Encyclopedia of the History of Jewish Music, by Harvey Sheldon, 2009

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE HISTORY OF JEWISH MUSIC: Biographies of Composers, Lyricists, Singers, Big Swing Band Leaders, Israeli and Jewish Bands, and Musicians, by Harvey Sheldon.  Self-published, 2009.  815 pp.  Papers, $31.57. 

A reader might expect that a book with the title Encyclopedia of the History of Jewish Music would be a valuable resource for anyone interested in this fascinating topic.  There is no question that Harvey Sheldon provides a great deal of information on Jewish musicians, composers, and singers.

The first 178 pages of the book trace the history of Jewish music from ancient times to the present day.  In this section Sheldon examines klezmer music, Jewish dances, Jewish music in America, Broadway and Hollywood musicals, Israeli music, and Jewish contributions to popular music.

Following the historical survey, the remaining 600+ pages provide biographical sketches of Jewish musicians, composers and lyricists, singers, Israeli singers and bands, and record producers.

Altogether, there are more than 160 profiles.  However, almost all of the entries, apart from the sixteen in the Israeli section, are for American Jews in the 20th century, a focus that seriously undermines a claim of encyclopedic scope.

Sheldon proudly asserts the contributions of Jews to Jewish music in 120 countries, but 118 of those countries aren’t here.

At this point it should be stipulated that self-publishing a book is not a crime, and many self-published books are quite worthwhile.  Computer technology makes it possible to publish one’s own work through an online company that specializes in on-demand or print runs.

However, a self-published book carries certain risks.  All of the responsibilities in creating the book fall mainly on the author.  There is no copy-editor, no one to fact-check, and no standards for indexing, bibliography, footnotes, or proofreading for typographical and grammatical errors.  Publishing houses usually provide these services.

If you as an author self-publish your book without oversight, you are responsible for what goes into print.  When a non-fiction book such as a memoir is revealed to contain false information, there can be considerable controversy and condemnation.  Just ask Oprah about her second thoughts on promoting a memoir that turned out to have fictional rather than factual passages.

Encyclopedia of the History of Jewish Music is, to put it mildly, eccentric.  Anyone opening an encyclopedia volume would expect its entries to be in alphabetical order.  This isn’t the case with the book under review.

Richard Tucker precedes Lillian Roth, the Ames Brothers follow Helen Forrest.

The historical survey demands an index, but there isn’t one.  A footnote number has no source for it.

Sheldon writes in a personal style that often contrasts with many of the biographical entries in terms of sentence structure, spelling, and grammar.

The publicity release accompanying the review copy, apparently written by Sheldon (and appearing without editing on Amazon.com), contains some claims made by Sheldon about himself that seem dubious at best.

He states that he created the Bunny Hop dance in 1952, although he was in Philadelphia and other sources state that bandleader Ray Anthony, who made a hit record of the Bunny Hop, learned about the dance from students doing it at Balboa High School in San Francisco.

Sheldon says he spent two seasons on the Red Buttons TV show, but the Internet Movie Database lists no Harvey Sheldon on the show.

He also says he was Philadelphia’s “first TV teenage idol” on Bandstand, but there are numerous web sites about this show, which was first hosted by Bob Horn who preceded Dick Clark, and the sites do not list Sheldon as a “Regular” or a participant in cast or crew.

More serious is Sheldon’s failure to give his sources of information for the historical survey and the biographical profiles.  The profiles in many cases do not seem to be in the same effusive style used by Sheldon, as for example in his lengthy dedication to Frank Sinatra.  In fact, the entries reminded me of the style used in Wikipedia.

So I checked Wikipedia’s entries for Helen Forrest (p.713 in Sheldon’s book), Belle Baker (p. 723), Dudu Fisher (p. 745), Ziggy Elman (p. 214), Benny Pollack (p. 299), and Gus Kahn (p. 464) on Wikipedia.  I also checked “Klezmer music” (pp. 44-55).  The passages in the book and on Wikipedia are identical for the above entries.

Wikipedia entries often have footnotes and references, and its policy is that “unsourced material may be challenged and removed.”  As noted above, Sheldon does not list sources.  So big chunks of text are identical.  I fear I would find it distressing, if not depressing, to compare all the profiles with Wikipedia entries.

Sheldon claims three years of research went into the creation of the book, but it doesn’t take three years to copy out of Wikipedia.

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe Sheldon contributed the profiles to Wikipedia.  But one of the perils of self-publishing is the failure to document one’s research.  Wikipedia does not credit Harvey Sheldon as a source of information, and Sheldon doesn’t say anything about providing information to Wikipedia.

Sheldon’s publicity release claims his book has received “5.0 out of 5 stars” from user comments on Amazon.com, but there is only one customer review (reprinted in the publicity release).  I could get a hit in my one time at bat in a baseball game and claim my batting average was 1,000, but that wouldn’t make me a major leaguer.  And judging from this book, Sheldon’s claims notwithstanding, he isn’t much of a music historian.  Caveat emptor.

Abraham Hoffman teaches history at Los Angeles Valley College.

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