The Return of the Red Hot Mama

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I was thrilled to see the full page spread in today's New York Times about Sophie Tucker and the release of a new anthology of her early work. One of the subjects of our documentary about Jewish women comedians, Making Trouble, she's a big favorite around the Jewish Women's Archive.

But I think it's hard to get a handle on what was so hot about Sophie from our 21st century perspective. Even in the great footage in Making Trouble, she mostly looks like a zaftig old Jewish lady. And her suggestive lyrics are pretty tame by contemporary standards.

Still, that old Jewish lady was transgressive in her time. A big woman with a deep voice, she talked about sex without apologizing. "My songs aren't about vice, they're about sex," she said, challenging the social mores at the time that conflated sex with crime and sin. She also insisted that people acknowledge that sex is part of normal, everyday life: "My ‘hot numbers'are all, if you will notice, written about something that is real in the lives of millions of people." And she put her money where her mouth was, helping the prostitutes who lived in the rooming houses where she often stayed.

So it's nice to see Sophie getting some attention, and kudos to Jody Rosen for capturing her gifts and accomplishments in the article. I can't wait to get my hands on this new collection of her work. We're going to be singing some ribald tunes at the office this week.

Rising Voices

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