Musings on Music, Country and Community

I'm beginning this new round of blog posts with some thoughts I've been having recently on the interrelationship of music, its place of origin and the community that it serves.  These thoughts were inspired by an experience I had the other week at the Greek Institute in Cambridge, MA.

Lament from Epirus.jpg

My friend and colleague, Chris King (whom you may know as the engineer who is responsible for the amazing digital transfers of all the records in my collection), recently published a book, Lament from Epirus, about his fascinating and very personal journey into the music of Epirus and the geography which created it.  One of the aspects of the book that I found most compelling was his description of the way in which a recording, the eponymous "Lament from Epirus" recorded in 1926 by violinist Alexis Zoumbas, grabbed Chris by the lapels and dragged him forcibly into immersing himself completely in Epirote culture.  I could identify with Chris's experience because of my own relationship with both klezmer and Hawaiian music.

The event held on a lovely spring evening at the Greek Institute a couple of weeks ago was billed as a lecture with live music.  The room was small but absolutely packed, and most of the people there were clearly of Greek ancestry -- many spoke English with an accent.  Chris began by playing the 78 rpm disc that had started him on his journey, and as the room filled with the masterful sounds of the violin, the excitement in the room was palpable.  That music clearly spoke to that audience not nostalgically, but in the present, with the entire gamut of emotions experienced by people who were at once of a place and far away from it.  After Chris's talk, two very fine musicians playing violin and lauto performed a couple of traditional tunes, to an equally rapt and enthusiastic response.  But what was most interesting to me was what happened after the event was over, when everyone was milling around chatting and talking with Chris.  I heard person after person describing his or her own visits to Epirus or an experience with the music or a longing to reconnect with the place from which their family had migrated.  One young man (without a Greek accent) told Chris that he was in the process of getting his dual citizenship (American and Greek).

I found that response all the more striking because it's not possible for those of us whose Jewish families came from Eastern Europe to go back in that same way.  There is no "there" there any more, not really.  It's possible, I suppose, to feel nostalgia for the flourishing Yiddish culture on the Lower East Side of New York and other turn-of-the-20th-century urban enclaves, but they don't exist any longer, either.  Through KlezKamp and similar events and festivals, we have, however, managed to reanimate the music as the connective tissue of community.  Klezmer musicians again function as kley koydeshi, holy tools, helping to celebrate occasions (weddings, brisses, holidays) essential for the continuity of the Jewish people.  For many, the klezmer revival (actually a Yiddish revival) has led to a strong sense of Jewish identity, and people have embraced many of the traditions embedded in the music as a vital part of their own lives.  

This got me remembering a post-KlezKamp visit, one December long ago, to a Greek nightclub in Astoria, with Kurt Bjorling, Eve Monzingo and Alicia Svigals.  We went to hear a band with whom Alicia sometimes performed, and the whole experience was kind of mind-blowing.  Here we were, late on a Friday night, in a club full of young people dancing to music that sounded both traditional and modern.  It made us wonder what klezmer would have been like in the late 20th century, if it hadn't been uprooted.


And then there is Hawaiian music, the other culture with which I am most familiar.  From my very first visit I felt about Hawai'i rather like Chris describes his feelings for Epirus.  There was a sense of belonging to the place and the culture that makes no sense empirically but is very real nevertheless.  Hawai'i is a very musical place; every mall and shopping center has a stage with free hula shows, jam sessions and 'ukulele lessons, and so many of the people who visit yearn to interact with the music in some kinetic way, often regardless of whether they have ever played an instrument or danced before.  I believe the reason they are pulled in that way lies in the extent to which Hawaiian music is totally rooted in the land. Longing to be part of the music is actually longing to be connected to the place.  Most songs/hulas are about physical locations, at least on the surface, and the sounds and rhythms of performances are rooted in the movement of the waves, the roar of the surf, the rains and the wind and all the other natural phenomena that make Hawaii unique.  While music certainly binds the community, it doesn't serve it in quite the same way as klezmer, and communal aspects of the culture seem to recede in view of the preeminence of connection to the land itself.

Music, country, community.  All three are essential elements of human life.  How fortunate we are that we can explore cultures beyond what we find in our own geography.


