Klezmer Beyond the Punchline
The right expression might involve no joke at all; funny business might be in the improv solo, the notes, and/or (choose carefully, you may have to live a long time with this) the band name.
Switching languages is traditionally a Jewish experience, and it seems particularly in the nature of Yiddish to seek to amuse itself. Whenever you have various options for cultural reference, you can choose the one that feels right; and where situations call for pointed though perhaps oblique commentary, irony and wordplay become well-practiced. This range of expression also holds true for Yiddish music—plenty of stylistic interplay, plenty of chances for humor in the process. Yet combining diverse stylistic elements within the already-polyglot klezmer genre has yielded far more than masterful mimicry. Pastiche and parody have been a huge phenomenon and industry, particularly in post-WWII America, often reflecting brilliant, complex, hilarious responses to assimilation anxieties (among other angsts). Yet sometimes choosing the right expression, even while mixing things up, involves no joke at all, or leaves the funny business for the improv solo, the liner notes, and/or (choose carefully, you may have to live a long time with this) the band name.
In cross-cultural encounters around Yiddish-influenced American music, changes over time reflect not only artistic trends, commercial markets and cultural climates, but also changing audience—literally, listeners: Shifts in who could understand this multi-valent material and at what levels. While immigration quotas had already severely limited Eastern European immigration shortly after WWI (in part because this area was seen as the source of dangerous radicals), American Jews were of course also profoundly affected by the devastation of the Holocaust which disproportionately killed Yiddish-speaking populations, and displacement also swept away most of what had been the Old Country. Yiddish in Israel was strongly discouraged, and Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges terrorized millions and eviscerated formerly Yiddish-supportive Soviet policies. In American Jewish attitudes toward Yiddish, tensions developed between the aspiration to be accepted by a wider society and the fear of losing connection to identity. Yet despite such widespread pressure and deep rejection, Yiddish roots before, during and after WWII were still being rediscovered and re-created, particularly among the overlapping spheres of artists, intellectuals, and entertainers. While today the main growth in fluent Yiddish populations is among the Hasidim, in other Yiddishist realms, creative personal and academic fascination with mameloshn (mother tongue) is now resurgent, though largely in what scholar Jeffrey Shandler has called the “post-vernacular” Yiddish phenomenon of the late 20th/early 21st centuries.
In terms of musical examples, I’ll focus mainly on a spectrum of multi-dimensional work, such as parodies/cover tunes involving at least three levels of translation (whether musical, linguistic, or other forms of cultural interpretation), and original compositions involving the intersection of two or more distinct genres. I’ll touch only briefly on various scenes such as the mamboniks of New York, Miami, etc., simply because they’ve been so well-covered elsewhere. And while it’s worth noting that ancient traditions such as the Purimshpil also contribute richly to eclectic Jewish parodic heritage, I’m primarily focusing on the period after most Eastern European Jewish migration to the US was restricted in 1924.
