More Than Music - Al Jolson: The Nostalgia Factor

Updated: May 19

We all know his music, and most will agree that he was not the best singer. Some will even argue he wasn't a good singer, at all. And yet, there is something that draws us to his music. One hundred years have passed since the popularity of his kind of music, so what is it that brings me back to listening to his music even though I don't like his voice?

It's simple, really, and it is likely the most popular reason we enjoy music. This is my revelation, my appreciation of that phenomenon as illustrated through the music of Al Jolson.

This is the third post in my series "More Than Music.

This post explains and gives name to a common

phenomenon amongst music listeners.

If you are new here, catch up on the series, here.

In this post, I use the music of Al Jolson as an example of,

what I like to call, The Nostalgia Factor.

This series is specifically about finding appreciation for certain types of music and artists that we may find unusual or not suitable with our taste in music. I have thoroughly explained how one can form quite a deep bond with singers we even find reprehensible in the beginning. I have illustrated how it is possible for that bond to be formed in the absence of emotion, that it is quite common for a basic understanding of a certain type of music or singer to lead to appreciation and, eventually, admiration. It is entirely possible for a musical appreciation journey to start and end with emotion, completely leaving out an intellectual aspect. If the connection is initially made with emotion, it is a short journey to favoring that style or artist.

It is not possible, however, to entirely base an admiration for a musical style or artist solely on intellect. Emotion will come into the picture at some point. The point at which emotion enters can vary depending on the situation.

Sometimes, the paths of emotion and intellect become confused. Perhaps the emotion is already present, but our intellect does not recognize it or understand it. In this scenario, our intellect gets in the way of our appreciation, and, until we have an understanding of the emotion we are experiencing, we dismiss the emotion along with the music or artist eliciting it.

From my experience, the most common emotion this happens with is nostalgia. Granted, the majority of people listen to and enjoy music that brings to mind pleasant or comforting memories, and, while that is an easily recognizable emotion, nostalgia is similar, but harder to detect. I did not even recognize what I was experiencing until I stopped to think about it. What prompted me to think about it?

One day, while listening to one of my many playlists of old music, a song came on by Al Jolson.

Al Jolson, 1919

For those who may not be familiar, Al Jolson was a very popular singer and entertainer from the early 1900s through the 50s. Though his career spanned several decades, the majority of his recordings are from the 1920s or before. Jolson had a very distinctive sounding voice, and, though popular in his time, many today agree that he was not a very good singer. I agree that Jolson was not a good singer, but despite that, I still enjoy listening to his music.


On the aforementioned day when his song came on, my sister looked up at me, wrinkling her nose. In a tone of disgust, she asked me who was singing. When I replied that it was Al Jolson, she proceeded to ask me why I listen to him. I didn't know what to respond at first. I agreed with her that I did not consider him to be a good singer, but I did not know why I continued to listen to his music. There was something about it that I couldn't put my finger on.

As I stood there, listening to the song, the feeling which I had never really paid attention to before started creeping over me. My attention was already drawn to the music and, with my mind already engaged in searching for a reason for my interest, I became aware of this unidentified emotion.

When I finally gave it my attention, it became clear what the feeling was. I understood why I listened to a singer I didn't even consider to be a good singer. The answer, the unidentified emotion: nostalgia.

The sound of the recording, the arrangement of the song, and yes, even the sound of his voice, are iconic sounds of the 1920s. Those sounds brought my imagination to life. I could close my eyes and see the people, the fashions, the life of that time gone by. It made me feel sentimental, it made me feel nostalgic.

Nostalgia of the 1920s

It's true that I already have a soft spot in my heart and mind for the music of the 20s, but this is a common happening amongst music listeners of many different genres and time periods. Contrary to my previous posts in this series, this approach to appreciation of music started with emotion and ended with understanding. There is not necessarily much to be gained as refers to one's appreciation or admiration of music in this circumstance as pertains to the specific artist. I listened to Al Jolson before I had this understanding, and I still listen to Al Jolson. My opinion of him has not changed. Rather, my understanding of music and my own journey has changed. I find it fascinating to discover the "Why?"s behind the things we like. And it is possible that, though it didn't change my opinion of this specific artist, that I can apply this understanding to future encounters and journeys in this world of music.

The Nostalgia Factor is an experience common amongst music listeners, but it is very often overlooked or misunderstood. Once we experience a revelation, a heightened understanding of ourselves, a new world is opened for us to explore. Take the moment to think and understand yourself and your emotions, then go and explore the world you've just unlocked for yourself. You won't be disappointed!

Al Jolson, 1929

I hope you are enjoying this series as I share my thoughts on the

many ways we enjoy music. Be sure to return for my next post in this series

where I will be discussing more of my musings and observations of the phenomenons that occur behind the music, itself.

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on the next "More Than Music" post,

"Robert Goulet: Music is Drama".

Author: Emily E. Finke

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