An Interview With: Al Jolson – Issue 32


Eds: Hello, Al, take a pew.

Al: Hello, Dollies.

Eds: Still emulating then Al?

Al: Indeed, my men. It’s the sincerest form of flattery, after all.

Eds: Precisely. Now, we would like to ask you about your career in which you blacked up and sang songs associated with lives of negroes. What exactly were you trying to do?

Al: I was really enthusiastic about the music of the black communities, and I wanted to get them some recognition. As you know, they were not allowed to do their own stuff, so I felt I helped in getting them some proper recognition and a musical voice in the society, even worldwide, I existed in. A society and its racism I hated.

Eds: Yes, but there are many people who think you were being insulting to a race of people by mimicking them.

Al: I wasn’t mimicking them, I was emulating them and their music, and their spirit for joy and entertainment; a joie de vivre, if you like. Besides, your age still harbours much more odious racism.

Eds: But we have significant public figures that are coloured, and we are integrated much more than in your day.

Al: Yes, you have your tokenism, but you also have South Africa, Central Africa and The Balkans to be going on with. You also have political correctness that makes sure you cannot fully discuss issues concerning racism and xenophobia. There’ll be people reading this appalled at our referents, even though we are merely seeking to air views about the issue, rather than being racist. Context is significant, and I, in my context, was always trying to champion black music and talent in my films and musical renditions. I was ashamed of the reactions then and now to what I was doing.

Eds: Our societies and certainly, our entertainment industries are much more integrated than in your day.

AL: Destructive nationalism is still rife and, those in positions of power have harnessed a racism to the all-encompassing economic imperative; not so much a geographical or strictly social class dichotomy, but an economic class feudalism, with an ugly opportunism underpinning it. One of the main factors in your multicultural meritocracy, so-called, is crass idolatry of some people who have little or no universal talent, and those that are talented are given almost deity status beyond their worth.

Eds: Wow, Al, you sound like a communist academic. But surely your promotion of black artistes was only credible because of who you were, and your celebrity status?

Al: To a degree but I still strived to show that people of colour were talented and should be given an airing…

Eds: But not necessarily respect and power to autonomy. And as long as they didn’t cast a shadow on your limelight?

Al: I don’t like the dark tone of your inference. I’ll get your eds knocked together – if only in a court of law, after all that’s defamation of character – if you persist.

Eds: Thanks for answering our next question, Mr Jolson.

Al: Reputations are never black and white you know. We all have our shadows and grey areas. Only newspapers and the non-glossy magazines are obviously black and white…

Eds: And lithographs and charcoal drawings…

Al: Ah, even lithographs can be in colour! See, there’s very little that’s simply black and white. So, I would be grateful if you didn’t make flimsy assertions about my character, just because I blacked up and bore down on those around me in the business.

Eds: But didn’t you get to see The South Bank Show biography on you in the eighties?

Al: Of course not. I’m like that lucky old sun that gets to ‘Roll around Heaven all day’. You must resist believing anything you see on TV…

Eds: Even if it’s a reputable arts documentary programme of long standing?

Al: Especially then!

Eds: Well, thank you for your valuable time, Mr Jolson. Is that angelic gown in black a kind of divine parody?

Al: You bet your Tootootoosie, Goodbye

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