Nevertheless I’ll begin with a well-known parodist in order to introduce one of his nearly-forgotten contemporaries. Mickey Katz brought together one of the finest assemblages of klezmer instrumentalists in post-WWII history to record Yiddish/American comedy records in late-night L.A. studio sessions by dyed-in-the-Catskills talent. Much of Katz’s formula for these tracks was transposed directly from the antic music satires he’d worked on with Spike Jones, zany but fairly direct reworkings of mainstream pop tunes, only with Katz now adding Jewish elements both in his wise-guy heymish wordplay and bursts of high-octane Yiddish party sound—all of which juxtapose to form a comic alchemy. (In Don Byron’s early-‘90s Mickey Katz tribute project, Katz’s own son, Joel Grey, covered the tongue-twisting vocals when he was available; I remember his frequent sub, Lorin Sklamberg, an accomplished student of Yiddish, deciphering Yinglish asides and punchlines for hours by the living room stereo.) While many compare and contrast Katz’s manically ethnic music comedy success with the deadpan parody songs of Allan Sherman who followed a decade or so later, I’d also like to introduce someone more in the same vein as Katz—Eli Basse. Somewhat obscure now, this writer/performer born in Leeds had worked with the likes of Sophie Tucker; his comedy tracks came out via Laff Records’ Songcraft Party Series, among others. While Allan Sherman’s 1960s Jewish inflections were linguistic only (delivered all in English, satirizing American assimilation by using perceived mismatch of cultural context as the root of their humor, through intact Jewish-y names and typical second- or third-generation middle-class references, such as Dr. Prentiss, “The Painless Dentist”, which was set to the swanky tune of “The Continental”), Eli Basse’s much rawer novelty sides produced a few years before came with full doses of Yiddish, Yinglish, and frequent klezmer in their raucous sound collages. Though promoted by the Laff Records label to retailers, distributors, and jukebox operators as both “clean and hilariously funny” (much less scandalous than, say, bawdy Belle Barthe), Basse’s content and musical delivery are still at times far edgier than Mickey Katz’s, with social commentary not only deflating mainstream pop culture pretensions but also addressing real-world tsuris around money, sex, and corruption. Katz’s own crossover potential was limited, meanwhile, by his broadly stereotypical “character” approach, perceived as derogatory in offending the sensibilities of at least one influential radio producer: WMCA banned all Mickey Katz’s music in 1952 (seemingly as a “shande far di goyim”—shame paraded before the gentiles—in that very bad year for explicitly Jewish content, with sensitivities high around Jewish visibility at the height of the McCarthy Era). To be clear, the station’s policy did extend also to other ethnic novelty records, such as Rosemary Clooney’s Italian-shtick hit “Botch-A-Me.” While Katz’s humor was over-the-top, but with top musical talent, Eli Basse’s lower-budget work with even more in-references and potentially controversial themes probably stayed perpetually below any radio radar.
Most, but not all, of Basse’s creations were released with the writer himself singing in character accent, progressing frequently beyond simple context humor. With “Lefkowitz the Kop,” Basse’s narrator punctures the upright ideal of law enforcement set by Superman, The Shadow, and detective Ellery Queen; this takeoff depicts instead a beat cop on the take (“his business is always picking up”). The spelling “kop” itself has the double meaning of policeman and also—from Yiddish—head or mind, as in the expression Yidishe kop, sardonically condemning this kind of Jewish mindset. The song narrates Lefkowitz’s chiseling neighborhood adventures, and ends, still in character but dropping the comedy, with sotto voce disgust: “He’s a cop?” Another track starts with shtick echoing shtick: Katz released “Litvak Square Dance”; Basse’s “Bialystocker Square Dance” came out in 1947, featuring klezmer medley classics followed by quick Irish and Scottish digressions—“the Shapiros are coming, hoo-ha hoo-ha”—then advancing to the Latin/Yiddish mix later enshrined by Bagels and Bongos and the like, as Basse’s tumler character requests of the “boyes” in the band, “Shirley shouldn’t cry, you should mix it up a little the freylekh with a conga”.
Basse also made “G’litzyanner Rhumba,” with dozens of in-jokes about uptight Litvaks—rivals to the Galitsiyaner Jews—and “alte congas” (play on the slightly-smutty phrase naming old folks alte kakers). And his wildly loaded “Channa from Havana” was issued by none other than the Barry Sisters. That send-up of the Latin/Yiddish music world continues the rhyme scheme from the song’s title into a very mixed vocabulary: Channa, the Galitzyanna just back from Havana, is now making her husband mekane – jealous (in a less-than-perfect rhyme, jilted Mr. Cohen hears her boast about “Jose, der groyser caballero” but remembers when that guy was Sam Shapiro). Now whenever Cohen wants “some ‘Yo Te Amo’ [cue back-up singers: “Still Meaning Love”], it’s costing me a silver fox—and that ain’t lox!”
