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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Fault Lines of Sensibility

The decades immediately preceding the klezmer revival are generally viewed as a wasteland. Traditional Jewish instrumental music fell out of favor, and the folk song and music revivals of the period showed no interest in it. Viewed as a lull in musical interest, little remains to be said. Viewed as a plenum of sensibility, the period holds clues to the klezmer revival that followed. To track the careers of Theodore Bikel, a rising professional folk singer, and Mickey Katz, a veteran instrumentalist/comedian, is to trace the fault lines of changing structures of feeling.

Born in Vienna, Bikel left for Palestine with his family in 1938 when he was fourteen years old. His parents, ardent Zionists, were from Czernowitz, a city in the eastern part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire before World War I and in Romania after the war. Bikel was born on Theodore Herzl's birthday and was named after him. Active in a Zionist youth movement, he learned Hebrew songs from Zionist propaganda films in Vienna and added to his repertoire in Palestine, where he completed school,102 lived on a kibbutz, and acted in the Hebrew Theater. In 1946, he moved to London, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and pursued a career in the theater. Both in London and in Paris, which he visited frequently, he sought out folk music and musicians in caf s and bars, particularly Russian expatriates who played gypsy music. He also encouraged friends and acquaintances, including key figures in the British and American folk song revivals, to perform at parties in his home. Before long he was singing folk songs in public. Within days of arriving in New York in 1954 to perform in the Broadway play Tonight in Samarkand, he attended a Pete Seeger concert at Columbia University and introduced himself to Seeger-- the Weavers were still blacklisted at this time and their recordings and performances were few and far between.

Bikel quickly became a part of the revival scene. While Jewish repertoire may not have been central to the folk song revival, Jews certainly were. They owned and managed clubs and record companies. They were composers, performers, agents, and managers. They were writers and critics. Moses Asch, son of Sholem Asch, established Folkways. Jac Holzman and Leonard Ripley ran Elektra. Kenneth S. Goldstein issued innumerable recordings of songs from the field. Israel Young ran the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street. Aliza Greenblatt, the mother of Woody Guthrie's former wife Marjorie, was a published Yiddish poet; she wrote Der fisher, which has become a favorite in the Yiddish song repertoire.103 Jean Richie's husband, George Pickow, a Jew from New York, made her an improved mountain dulcimer.104 The list goes on.

Bikel recorded nineteen albums for Elektra, the first of which, Folksongs of Israel, appeared in 1955. He sang in twenty-one languages (he did not speak all of them) and was a gifted impersonator. As he says of himself: "I was a character actor and considered my craft to demand chameleon techniques."105 He brought a similar approach to his international repertoire of songs and manner of presentation, explaining that he could "assume authentic accents" but was sometimes faulted for his "willingness to make a song accessible and palatable to an audience unfamiliar with the material, instead of keeping the aloof stance of a purist."106

The staged images on his album covers are consistent with his theatrical approach to folk song performance. In his recent autobiography, Bikel explained that "Folksongs of Israel showed an Israeli pioneer girl walking through fields of the Jordan Valley. She was actually a New York model, and the fields were on Long Island."107 Describing the cover of his first album of Yiddish songs, he recalls that "It shows me leaning on a guitar in front of a Lower East Side brick wall with a theater poster on it, listing the songs in Yiddish, and speaking to a young yeshiva boy. The boy looked right, but was hardly likely ever to see the inside of a yeshiva; when I called him over to offer him a few dollars to pose with me saying, "Come here, yingele [kid]," he asked, "?Qu quiere?" (What do you want?) in pure Puerto Rican." 108 However irreverent the in-joke, neither the image nor the music were in-your- face, in contrast with the sensibility of some neo- klezmers.

Bikel, as well as Martha Schlamme, performed concerts at Town Hall, were featured at Newport Festivals, and collaborated with leading revivalists such as Pete Seeger and Oscar Brand. During the fifties, they not only included Jewish songs on records with titles like Folk Songs From Just About Everywhere (Bikel) and Songs of Many Lands (Schlamme), but also issued records devoted exclusively to what they called Jewish folk songs. (When klezmer bands list the wide range of what they play--the Mike Eisenstadt Band declares "Our speciality is anything!"--they mean musical and performance style and not just repertoire.)109

Schlamme, who spent her early years in Vienna, was a classically trained soprano. She favored orchestral accompaniment or flute and piano for her Yiddish, Hebrew, and international songs. Shortly before her death, she performed Yiddish songs with David Krakauer. Though Bikel generally accompanied himself on guitar, he also performed with orchestras and bands--Bill Lee, the father of film maker Spike Lee, accompanied him on bass and traveled with him on a concert tour through the South during the sixties. If Bikel popularized a folk sound and Schlamme concertized, Ruth Rubin was the purist. She focused exclusively on Yiddish folk songs, which she collected from oral tradition. Rubin performed these songs a cappella, recorded them for Folkways, and presented her extensive research in songbooks, published as early as 1950, and in Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folk Song, which first appeared in 1963.110

These performers located the Jewishness of their material in song and specifically in melodies and words. Given that Yiddish folk song is a largely a cappella tradition, what were singers headed for the stage to do? Purists like Rubin simply performed them without accompaniment. Not surprisingly, she was the most attentive to the traditional vocal styles of those from whom she collected the songs. Bikel's style owed more to the Parisian caf and Greenwich Village coffee house, where he learned much of his repertoire. He was more inclined to learn songs from other professional singers and to use instrumental accompaniment. In this way, revivalists integrated the songs into an international repertoire suitable for concert stage and hootenanny alike. A constitutive feature of this approach was precisely the recognition that the song (words and tunes) did not emanate from the same source as the performance (vocal style, setting, arrangement, accompaniment). The result was not the eclectic fusions we see in the klezmer revival or the incongruous juxtapositions of parodies of the period, but the sounds of the revival itself.

The singers of Jewish repertoire that we remember from this period were solo vocalists, with or without accompaniment, not ensembles. Despite the popularity of these performers, Yiddish folk song remained one of the most vulnerable genres in the Jewish musical repertoire. It had already begun the process of becoming "heritage" during the late nineteenth century, if not earlier, with efforts to collect, record, and arrange it for artistic performance. Needless to say, few klezmer performers today grew up speaking Yiddish, the sine qua non of the a cappella Yiddish folk song tradition. While training in classical music and jazz, and experience playing Balkan and Appalachian traditional music, may have prepared them for klezmer music, those who choose to sing must also master enough Yiddish for the task. Interestingly, more than one klezmer revival musician has characterized the musical instrument, particularly the clarinet, as a human voice, and the music itself as a language. David Krakauer has said, "I realized that klezmer music was the Yiddish language in music" and hears in it "the sound and inflection of my grandmother's very heavily, Yiddish- tinged English."111 For Alicia Svigals, klezmer is "a musical abstraction of the Yiddish language, and it simply sounds 'Jewish' to our ears."112

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