TUNE OF THE MONTH: Mlody Bortnik

This month's tune is something a little bit different.  For one thing, there are no other recordings of it for comparison.  It's not even, strictly speaking, part of the Yiddish repertoire. But I think it will be very interesting for a number of reasons.

Let me begin by admitting that I have a certain fondness for polkas. When I was nine years old and wanting to sign up for band, my mother's cousin Seymour, who had played clarinet in an army band in WWII, took out his horn and played the Clarinet Polka for me, and I was mesmerized. It sounded like water splashing down a waterfall, and I knew I needed to be able to play like that.

"The Clarinet Polka" actually does have a Yiddish connection. Under one of its Polish titles, "Dyadushka,", Dave Tarras recorded it in the late 1950s with Murray Lehrer on volume 3 of Freilachs in Hi-Fi. The text on the sleeve says about this tune:

"The Clarinet Polka is a showpiece for Tarras' very live licorice stick. He has played it often under its original -- Dyadushka Polka (Grandfather's Polka).  If the granddads to whom it is dedicated can dance this breath-snatcher, more power to them and to Dave Tarras too, who though a granddad himself, can blow down many a younger man.  The trumpet's darker tones outline the Pierrot-like agility of the clarinet...."

That description of Tarras's playing applies equally to this month's tune, a polka that he wrote and recorded in 1920 called "Mlody Bortnik" (the Young Boarder). This was an exclusively Polish release on the Victor label. Tarras made a number of Polish releases, all billed as Instr. Kwartet Tarasiewicza.

What is special about this polka, and the reason that I chose to highlight it here, is that unlike most such tunes, its melody is modal rather than major in tonality, and it moves in very interesting ways between C freygish and F harmonic minor.

The polka begins with a four-bar intro that sounds like someone took a typical dance hall intro and klezmerized it.  

The cadence at the end of this intro, C maj - Bb minor - C major, is classic freygish, but when the actual tune begins, it is clearly in F harmonic minor.  It is an amazing, virtuosic melody that is pure Tarras, and classic F harmonic minor.  And he plays it purely, his notes clean and articulate, as befits a good polka.  Interestingly, despite the modal nature of the tune, Tarras's style includes none of the ornaments that give his Jewish playing its yidishn tam (Jewish flavor)

The second section again rests briefly in C freygish before moving back squarely into F minor.  The third section, a typical "trio" in F minor's relative major, Ab, offers no surprises but provides a nice contrast to the Eastern European modality of the main polka melody.

Tarras's exceptional playing contrasts rather dramatically with that of the the accordion player, who tends to express a somewhat simplified version of the melody and at times fumbles some of the modal runs.

 All in all, Mlody Bortnik would make a fine addition to any klezmer repertoire.

Downloadable versions of the complete chart and the Tarras recording can be found in the Resources section.

Why Listen to Scratchy Old 78s?

In this era of digital recording, overdubbing and pitch correction, why is it so important to listen to scratchy old 78s? What do they offer a listener that can’t be heard way more clearly on a clean, quiet modern performance?

 Yiddish culture, like most other folk traditions, was for much of its history primarily transmitted orally.  Each generation would pass down to the next the important aspects of everything from prayer to foodways.   Music was certainly taught in that way; would-be cantors apprenticed with eminent khazonim  and in many families there were klezmorim who learned repertoire and the tricks of their trade from their grandfathers, fathers and uncles What distinguishes Yiddish culture from that of other national or ethnic groups, particularly in this country, is the extent to which the chain of cultural transmission was broken, nearly irrevocably.


Between 1880 and 1924, over 2 million Yiddish speakers left Eastern Europe for the dream of a better life in America.  In this they were no different from millions of other immigrants from all over the world.  What was different, however, was the eagerness of the Jewish immigrants to embrace the language and cultural trappings of their new home.  In her book Yiddish: A Nation of Words, Miriam Weinstein cites studies showing


that Jews were among the fastest of all immigrant groups to drop their native tongues. The 1940 U.S. Census measured how much of the second and third generation still spoke the “Old World” language.  Out of a field of 18 different immigrant groups, Yiddish, a culture with a great tradition, came in almost at the bottom, an amazing fifteenth.