An earlier crossover success story for the Barry Sisters came with a big break coming from the other direction. Claire and Merna Barry, nee Clara and Minnie Bagelman, were already a singing sister act when the Yiddish Melodies in Swing project was created in the late 1930s within two weeks of the release of the Andrews Sisters’ “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn” to capitalize on the craze set in motion by that 2nd Avenue Yiddish Theater melody put to English lyrics and a smooth Big Band-style arrangement. This novelty chart-topper gave rise to myriad commercial would-be competitors both in the mainstream (“And The Angels Sing,” adapted by trumpeter Ziggy Ellman for Benny Goodman in 1939 from a klezmer dance standard, particularly plays up both the smooth/jazzy and the ethnic feels), and re-circulating back into the newly-validated Yiddish world with its own shows and playlists. The Jewish audience targeted by Sam Medoff’s Yiddish Swingtet got to hear Yiddish lyrics with lively yet mild jazzy settings, as well as traditional Jewish instrumentals similarly arranged. They were well-produced, entertaining, and featured klezmer great Dave Tarras on clarinet, an excellent reader who gave an authentic yet clean sound to the tuxedo-style Yiddish melodies. The Barry Sisters with Sam Medoff’s on-air ensembles were a winning combination into the ‘50s, though hardly an adventurous experience for either the artists or the listeners by then. A safe, steady mainstream sound glossed over Yiddish difference. (Meanwhile both the Andrews Sisters and Eli Basse found their respective ways to lightly risqué Calypso material: “Rum and Coca Cola” toned down the sexual innuendo of “both mother and daughter/ working for the Yankee dollar,” while “Kun-Yi-Land” extolls Coney Island as a “mekhaye” [pleasure], though ambiguously also a place to “vert farbrent” [get burnt, go to hell].)
Yet by the mid-1950s in New York, another klezmer artist with extensive Big Band and jazz experience conceived an original compositional production that took Yiddish instrumental material deeply seriously on its own terms, while beautifully realizing a new concept in harmonic approach. Sam Musiker, a tremendously talented clarinetist/saxophonist who was also the son-in-law of clarinet legend Dave Tarras, produced their joint 1956 LP on CBS’ Epic imprint. Unfortunately Tanz! (Dance!) was poorly publicized by the label and nearly vanished without a trace despite its vision, craftsmanship and genre star-power. Musiker (whose younger brother Ray was also in the album’s horn section on sax) performed virtuosic clarinet for his own pieces including masterworks “Der Nayer Doina” [The New Doina] and “Sam Shpielt” [Sam Plays]. Musiker’s versatile background as reedman and arranger included swing and jazz gigs with luminaries as Gene Krupa (with whose big band he played from its inception to its breakup) and Sarah Vaughan. His sophisticated chord changes meld perfectly with the klezmer style to create an organic yet subtle revolution in the folkloric structure while keeping the melodic feel and (in the upbeat tune) vital danceability. The inventive tunes build and spin through major and minor modal sections with a propulsive yet nuanced touch throughout. The section work is light yet powerful, and syncopations seems to find giddy landings even while the traditional clave remains intact.
Fortunately Musiker’s stand-out sides were eventually re-issued decades later after being discovered by klezmer revivalists. While Sam died tragically young in the relative obscurity of Arizona less than a decade after the release of his pioneering magnum opus, thanks to aficianados this out-of-print music managed to stay in circulation even before the 2002 re-issue. I first encountered some of these tracks on mix-tape cassette at KlezKamp, then acquired a vinyl collector’s copy. The official re-release was finally produced through the dogged archival efforts and diligent expertise of devotees including Arthur Levy and Henry Sapoznik. This remastered disc on Sony’s Legacy Recordings series even includes alternate take bonus tracks.
