Yiddish Songs: Introduction

I've known since I started this blog that it would eventually have a musical component. Dress British Think Yiddish was conceived as an activist blog, in that it's goal was to encourage readers to likewise explore the world of Yiddish. One of the few great remaining strongholds of Yiddish is music, mostly klezmer, but you'll find classical musicians and folk musicians who also record Yiddish songs.

I have a long relationship with music, especially Jewish music. I was a songleader at Jewish summer camps for somewhere in the vicinity of five years, and since then I have had a small but not insubstantial career as a songwriter, especially in theater, where I often write songs to accompany plays that I have authored. I was a solo musician for a number of years, playing original material on ukulele at coffee shops. I have been a member of several bands, and written songs for those bands, and I have produced several of my own albums.

I've been thinking about how to approach Yiddish music since I started this blog. I've flirted with the genre before, and so know a half-dozen songs on ukulele. I considered buying a balalaika, which isn't really a traditional Jewish instrument, but is one that interests me, and starting my own little band, but passed on that idea. Having been a band member before, I know the amount of time and energy it requires. When you start or join a band, you're essentially starting a new, unpaid part-time job, and I'm not looking for that.

Instead, consistent with my activist approach to this blog, I wanted to start a project that would encourage others to participate in Yiddish song. There's a Brian Eno quote that has stuck with me for a long time, about the band The Velvet Underground: "Only about 1,000 people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every one of them formed a rock and roll band." In my own way, that's my goal with this project.

I'm not looking to encourage rock and roll bands, of course. I guess I'm looking to encourage songleaders. I'm very much a product of songwriter/songleader Debbie Friedman, a fellow Minnesotan who radically recreated Jewish music in the 60s and 70s. I never met her, but my start as a songleader came as the result of impersonating one of her students, MJ Gilbert, who in turn had borrowed a lot from Friedman, who Gilbert had known.

Friedman played a large 12-string guitar and benefited from two movements in the 1960s. Firstly, there was folk rock, and there is an unmistakable Peter, Paul and Mary influence on Friedman, especially in her use of driving melodies and soaring harmonies. Then there was the Civil Rights movement, and other activist movements of the 60s, that made songleading an effective tool of activism.

Now, I'm not Friedman, and while I would say this project is informed by Friedman, it's not looking to duplicate her work. From what I have read, she was a profoundly spiritual person, and sought to use music to encourage a communal spiritual experience. To that end, she often wrote her own melodies, based around existing texts that nonetheless communicated ideas she wanted to explore in the context of the synagogue -- with "Miriam's Song," as an example, she used the story of the prophetess Miriam as a way to explore a place women might have in modern Judaism (unsurprisingly, it's as a songleader.)

I have different goals. I'm looking to take existing songs and popularize them. I am a secular Jew, and so I'm not looking for songs that communicate a spiritual worldview or feeling, but instead represent a legacy of great Yiddish songwriting, as well as a cultural heritage that isn't widely taught anymore. I do hope to get these songs into the camps and the synagogues, but primarily because these are the places where Jewish songs are most often taught.

But I think there is a lot that I can borrow from Friedman. I have stumbled across dismissive responses to Friedman as being an author of "camp songs," but camp songs are just a variation of the great American tradition of the communal folk music sing-along, which is a demonstrably effective tool for both creating community and teaching songs. Sing-alongs create an environment where the audience is actively encouraged to participate in singing songs, and I'd like to note a few ways that Friedman, as well as other Jewish songleaders, matched their material to this goal:

1. They tend to use relatively short Hebrew phrases. Some Jewish sing-along songs are a single Hebrew sentence, repeated over and over.
2. They offer parallel lyrics that translated the Hebrew into English
3. They make extensive use of handclaps. call-and-response, rounds, and simple harmonies to generate musical excitement
4. They pick songs with strong choruses, so that, even if participants do not participate the entire song, they quickly become comfortable with the chorus and join in.

There is very little Yiddish music that already conforms to this. Yiddish songs were rarely written for communal singing, but instead for solo or theatrical performance. So part of the challenge of this project will to be to take existing Yiddish songs and create new arrangements with this in mind, which will often mean dramatically simplifying the songs, sometimes reducing them from epics with dozens of verses to just a single chorus or even a single lyric.

I know that there are people who will see this as doing great violence to the source material. It is, but I think with cause. The songs were written for a Yiddish-speaking audience, who could enjoy long songs with dozens of verses. I will be restructuring them for an English-speaking audience that typically has very little background in Yiddish. I'd like to argue that I'm trying to create a gateway drug, that if I am successful I hope to ignite interest in the original versions of the songs. This may happen, to an extent, but I don't think that's my primary goal. My primary goal is to create new versions of these songs that will have a life of their own, and a value of their own, whether or not the new audience and singers ever go on to learn anything else about Yiddish.

I think we have to assume that for most American Jews, Yiddish will never be anything more than a flavoring, rather than a meal. I think we have to be okay with that, and to make sure that, at the very least, they have access to the flavoring, to make sure that Yiddish remains in the metaphoric spice box of the American Jew. But I do think that there will be some who find the flavor intoxicating, if I can extend the metaphor, and want to taste more of it.

Modern music has given us some marvelous tools for taking a song and making it an earworm, which is my goal -- to recast these marvelous old Yiddish songs so that a modern Jew will hear it and find they can't forget it. I want people to find themselves humming melodies months and years after first hearing them, and I want 12-year-olds who have just bought their first guitar to think, I bet I could play that. To this end, I have made a list of rules that I will be following in the creation of new arrangements. They are as follows:

1. Focus on arrangements that make use of a few simple, open guitar chords
2. Make extensive use of simple, but memorable intro riffs and fills. Arrange songs around easily reproduced rhythm guitar sections.
3. The niggun, or wordless melody, is one of the superheroes of Jewish song; make frequent use of it
4. Simplify lyrics. Find the kernel of the song and highlight it. Offer parallel, translated lyrics when possible.
5. Look for strong, simple, memorable choruses.

I know that this is the opposite of the approach used by a lot of contemporary Yiddish performers, who either wish to celebrate Yiddish songs in its historical context or use it as a jumping off point for instrumental virtuosity. And I'm glad those performers exist, because I see the enormous value in what they do. But these musicians are not activists, they're not explicitly looking to democratize Yiddish, to provide forms of it that anybody can use as a participant, rather than an audience member.

I will say here what I find myself saying everywhere on this blog: Maybe I'm not the one to do this. I am not an enormously skilled guitar player, nor do I have an especially fine singing voice. I am not a very social person, nor do I enjoy being the center of attention, although I know how to fake both when I am performing. I am not a trained song arranger, and it is very possible I will not be popularizing Yiddish song, but producing weird, ruined versions of Yiddish songs. This is an experiment, but, if it is a failed experiment, I expect that Yiddish will be able to survive it.

In the meanwhile, I have a 12-string guitar in the mail. It should arrive tomorrow.