Sounds of Sensibility

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Appeared in "Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought"; Issue No. 185. Vol. 47, no. 1 (Winter 1998), special issues on klezmer music, pp. 49-788.

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Simple Noise

Sensitivity to musical hierarchy also informs the instrumental tradition, not only historically, as Loeffler shows in his discussion of the stigma associated with the term klezmer, but also within certain sectors of the klezmer revival today. According to the liner notes for his 1977 album, Giora Feidman "took an ancient art of the Klezmer, an unschooled, Eastern European Jewish musician, from the folklore plateau of amateurism and elevated it to artistic heights, amazingly sophisticated, profound in style and virtuosic eclat."92 This is a long way from the avant-gardism of a John Zorn, who considers all music equal--"there's no high art and low art." And, for that matter, from the ethos of the folk song revival, which turned the hierarchy upside-down, but did not get rid of it.

Inclusive as the folk song revival was, it could not find a place for the Jewish instrumental tradition. Why not? Clues may be found in debates over the definition of folk song, the aesthetic of simple noise, and the celebration of amateurism. Above all, for the revivalists, folk song did not require elevation. On the contrary, adorned performance was a statement in its own right, a critique of the exclusive culture of classical music. There was still a musical hierarchy, but in reverse. "Low" music was good just as it was and maybe even better than "high" music.

Reacting to the idea that folk song needed to be dressed up for the concert stage, performers such as Theodore Bikel brought an unvarnished voice, self-taught guitar, international repertoire, and entertaining spiel to their performance of folk song. Musical virtuosity was not the point. Of his own abilities as a folk singer Oscar Brand wrote in a playfully self-effacing tone, "I even learned to play the guitar in order to cover my vocal deficiencies."93 A Canadian Jew who moved to the United States, Brand began performing professionally after leaving the United States Army in 1945. He can still be heard today on WNYC 840/AM (Saturday, 7:00 p.m.), where he hosts "Folksong Festival with Oscar Brand."

In his 1962 account of the "tidal wave of folk singing," Brand defines the folk song in terms of sound, what he calls "simple noise," not provenance.94 Though oral transmission will gradually wear away "the unreal, the phony, and the unnecessary," the patina of an antique musical form can be fabricated instantly by those who know how to achieve an "artless, unself-conscious quality" and "special ring of truth" in their compositions and performances.95 The locus classicus of "simple noise" is the Anglo-American ballad. Brand is explicit on this point: "I can usually recognize this simplicity when I meet it in American and Canadian song, but I find myself less sure when I encounter the folk music of foreign lands. I can humbly confess that most Chinese songs sound alike to me. And the difference between a Kirghiz art song and a Kirghiz folk song is beyond my comprehension."96 Several generations later, musicians such as Walter Z. Feldman would be able not only to tell the difference, but also to perform the music.

With its emphasis on storytelling, rather than virtuosic musicianship, the ballad was considered a song anyone could sing. The ethos of participation was so strong that Professor Robert J. Potter, whom Brand quotes, insisted that "Folk music by its very nature doesn't make perfectionist demands with respect to performance, but is in some ways even 'better' if it is not perfect-- imperfection makes it more folksy."97 It requires "no more than average ability" or even "less than average ability." Behind this overstatement of the inclusiveness of the folk song revival is a critique of musical exclusivity: "Our nation is peopled with unfortunates who were tagged as 'listeners' by harried kindergarten teachers, and, consequently, fear the sound of their own voices raised in song."98 Judging from the surge of guitar sales, the enormous audiences at the Newport Festivals, and the popularity of singing along, many people did ride the wave of folk song interest.

Brand was not alone in defining folk song by effect, an approach that separated the purists from the popularizers. It was not long, however, before effect was confounded with affectation and both were subjected to parody and criticism.99 The purists objected to an approach that was essentially theatrical, however much it affected the effect of simple noise. Not surprisingly, several singers, among them Bikel, were also professional actors. To some extent Bikel approached his international repertoire the way a character actor approaches a role. While audiences were responsive, key figures in the movement such as Alan Lomax took him to task: "Alan never seemed comfortable with me as a folk performer, grudgingly accepting my Hebrew, Yiddish, or Russian songs, but little else among the twenty-one languages in which I perform, especially any Anglo-Saxon material."100 Reflecting on the time when Lomax prevented him from performing at a folklife-award ceremony in Washington D.C., Bikel commented, "One more example of the folk purist fearing contamination from 'show biz.'"101

The international repertoire and musical sensibility of a Theodore Bikel was more like continental cuisine than local cooking, and it was down-home food prepared by native cooks that the purists were after. Bikel's performances were highly mediated by a set of aesthetic practices specific to the revival itself. But, so too were the performances of an Alameda Riddle or Huddie Ledbetter, however different those practices might be.

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