Another long-lost, legendary but probably inimitable musical crossover project came out of the Poconos side of the Borscht Belt in 1939—starring a very young Danny Kaye [né Daniel Kaminsky]. An irreverent panoply of meta-textual reference and layered commentary of nearly Talmudic proportions, the Yiddish Mikado was part of a packed summer season at Tamiment resort, an adult summer camp that hired a full staff of theater, music, dance, and tech professionals to produce new original revues on-site each week. The show’s actual Yiddish title was Der Richtiga Mikado (The Real Mikado), spoofing not only Gilbert and Sullivan, but also a spate of G&S takeoffs appearing in the same season: The “Battle of the Black Mikados” (The Hot Mikado competing with the WPA-funded Swing Mikado on Broadway) was followed by labor union lefties staging their Red Mikado, a satire by the (predominantly Jewish) International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The ILGWU produced acclaimed Pins & Needles revues mixing lampoons of right-wing politicians into their amateur musical theater, and the union owned a worker summer camp vacation property right across the lake from the secular and sophisticated though not politically-aligned Camp (“& country club”) Tamiment. It was for the demanding and discerning apolitical audiences Sylvia Fine dreamt up a Yiddish Nankipoo to be portrayed by her creative partner and future husband. The seemingly absurd performance premise of Japanese-meets-Hasidic was said to draw side-splitting laughter even among those who understood not a word of Yiddish. (Not that there weren’t plenty of mavens at Tamiment Playhouse too: iconoclastic Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s picture in a rowboat shows up in the summer 1939 files, too.) Later when Kaye became a Hollywood star, requests from this show were late-night party favorites with studio moguls. A sample from the script at NYU’s Tamiment Library reveals jokes based on juxtaposition, gesture, pronunciation and, of course, timing—for instance rhyming dialect call and response (three syllables each)—“Mikade?” [Why yes!] “Avade!”
The after-ripples of this production are part of the overall legacy of Tamiment as a showbiz influence in better-known theater, TV, and film. Choreographer Jerome Robbins worked with Kaye and Fine on the Yiddish Mikado as well as other summers at Tamiment (when he was still honing his craft as well as variations on his original Rabinowitz surname). Robbins’s later direction of the ground-breaking (yet completely non-Yiddish) Fiddler on the Roof revealed deep inner struggles. He clashed repeatedly with flamboyantly proud, non-observant but Orthodox-raised Zero Mostel over mannerisms in stage interpretations, revealing conflict over fully open expression of Jewish identity, which along with Robbins’s closeted sexuality may have been part of why he had named names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Another Tamiment alum, in the later 1950s, was fledgling writer/comedian Woody Allen, who also did his first directing on sketch assignments here. (It’s pure surmise, but I wonder whether the lanky strawberry blond character who comes out in a scene from Allen’s Radio Days is loosely based on the supposedly bisexual Danny Kaye.) And the format of Tamiment’s grueling but creatively productive schedule and repertory company of talent, along with such participants as Imogene Coca and longtime producer Max Liebman, later migrated to the live TV broadcast revue that became Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, a clear antecedent to Saturday Night Live.
The intervening decades have seen a huge rise of Hasidism throughout the former Borscht Belt, while conversational Yiddish has declined precipitously during most of that time among the non-Orthodox. For that matter, American fluency in G&S has also declined, and in particular the colonialist-era Mikado material has become more problematic, as a satire of British imperial-era customs set in a stereotyped Japanese plot-scape. Just last year a planned production was cancelled due to perceived insensitive non-Asian casting and “yellowface” makeup. Perhaps in that long-ago summer in the Jewish Poconos, the daringly outré British-Yiddish dress-up gag was releasing tension already hanging in vacation air with the rise of Hitler across the Atlantic, where at that time most of the actual Hasidim still lived, even while few could really imagine the German invasion of Poland (which turned out to be just weeks in the future at that point).
In several of their best-loved works, for pieces frequently reprised around the world, two of the most celebrated Jewish American composers have featured Ashkenazic Jewish-rooted material, though not always explicitly identified in terms of yidishkayt. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue famously opens with a klezmer clarinet glissando, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess has clear melodic inspiration in a blessing sung before reading the Torah. (Sportin’ Life re-works the prayer tune for his chorus, adding a blue note to the cantorial mode, and then he sings verses recounting several Biblical stories, pronouncing seductive doubt as he sings each chorus reprise.) While George Gershwin may not have become bar mitzve, his older brother (and lyricist) Ira certainly was.
