Al Jolson: Biography, Songs & Films

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

He held the title of 'The World's Greatest Entertainer~' for decades, but how much do you know about the man, the artist, and the legend Al Jolson? This lesson will tell you more about this remarkable performer and his impact on American entertainment.

The World's Greatest Entertainer

Comedian, actor, movie star, singer… Al Jolson did it all. He was born in 1886 to a Jewish family in Lithuania. Originally named Asa Yoelson, he changed his name when his family immigrated to the United States in 1894. As a child, he and his brother Harry sang on street corners for spare change, until they broke into the world of vaudeville as teenagers. From there, Jolson moved up to the Broadway stage and became a musical star. By the age of 35, he was the most popular singer on Broadway, and opened his own theater.

Jolson in 1916
Photograph of Jolson

Jolson had a unique ability to connect with audiences. Instead of standing stiffly on stage, he would get as close to them as possible, walking among the crowd, singing directly to certain audience members, and spreading his infectious energy as he went. They frequently demanded encores, to which Jolson would reply 'You ain't heard nothing yet!', before indulging his enthusiastic fans.

Some of Jolson's signature songs include Swanee and My Mammy, both of which were featured in one of his hit Broadway musicals, 'Sinbad.'

Cover of the sheet music for Swanee featuring Al Jolson
Image of songbook cover

'You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet!': The First Talking Movie Star

In 1927, Jolson appeared in the lead role for the first full-length talkie, a type of motion picture featuring recorded dialogue and music that was synchronized to match the action on screen. The film was called The Jazz Singer, and told the story of a young Jewish man who runs away from home to pursue a career as a jazz singer. Interestingly enough, the storyline was in many ways similar to Jolson's own story as a Jewish man who pursued popular music. The film was a critical turning point in cinematographic history, both for its developments in sound technology and its innovative story line. The film was hugely successful, and held the record for the highest grossing film for over a decade after it premiered.

Movie poster for The Jazz Singer
Poster image

After the success of The Jazz Singer, Jolson starred in several other feature films including The Singing Fool (1928), Say It with Songs (1929), Mammy (1930), Wonder Bar (1934), The Singing Kid (1936), and Rose of Washington Square (1939).

Blackface and Incorporation of African-American Music

Jolson frequently appeared on stage and in films in blackface, a theatrical technique in which a white performer would wear exaggerated makeup to represent a person of color.

Jolson appearing in blackface in The Jazz Singer
Image of Jolson in blackface

Although it is considered to be a controversial practice today, blackface was a fairly common performance tactic during the 19th and early 20th centuries. A blackface performance typically involved not just a physical representation of black Americans, but a parody of their speech, mannerisms, and cultural norms as well.

While in blackface, Jolson would adopt an African-American dialect while singing. Many of his songs had roots in African-American folk music traditions, and Jolson's work in films and on stage helped to introduce black music to white audiences, including spirituals like 'Go Down, Moses', and jazz tunes.

Jolson was also known as an advocate against racial discrimination. His film work set the stage for African-American performers to gain wide-spread acceptance across racial lines.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account