Re: Marchin' to A Different Drummer

Martin Cohen (mcohen@UCLA.EDU)
Mon, 19 Feb 1996 15:18:03 -0700

Mike Salovesh responded:

>Whenever I've had a breathing spell today, I've been thinking about your
>citation of Robeson's singing of "Zog Nit Kaynmol". I agree that the song
>clearly is in Yiddish, and that it comes out of a setting of major
>historical import to Jews. In that sense, it's informed by Jewishness.
>However, it's not a song that calls for Jewish soul in the singer. I'm
>not surprised: it's not out of the tradition that produced the way my
>grandfather taught me to sing "Die Rebbi Elimeilach". Its place in
>musical style and feeling puts it in a class with Die Moorsoldaten (the
>Peatbog Soldiers) -- and a whole pile of similar songs out of the 30's and
>40's traditions of singing on the left. (Lots of those songs came out of
>the Spanish Civil War and the on-again, off-again antifascism sometimes
>encouraged by Moscow.)

This brings us to a question of "authenticity" of culture. From Sartre's
delineation of the "inauthentic Jew" to all the post-modernist discourse on
the authentic and the inauthentic, one thing is clear: It has very little
to do with how people actually live their lives and the reality of their
social and cultural context. I have a very hard time seeing why Zog Nit
Kaynmol is somehow less Jewish than Der Rebe Elimelekh" (YIVO
transliteration). In fact there was a thread last week on Mendele, the
Yiddish language list asking whether this song was from the Chasidic
tradition or a parody. I lost the reply, but asked the authority, Hershl
Hartman who posted the reply, for a copy. He sent me the following
paraphrase to which I've added explanations in brackets, it is copied here
with his permission:

"There need be no doubts as to whether _der rebe elimelekh_ is of khsidish
[Chasidic, a mystical tradition] or misnagdish [rational Jewish] origin.
Its author was the prominent Yiddish humorist and satirist
Moyshe Nadir (Yitskhok Reiss) who, at the time, was much closer to Marx and
Lenin than to either the Baal Shem Tov [founder of the Chasidic tradition]
or the Vilner Gaon."

In essence, the song makes fun of the position of the Chasidic Rebe and his
followers. And Glick, the author of Zog Nit Kaynmol, came from the same
secular Yiddish tradition as Nadir.

Mike continues:

>You refer to "Zog Nit Kaynmol" being sung in dirge style, rather than as a
>march, in a synagogue on Yom HaShoa. I can see how that could happen. I
>think what it shows is just what I've been saying: the song, though
>informed by Jewishness, is not a Jewish folk song. It's a protest song.

I think it is better described as an anthem. It was not sung in the Vilna
ghetto and in the forests by partisans in protest, but in defiance.
>The genre of protest song was Paul Robeson's musical home. It also was
>the home of the Almanac Singers -- union organizing singers who included
>Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes (not to mention Burl Ives before he went
>straight). The Almanac Singers eventually metamorphosed into The Weavers.
>Protest songs also gave a musical home to a bunch of singing Wobblies ("I
>dreamed I saw Joe Hill las night . . .") and ILGWU organizers and Big Bill
>Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Alan Lomax and, on and off, Hudie Ledbetter
>(Leadbelly) and lots of other folk singers.

While the environment Mike described was not specifically Jewish, Embedded
within it was an authentic Jewish tradition. One way to say "the common
people" in Yiddish is "amkho sher un izen" - "Your people, shears and
irons" - that is, people who work. Early in this century, it was in the
needle trades and unions like ILGWU and Amalgamated where one could find a
large percentage of the Yiddish speaking Jews in America. Their language,
culture, and politics came with them from Europe and were derived from a
combination of their histories and the material conditions under which they
lived. A number of the performers mentioned above were quite welcome at
places such as Camp Kinderland or events sponsored by the Jewish People's
Fraternal Order.

>Don't let me get started talking about my own days of singing on the left.
>Way back in prehistory, I was a minor folksinger. I'm a relic of an
>organization called "Peoples Song", and a lot of people I met through my
>participation with that group ended up on McCarthyite blacklists. Like
>the three guys who talked me into joining in the first place, back in 1948
>or so: Win Stracke, Studs Terkel, and Pete Seeger. I sang onstage with
>every singer I've named here except Burl Ives and Paul Robeson. (What,
>Studs Terkel *singing*? Well, yes, believe it or not.) Of course, I did
>nearly all of my gigs under an assumed name. Maybe the FBI never
>connected me with Mike Scott, once introduced in San Francisco's Purple
>Onion as "the singing anthro T.A.".

Mike, we probably have a number of acquaintances in common. I'm a bit
younger, but I would be very surprised if I don't have at least one friend
who hasn't been on stage with you.

As an after thought, I will admit that on some Yiddish songs, Robeson's
voice and style don't really work as well as I would imagine your
grandfather's did. But I still don't think this is the mystical condition
of being an outsider who lacks the "Jewish soul." Rather, I think it is
the training and refinement that Robeson brought to these songs. In the
same way, I don't really think that Jan Perce's classically trained voice
did justice to his Yiddish recordings, and he certainly was an insider.

Martin Cohen