Similarly, we have Leonard Bernstein’s overt and covert expressions, on the one hand composing in Candide for a wandering Jewish character, where both macaronic wordplay and musical commentary bring the goods in “I Am Easily Assimilated,” for which Lenny co-wrote both music and lyrics with his South American-born Jewish wife, Felicia. Rhyming the Spanish “hernia” with Rovno/Rovne Gubernia may also have been commentary on Bernstein’s own experience of anti-Semitism when HUAC took away his passport during the McCarthy Era; certainly the lines “These days you have to be / In the majority” seem a response to those conformity-enforcing times. (Bernstein’s table-location at a left-wing early-1940s fundraiser appears on a chart found in my own grandmother’s FBI files, but more about my own musical documentary theater adventure, J. Edgar Klezmer, in a bit.) I only noticed another roughly concurrent Jewish reference in Bernstein’s work while listening to the shofar horn pattern at a High Holiday service about a decade ago: The ominous three-note gang signal from the overture of West Side Story turns out indeed to have been inspired by the rhythm and tone shape of the ancient tekiah call blown on the ram’s horn. (This musical had been earlier conceived of as East Side Story, where the Jews are—and he worked on many drafts of both this musical and Candide for years during the ‘50s, with other documented borrowings.)
While obviously I’m a big fan of certain musical theater and Yiddish traditions, I never imagined myself creating my own show until I obtained a trove of personally meaningful declassified documents—followed by accompanying research, plus contradictory family stories—which compelled me to write J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs from My Grandmother’s FBI Files. And it might never have occurred to me to invent music and lyrics for a staged drama if I hadn’t already begun composing new work for my own ensembles, inspired in part by the pieces written already by my bandmates Pam Fleming (who began with her own klezmeresque music) and Debra Kreisberg (subtly melding idiosyncratic Yiddish feels with jazz and Latin). Once I decided to tell Grandma’s tale through music along with text and multi-media, I immediately had versatile members from Isle of Klezbos in mind as cast and musicians. Among the dozen or so tunes propelling this partly autobiographical story, only one is especially Yiddish-inspired. Other tunes span from R&B and gospel to tango and rhyming blues/spoken word, as well as a Greek-based melody over which vocalist Missy Fogarty scats a few dozen names from hundreds flagged by the FBI for attending a leftist benefit dinner about five years earlier (a list including my activist ancestor [paternal grandma] Dr. Adele Sicular, Lillian Hellman, Mary McCleod Bethune, and culminating with Leonard Bernstein). I also came up with a tritone-based musical trope, formed as an angst-ridden variation of the patriotic song title phrase from “Over There” played in ascending chromatic transpositions, to represent successive repeated names blanked out in surveillance transcripts. My most klezmer-esque of the lyrical pieces, “When Israel Met Jenny”, appears also as a bonus track on Metropolitan Klezmer’s latest release, Mazel Means Good Luck.
Referring to grandparents’ generations or even further back is a common theme among younger Jewish musicians motivated to compose original music with Yiddish themes. My own composing debut was dedicated to my maternal grandmother. East Hapsburg Waltz emerged in three sections, beginning in the fall of 2001 while I was driving in the countryside surrounding NYC, listening to old zither recordings. The note intervals of a characteristic Central European folk-tune ending became the opening tones of my piece, which later formed a narrative in my mind as the tumultuous third section transitions back to a reprise, with clarinet switching to saxophone: A signal of the shift from Old World to New reminded me of my Oma, who was still alive to hear it when we first recorded this in 2002. (She was born in Vienna in 1907, lived in Moravia which became part of independent Czechoslovakia when she was a pre-teen, and arrived in America only after WWII had already broken out in Europe.) The title refers to the Eastern regions of Austro-Hungarian imperial times, from which came the Yiddish-speaking Jews who so mortified my mother’s proper Viennese German-speaking family. The waltz form itself of course is a central dance tradition for Vienna. Only after this came out on our first recording, Greetings from the Isle of Klezbos, was our band invited for our first European date, at KlezMORE in Vienna. We’ve since been back to play for them again, and my tune is now out also in a vibrant new version recorded live in Brooklyn.
