The Jewish Songster

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Carole King and Gerry Goffin

One of the legendary Jewish songwriters has faded out, his light has dimmed, yet his impact along with his other Jewish songwriting partners cannot be emphasized enough. Gerry Goffin was the wordsmith weaving these narratives of teenage love, highlighting the ubiquitous elements in every American teenager’s life. Along with his wife Carole King, another Jewish songwriter and artist, he crafted these stories of an American life. This was the American life that his parents wanted so bad for him, yet he still felt out-of-place. Many of these songwriters from the Brill Building, the building that housed the Aldon Music Publishing Company headed by another Jew Don Kirshner, were Jews from the city. They came of age in the post-war period, seeing many new avenues open to Jews, especially when it came to housing. However, these Jewish performers still felt alienated, out-of-place, and uncomfortable with the standard White Anglo-Saxon Protestant normality. Certain artists veered far away from the norm due to their inner inclinations of rebellion and alienation, such as the formidable Lou Reed. The Brill Building writers were fully aware of the fact that they were different, yet they wanted so much to identify, or at least their audience, with mainstream America.

The list of songs written by Goffin is long, yet in the decade of the 1960’s he mostly wrote along with his wife at the time, Carole King. One of their first compositions, and all around success reaching Billboard’s Top 100, was the song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by the black girl group The Shirelles.

The song tells, from the woman’s perspective, of that intimate moment during the splendor of the night breeze. However, it’s punctuated with the serious question of whether this is true love or just another fling. These questions, especially with the dawning of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, rang louder at that point. King and Goffin were touring the mind of an infatuated teenage girl. The theme is a bit more risqué, as the blanching of Rock n Roll was in full swing bringing tameness to the music. These lyrics incited thought that was a far cry from the popular tunes of the day by singers like Frankie Vally and Fabian.

Another example is the following single that charted sung by Bobby Vee titled “How Many Tears.”

It speaks of the broken-hearted, lonely, and love-lorn boys experiencing their first heartbreak. Unlike the previous hit, this is geared toward the boys in school who have suffered this hardship. Still, he leaves the silver lining for love in the future. However, bobby Vee used that frequent theme of lost loves as shown in the next single they wrote for him titled “Take Good Care of My Baby.”

It should also be pointed out that Bobby Vee was a white heart-throb, while the Shirelles were black. Gerry Goffin, along with all the other Jews of the period didn’t distinguish between the color of the artists. That’s why we have Bobby Vee’s singles along with a song like “Some Kind of Wonderful” as performed by the amazing all black male group The Drifters (Who made many great songs including the much covered “This Magic Moment,” which was written by the Jewish songwriter Doc Pomus).

It could be safely said that every Jewish songwriter had that same sensibility of the Brill Building writers to Leiber and Stoller, to the rest of the boutique record label owners.

Throughout the early part of the decade of the 1960’s almost all of his songs, written with his various partners, focused mostly on love, love found, love lost, and the lamenting on the love that was either lost, found, or never existed. However, they were still the regular standard party songs that also went up the charts. One example is Little Eva’s “The Locomotion.”

A kin to the plea for everyone to dance in the streets, these were trying times in the United States. This type of song can be read as a racially inclusive song for everyone, all American teens get down and do this dance. It’s even more poignant due to the fact that Little Eva is black, and most of the record purchasers were white.

Another interesting feat is this sense of escape, due to their Jewish skin being visible. Although, this is nothing compared to the oppression of dark-skinned populations in the US and across the world historically. African-Americans have never been able to have due process under the white law, due to the excess of white exceptionalism. However, Jews are also outliers in their own so they could try to empathize with African-Americans. Certain songs written by Goffin mirrored this attempt of feeling the pain of the black man’s plight. One example is the song “Up On the Roof” by the majestic group The Drifters.

The song tells about this man’s frustrations with the world, seeking any escape route, hence you reach up on top of the roof. He tells of the drudgery of life, the hustle and bustle, and the rat race personified by the cramped and chaotic New york City living. However, if you dig deeper it might also be a plea for a black man to escape the injustice, frustration, and stifling life of white America. Conveying through music the song tells of that fresh air up on the roof were the few hang, leaving it open for the few.

There are plenty of these examples of that love, or the love shared by two individuals until the monkey wrench is thrown. Here’s to the lost boyfriend, thanks to the Jewish vocal group The Tokens (famous for their rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and their version of Goffin’s song “He’s in Town.”

Here’s to another great tune by Goffin and King about letting it all hang out “At the Club” by the Drifters.

It has that spice with the Spanish sounding influence, along with the same concept of inclusion.

There’s the great tune pleading for the singer’s lady to not bring him down……the song is aptly titled “Don’t Bring Me Down” as interpreted by the Animals.

These themes ran through the decades of his art, yet this feeling of the outsider was never lost, like most of his Jewish contemporaries. One of my favorite’s was a song done by the Byrds, and featured in the classic film Easy Rider, titled “I Wasn’t Born to Follow.”

This could be sung as the Jewish anthem through the centuries. We as a people were never born to follow any divergence from the true path. We have been mixed and matched, thrown around, tossed in the closets of lost empires, and have treaded on the dirt of toppled kingdoms. It could be said that Jews really only follow that one entity, and through song I hope that Gerry Goffin has found solace and peace.

Z’L, and Peace

 

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