to how conscious the museum is of its location and the responsibility it owes to untangling its history there, especially as past problems reassert themselves. It's fitting that everything "Paul Simon: Words + Music" elides about the precarious relationship between race and politics in his chosen profession appears in the inter-zone between these two exhibits, with the boy finally breaking out of the bubble and everything that "falls apart" finally "put together" again.
Corrections: An earlier version of this review contained multiple errors. It referred to a how the song "'Wednesdayat3am' was about a classmate, Andrew Goodman, a Freedom Rider who died doing civil rights work." The correct title of the song is 'Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.,' and the song in question is 'He Was My Brother.' City Paper regrets the errors.