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.