Trumpeter Pam Fleming, my bandmate in both Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos, named the first tune she wrote for us “Rifka’s Dream,” after her maternal grandma whom she never met. Later she reached back to her own earlier experience in the horn section for Jamaican roots star Burning Spear, and composed “Mellow Manna” for Isle of Klezbos. Yiddish-inflected reggae and “klez-ska” have become a sort of sub-genre since the 1990s, with the affinity transcending to European klezmer-makers as well. Among my favorite examples of Yiddish/reggae amalgams in cover versions are one from each coast of the USA. San Francisco Klezmer Experience was organized by violinist Daniel Hoffman and includes members who met as the houseband for ACT’s production of Shlemiel the First in 1996. (Some also trace their roots back to The Klezmorim, the West Coast’s original klezmer revival band, formed in 1975.) SF Klez-X, as they’re now known, plays a virtuosically tight and trippy reggae break section in their re-working of the Yosl Kerler/Vladimir Shainskiy Soviet Yiddish drinking song “A Glezele Yash,” adapted (guess why?) as Hash for their 1998 album Zing! (A triple entendre? Yiddish verb form: Sing!, English “zing!”, and possibly also an allusion back to Musiker/Tarras’s groundbreaking album Tanz!—Dance!)
The East Coast example is from a more recent fully dub-style track, on the 2011 Brooklyn studio recording Tick-Tock produced by vocalist/upright bassist Benjy Fox-Rosen. His liner notes for “A Maysele / A Tale” read as follows:
A Yiddish art song composed by Lazar Weiner, from a poem by Peretz Hirshbein. Arranged/inspired by Dieter Behr, Viennese drummer/friend/activist/thinker. It is a dub-esque thing. [Engineer] Don Godwin made it very cool.
The all-star ensemble assembled for Tick-Tock includes Carmen Staaf (heard in the reggae introduction on haunting farfisa organ), drummer Kenny Wollesen, and Benjy’s brother Avi Fox-Rosen on guitars. Michael Winograd’s clarinet on the preceding track opens with a hilariously creaky rising glissando to parody the famous Gershwin klezmer allusion, and on most tracks we hear violinist Sarah Alden (also an erstwhile bandmate of Benjy’s in The Luminescent Orchestrii, specializing in groove adaptations of Romanian/Moldovan repertoire). Benjy, though the son of a West Coast rabbi, became interested in Yiddish only after singing other Eastern European repertoire with the Lumi’s. (His growing fluency also made a special connection with his grandmother.) It’s worth noting that SF Klez X vocalist Jeanette Lewicki learned Yiddish as an adult as well, and now teaches workshops on archival songs of the Yiddish underworld. Secular Yiddish culture and history are important to all of our music groups, and probably all would agree with Lewicki:
“I’m not trying to recreate a culture that no longer exists or sound like an old recording. But I do think it’s important to listen to that stuff and be conversant with that culture.”
The composer of the underlying piece transmogrified into dub-step idiom on Benjy Fox-Rosen’s Tick Tock was Lazar Weiner. (His son is Pulitzer prize-winning composer Yehudi Wyner.) Weiner came to Yiddish music in 1920s NYC as a kind of insider/outsider himself, a former child cantorial choir singer in Kiev who then attended conservatory in Eastern Europe, yet knew nothing about Jewish folk songs until going to meetings of modernist Yiddish poets in New York decades later. He was tremendously influenced by hearing the Zimro ensemble on tour from Russia at Carnegie Hall, led by clarinetist and Jewish folk song collector Simeon Bellison (later the lead clarinetist of the NY Philharmonic), and an exchange of letters with Yiddish music ethnographer and Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music co-founder Joel Engel helped guide him to use more Jewish themes in his own music, though Weiner preferred to make up his own rather than to quote folk material. Weiner became the avowedly secular, progressive yet mystically-inclined prolific “father of American Yiddish art song.”
The full name of Weiner’s song described above was actually “A Mayse fun Amol” – A Story from Once Upon a Time. I’ll end with one of those, a true apocryphal Yiddish parable from the Land of Pre-Sliced Challah. As my friend Leila’s family tells it, one day around half a century back, her grandmother is chatting away while playing bridge with the ladies at a fancy Jewish country club in Westchester. Suddenly to her surprise, the conversation stops dead. One of the bridge ladies gives her an icy stare and says, “We don’t speak Yiddish here.” Post-vernacular punch-line? The mystery word was… hubris. (While her grandma is long gone now, to continue the mood: Leila and I grew up not knowing each other, but each being taken to this same fancy club. So where do we finally meet? At KlezKamp.)