American Culture

Al Jolson, champion in the battle for racial justice: Scholars & Rogues Honors…

Haymarket Riot logo - Al Jolson

by Jon Epstein

It is not surprising that there have been some listeners that assume that the HayMarket Riot band logo is in some way an offense to American minorities due to its obvious origins in the “blackfaced” minstrel singers of early 20th century American Vaudeville. It is true, that is exactly where it came from. Our “Harvey” logo is based on the original movie poster for the first “talkie” motion picture, The Jazz Singer, Starring Al Jolson, who is widely regarded as the most influential popular music performer of his era.

I was introduced to the music of Al Jolson watching the movie The Al Jolson Story on late night television in the late 1960s with my cousin Larry. I was deeply impressed with what I saw: A freshly minted immigrant son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants breaking with the constraints of an old world, archaic, and ritualized culture and embracing an “American-ness” that most native born Americans simply cannot really understand. For Jolson, as an individual rooted to his time and place, this was absolutely huge. For Jolson there wasn’t a “Jewish America” a “Black America” or a “White America,” there was just America and his lifetime commitment to the fair and equal treatment of all Americans, with a specific emphasis on challenging the second class status of African-Americans that hung over American society, and continues to do so in the present, had a profound effect on my younger self.

Jolson’s use of Blackface was by his own admission an act of solidarity, and one of defiance. He did not wear greasepaint to mock or belittle Americans of color; he did so to shame those who did not see the truth of its ugliness. It was, in fact, one of the first popular cultural examples of the radical re-appropriation of hegemonic culture into a powerful symbol of resistance and refusal.

And that is what The Haymarket Riot logo proudly, and defiantly, represents.

According to Eddie Deezen*:

“No one is all-bad (or all-good). In fact, Jolson was, ironically given the perception today, an early crusader for the rights of African-Americans in show business. For instance, he was instrumental in helping to promote black playwright Garland Anderson’s work, which resulted in the first Broadway production with an all-black cast. He also attempted to have an all-black dance team featured in a Broadway show at a time when black people were banned from Broadway productions.

As black dancer Jeni LeGon said, “In those times, it was a ‘black-and-white world.’ You didn’t associate too much socially with any of the stars. You saw them at the studio, you know, nice—but they didn’t invite. The only ones that ever invited us home for a visit was Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler.”

In another instance, Jolson read that songwriters Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, neither of whom he knew at the time, had been thrown out of a restaurant because of their race. When he heard this, he tracked the pair down and took them out to dinner and reportedly told them, “He’d punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!”

As for his “blackface” persona which seems to (almost literally) fly in the face of his apparent true feelings on race, this persona was often used as a means to introduce white audiences to black culture, and also to make fun of the general idea of “white supremacy.” As such, when black audiences saw The Jazz Singer, rather than boycott it, a Harlem newspaper, Amsterdam News (“the oldest Black newspaper in the country,” according to their Web site), stated that The Jazz Singer was “one of the greatest pictures ever produced,” and that, “Every colored performer is proud of him (Jolson).”

Jolson also insisted on the hiring and fair treatment of black people at a time when this was an outlandish concept to many in America. (For example, at the time members of the KKK are estimated to have accounted for about 15% of the U.S.’s voting-age population.) He also crusaded for equal rights for African-American as early as 1911, when he was 25. Through his very controversial portrayals, and advocating for black performers, Jolson helped pave the way for the success of such legends as Louis Armstrong, Ethyl Waters, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. As the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture stated, “Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American musical innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences.”

Famed African-American jazz singer Clarence Henry noted of Jolson, “Jolson? I loved him. I think he did wonders for the blacks and glorified entertainment.”

Beyond the controversy surrounding Jolson, he was also the first performer to entertain American troops in WWII. A few years later, he was also the first to do the same during the Korean War. Yes, before Bob Hope! His break-neck performance schedule in the latter is also thought to have contributed to his death soon after.


*Deezin, Eddie. 2014. Al Jolson- Misunderstood Hero or Villain? Today I Found Out. October 9, 2014.

Jon Epstein is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Holocaust programs at Greensboro College. His research has largely centered on the relationship between youth culture and music subcultures. To that end he was the keynote speaker at the 2001 Global Conference on Youth. With New Media Artist Patrick Lichty Epstein has written and produced four animated film shorts which the Oxford Encyclopedia of sociology called “The first truly postmodern Sociology.” In addition to his work in sociology Epstein is a well known rock musician whose band, HayMarket Riot, has been recording and performing since 1985.

HayMarket Riot was formed by Epstein and Sam Seawell with Keith Barbieri on bass and Susan Christopher on vocals. In 1985 Christoper left the band and was replaced by Charlotte Whitted, formerly of Quiet Game. The band enjoyed its biggest success during this period, and was named by Dixie Voice as one of the top three bands in North Carolina (along with Let’s Active and The Connell).

2 replies »

  1. My wife’s grandfather was a trombonist in New York for a few years after he got married, and he said that he never worried about his safety in Harlem. He was carrying a trombone, and because the big bands were integrated, he was a “good guy” and off-limits to locals who might have given grief to your average white.

    Fascinating man. Conservative to a fault (like, WTF-level fault) on most subjects, but more liberal on race issues than most liberals I’ve met.

  2. Excellent article, attesting to the fact that Jolson was an enemy to racism all his life, and opened the door for black music and culture in mainstream America. It’s a huge shame that his use of blackface has left a lasting stigma on his reputation among ignorant people.