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.  

TUNE OF THE MONTH: Bardichiver Nigun

September's tune will bring back memories of the early days of KlezKamp for those who were there.  The long-running Yiddish Folk Arts program, which began in 1985 as a project of the YIVO institute in New York, was the first event to bring together, annually, those who were passionate about Yiddish culture.  I first attended in 1987, knowing almost nothing except how much I wanted to learn.  


In those early years, participants had the good fortune to hear and learn from the few remaining old masters of klezmer, Yiddish song and Yiddish theater, and first among those treasured elders was Sid Beckerman.  The son of Shloimke Beckerman, a clarinet player who had recorded a number of 78 rpm discs for Emerson in the early 1920s, Sid was an incredibly sweet man who had lips of steel; especially in those early years, he would sometimes play for well over an hour without pause.


When I walked into the tantszal  (ballroom) for the dance party on that very first Sunday night, I was blown away by the music.  It was endless, it was exciting, and I knew I had found my place in the universe.  One of the tunes that was being played that evening, among the first I heard and frequently repeated throughout the week, was a simple, two-part tune that seemed to hold within its 32 bars everything I already loved about the music.  Here is a recording that I made that night using a portable cassette recorder.

I never learned the name of the tune or where it had come from; unlike many of the other freylekhs and bulgars I heard and played that week and in subsequent years, no one ever provided an original source recording.  As far as I knew, it was just one of the tunes in Sid's repertoire.


Last week I was doing some systematic listening to the digital transfers of recordings in my collection, and imagine my delight when I came upon a soundfile of this very tune!  It was Victor 25-5030, recorded in 1940 by Abe Ellstein's orchestra with Dave Tarras, and it was called "Bardichiver Nigun."  The recording is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, Tarras begins playing the first A section in the low register, something which, I can say from my own experience, is much more challenging to do expressively than playing in the usual clarinet register two octaves above.  The second time through the tune, the trumpet, which has been almost a commentator on the melody,  takes the lead for the second time through the A section.

It is, however, the melody itself which is most interesting.  While both versions are clearly playing the same basic tune, they differ in some significant ways.  


In the first half of the A section, the Beckerman version, notated in black, ends the first phrase at the third tone of the mode, while the Tarras version, in blue, stays at the tonic.

This pattern is repeated in the second phrase, in which the two versions end on the fifth and the third, respectively:

The second half of the section diverges more dramatically, with the Beckerman version (top staff) continuing for an additional two bars:

The B section exhibits similar disparity.   In the Beckerman version, the first phrase is two bars long, with the second two bars representing a kind of elaboration upward, while the Tarras version again stays rooted firmly below, with the second phrase essentially restating the first:

And in the second half of the section, the lengths again do not match up, though in this case it is the Tarras version which extends the phrase, by repeating the cadence used at the end of the A section.  This variation also involves a significant change in the harmony, with the Beckerman version going to the Fm cadence chord in the penultimate measure of the tune, while Tarras moves to Fm at the beginning of this section of the melody.

While I'm very happy to have heard the Tarras version of this tune and thrilled finally to know what it is called, the Beckerman version, heard at so many KlezKamps, is the one that I will always think of as the "original."  I have, however, provided charts for both versions, along with the sound files, in the Resources section.

TUNE OF THE MONTH: Taniec Rabina/Der Chosid Tantzt/Flaskadriga/Dem Rebens Tanz

This series begins with what I consider one of the most interesting tunes in the klezmer repertoire.  The earliest recording of it that I have heard is “Taniec Rabina” (Rabbi’s Dance) by the Belf Orchestra, recorded in Roumenia in 1912.  

In this iteration it is a simple, two section tune in which the second section is essentially the first section raised up a third:

The Belf performance is of particular note because they take this very simple tune and play it entirely over the root chord – in the version notated here, that would be D major.  There is no cadence chord, which is extremely unusual.  Instead, the piano player employs a huge vocabulary of rhythmic variation to keep things interesting.  The net effect is to conjure up the hypnotic, almost mystical image of a Chassidic rebbe dancing.

In 1920. Lt. Joseph Frankel recorded an intriguing version of this tune on Emerson under the title, "Der Chosid Tantzt part 1."  Unlike the main body of his commercial recordings, which feature a large band, both sides of this disc feature Frankel himself on clarinet and an unknown accordion player.  In Frankel's version, the A and B sections are virtually identical to those of "Taniec Rabina," with a few small rhythmic variations.  The accordionist does change chords, but his choices appear to be a bit random, as was often the case during these early years of recording. Then there is an added C section:

chosid tantzt C.png

Alert readers will perhaps recognize this melody.  The first four bars are virtually identical to the first four bars of the C section of another Belf tune, "Nakhes fun Kinder,"  

while the last four bars are absolutely identical to the end of the C section of a tune Frankel had recorded with his band the previous year, "Dem Rebin's Nigun, Oj Tate."

While it might seem that this is a random mish-mosh that proves the claim that all klezmer tunes sound alike, the connections among these melodic segments are actually strong.  The rhythmic change in the first four bars alters the Belf melody to reflect the thematic rhythm pattern of the A and B sections, the recurring four sixteenths followed by an eight note.  The part of the melody borrowed from "Oj Tate" shares that same recurring pattern.  The net result is a cohesive, organic tune.

In 1921, Harry Kandel recorded another version of this melody for the Victor label under the title “Flaskadriga”.  In this rendition the A and B sections are identical to the previous two versions, and like the Frankel, there is an added C section:

After the shout chorus, which is deceptive in that unlike the usual shout chorus, it neither establishes a new tonal center for the time (Gm would be what you might expect, based on the first four bars of the section) nor modulates into a new mode (F major, as indicated by the second four bars).  Instead, the shout chorus is just an interesting interlude that snaps immediately back to the starting tonality, while the melody itself echoes the very distinctive rhythmic figures of the first two sections of the tune.

The last iteration of this tune, "Dem Reben's Tanz," was recorded by Art Shryer in 1929. This recording is particularly interesting because of the spoken introduction, which sets the stage for the joyous spectacle of the Rebbe dancing.  In addition, every time it comes around, the A section includes a large chorus of voices singing the tune in the style of a Chassidic nign, which references the title in a much more literal way than the hypnotic playing of the Belf orchestra.

 The first half of the A section is identical to that of the previous three versions, but then, although it maintains the same rhythmic figure, the tune goes off in a completely different direction: 

 The next section of the tune, while evolving organically from the A section, bears much less resemblance to the original.  The only hint is a rhythmic echo in the sixth measure:

The C section returns to the rhythmic figures of the A section (and of the original tune) but resolves into very new territory:

 The final section of “Dem Rebens Tanz” slows the rhythm to eighth notes but builds dramatically to a fitting resolution:

Lead sheets for these four tunes can be found here:

Taniec Rabina

Der Chosid Tantzt pt 1


Dem Rebens Tants

They are also accessible from the Resources section of this web site, as are downloadable versions of the complete audio for each.