One explanation is that, by and large, Yiddish-speaking immigrants had a very different relationship with the countries they had left behind than did immigrants from, for example, Italy or Sweden.  Yiddish speakers fled not only grinding poverty but governments that ranged from indifferent to hostile to, by the time of that study, genocidal.


Another explanation, offered by historian Gerald Sorin, is that the Eastern European Jewish migration represented an unprecedented uprooting of an entire people. 

Greeks, Finns, non-Jewish Russians, and Italians were certainly in motion during these years, and significant numbers of them came to the United States.  But none of these groups migrated as a people.  Most came from independent nations and represented only a very small percentage of the societies they left behind.  Moreover, large numbers of them (approximately 30 percent) returned to their homelands after a sojourn in the United States.  Jews, on the other hand, left their old countries at a stunningly high rate:  33 percent of the Jewish population left Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920, and after 1905 only 5 to 8 percent returned.  This collective movement of a people was an extraordinary, if not wholly unprecedented, event. 

It may seem as though both freedom from the limitations and persecutions of antisemitism and the presence of huge numbers of fellow Jews would encourage the flourishing of Yiddish culture in its new setting, and indeed, the first three decades of the 20th century saw a flourishing of all forms of Yiddish expression in the United States.  However, in a cruel twist of irony, the openness and acceptance ofthe new world ultimately destroyed that culture as thoroughly as the ravages of the Holocaust would soon destroy it in the old world, as the greenhorns eagerly sought to be become Americans.   And nowhere was that desire so clear as among Jewish musicians.  If they wanted to be successful, in terms of both reputation and livelihood, they had to develop an ability to read and transpose charts, to play several instruments, and, most importantly, to play the “English” music, the American dance and theater music, that Jewish listeners requested.  Unfortunately, that flexibility and diversification meant that they soon came to devalue those “rough edges” – the Yiddish accent that might keep them from successfully making a living in the golden land. 


The Holocaust is the second thing that separates the Yiddish experience from that of other immigrant cultures, as it destroyed what had remained of the Yiddish-speaking world in Europe and made it impossible for the immigrants to go home again.  That devastation also led fairly directly to the final death blow to Yiddish culture, the formation of the state of Israel and the development of Israeli Jewish culture that, in the 1950s, superceded Ashkenazi-based Jewish cultural identity. American Jews deliberately turned their backs on both the language and the culture of golus, their long exile, as they looked to the new Jewish homeland to provide, finally, a safe haven, a land of their own.


By the second half of the 20th century, Yiddish culture had become more a source of embarrassment than something to celebrate. As a result, when ethnomusicologists and musicians inspired by the various “revivals” in other ethnic musics began to search for the Jewish equivalents of African-American or Appalachian old-timers, there were virtually none to be found.  My good friend and colleague Henry Sapoznik, one of the first people to turn his attention to Yiddish music in that generation, describes this experience in his fascinating social history, Klezmer! Jewish Music From Old World to Our World

...the sort of face-to-face collecting and observation of continuity through which I'd researched old-time music in numerous field trips to North Carolina was not possible for the study of this music.  There was no Old Country to go back to, no Poland, Ukraine, or Romania where I might find Jewish old-timers tenaciously holding onto their repertoire against all modern influences. 

Fortunately, the wave of immigration that brought Yiddish-speakers to America coincided with the development of commercial recording as an industry, and through the benefits of that now outmoded format, we can gain access to generations who never had a chance to transmit their knowledge in person.  Between 1898 and 1950, tens of thousands of 78rpm recordings were marketed to the various ethnic groups who had settled in the United States, primarily in the larger cities, and the Jews were no exception.  Although record company files are far from complete, Dick Spottswood has reported approximately 6000 Yiddish/Hebrew recordings released between 1898 and 1942, and Michael Aylward has estimated at least another 5-10 thousand recorded and manufactured in Europe during the same time.  Of course, these commercial recordings in no way attempted to document anything the way a field recording might; they were simply aural snapshots of particular performances that some record producer or company executive thought would sell.  But enough were made and enough have survived to give us a fairly comprehensive picture of Yiddish music in the early 20th century and even before, as some of the recorded performers were already quite advanced in years when they were immortalized on shellac.  

These recordings, therefore, offer both inspiration and instruction; they are our treasured elders, linking us to the generations that came before.