Migrants and popular culture

On 16th September,  we had a chance to hear professor Lewis Erenberg from Loyola University speaking about the immigrant influence upon American popular culture. The lecture covered  the years 1890s to late 1920s and early 1930s, and explored the migrant roots of contemporary cultural phenomena.

Loyola Universityy

Loyola Universityy


The turn of the 19th and the 20th century, the time of the great urban development, marked the period of particularly significant and diverse cultural contribution of American immigrants. Second generation migrants became ready to assume new identities, redefine their national profile and seek their ways of assimilation into the cultural pattern of America.

There were three major reasons why art preoccupied immigrants (and this term mainly referred to non-coloured people in the context of this lecture), and why so many of them established the basis for the future development and diversification of American popular culture. First of all, the  so-called ‘show business’ was quite egalitarian in the respect that everyone could try to succeed in this field, there were no preliminary exclusions. Secondly, one needed no qualifications to become an actor, a singer, or an entertainer. And finally, any form of occupation in entertainment industry was looked down upon by ‘genuine’ Americans, representing essentially Puritan Anglo-Saxon values such as chastity, modesty and penitence. As illegitimate, deviant and filthy business, leisure industry was not an ideal workplace for respectable daughters and sons of WASP families. So this was the only relatively profitable activity almost exclusively taken over by migrants. As immigrants not only created culture of the brink of the centuries, but they were also almost an exclusive audience, they could freely reinterpret the popular culture, and address issues relevant to them in a manner that related to their national traditions.



Professor Keil and Professor Erenberg

An interesting observation that professor Erenberg made was that many forms of contemporary American culture derived from migrant ‘lowly’ entertainment. This was the case with saloons which  slowly developed into more civilised entertainment, or with cheap and unsophisticated dance halls that were later recreated in the form of exquisite ballrooms. Another interesting example may be the Tin Pan Alley, a group of US publishers and songwriters who dominated the popular music scene in the early 20th century. The group included such personalities as Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Al Sherman or Cole Porter. Although now the Tin Pan Alley’s performers are considered top class artists, their inspirations were oftentimes quite plain and uncomplicated. Most of them were of Jewish descent, and they were inspired not only by religious Yiddish chants, but also by traditional folk songs of their respective countries of origin (Irish tunes, Italian songs, patriotic elements), black music and ballads. This heterogeneous fusion of different backgrounds was  one element of distinction between the Tin Pan Alley’s works and the traditional European songs that derived from a single culture. Another difference may be the fact that previously  immigrants would sing doleful and nostalgic songs, yearning to come back to their homeland; later on, they actually addressed a wider variety of topics, nostalgia being just one of many. The songs turned more positive, upbeat, entertaining and raucous. And this cheerful and less monothematic face of music quickly became the mould for other forms of leisure industry.


Coming to different areas of entertainment, American theatre, and ultimately American musical, would not have been the same if not for the immigrant contribution. Vaudeville, entertainment for the poor and uneducated, was upgraded and elevated throughout the years and eventually became a diversion for the wealthy and sophisticated. The formula of the shows inspired many recognised artists, only to mention Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers. When it comes to dance halls, cheap entertainment that agitated and infuriated pious Protestants, also transformed into what would be known today as a musical event or a commercial party, through the stage of a disco night.

 At the beginning, dance halls used to be attended by the whole immigrant families. These meeting offered a chance not only to chat and dance, to court and be courted, but also to bring the whole community together. Together with the shift of American industrialism into consumerism, and the growing role of capitalism in America, some people decided to turn familial, group entertainment into a commercial enterprise. As such, it usually involved paid entrance. With paid entrance, and limited access, it usually meant limited number of participants. People who usually resigned from the pleasure and had to stay at home were the elder and children. The youth were then free to come together in a peer company, without a watchful eye of their grandparents and parents. Females were also admitted at this point, as they procured more income for the dance hall. This marked the beginning of a new trend of feminine leisure which,  on the other hand, contributed to the development of a new cultural phenomenon of boys who were paid for dancing with the women, entertaining them and actually making them thirsty and buy more drinks.  Another social change brought about by dance halls was a gradual increase in autonomy of women. Women wanted to go out – as they wanted to go out, they had to get some money, to get some money they essentially had to work, and as they started bringing home the bacon, they felt entitled to claim their rights. As a result of this social change, women decided to give out most of their earnings to their families, but demanded greater freedom in return. Women’s pocket money was largely spent on leisure, but to enjoy oneself one needs to have the right look; women then started to care more about their appearance, and allocate some of their money on beauty products. These transitional steps soon evolved into a global trend of a personal leisure and ‘the individual look’.


Another part of the lecture concerned Jews and their huge role in popular culture, especially in movie industry. According to professor Erenberg, there is a number of reasons why Jews dominated this field. Of course, the legendary Jewish know-how and ability to handle money and manage a business to some extent contributed, but could not  account for the whole of their success. First of all, they already had a long-established entertainment tradition that continued for a number of centuries. Secondly, they profited from the unique experience of being social outcasts, not belonging to any nation or land. In developing their sense of being different, Jews did not feel particularly attached to any places, they were ready to set up a new venture in America, without the constant yearning to go back to the ‘good ol’ days’ and the motherland. As a result, they set distant, far-reaching goals, instead of short, temporary objectives. Another factor was the fact that Jews managed to create a cohesive, unified and all-embracing culture. They already had their language, their chants, set of distinct and well-established rules and codices, elaborated culture in a variety of forms. With all this, with openness to experience and readiness to take new risks, Jews were ideal candidate to take charge of the nascent show business.

At this point, Jews and African-Americans clashed. The mutual influences of these communities have been extensive. This may be due to several reasons. Both groups shared the experience of persecution and had always been treated as inferior beings. Jews, as well as African-Americans, spoke their distinct language incomprehensible to others. Jews did not look down on blacks, but became their mediators with whites. Afro-American culture – music, performance, art – inspired Jews who saw the real America, the essence of genuine American spirit they had been looking for, in black people. African-Americans wanted to share their cultural heritage, but were unable to do so, as they lacked the most pivotal and indispensible feature, the key to success – whiteness. Whiteness which opened all doors, and could procure audience. African-Americans had the skills, Jews had the skin, so they would soon embark on a mission of translating the African-American culture into white  Anglo-Saxon Protestant language.

We're leaving the university with the beautiful view

We're leaving the university with the beautiful view

Aska Borkowska

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