Feb 14, 2020
Over the last few centuries, tightly-knit eastern Ashkenazi Jewish communities evolved and spread a treasure trove of song texts, melodic lines, and expressive devices in their daily-life language, Yiddish. Today, interest in these songs is surging from musicians, singers, and Yiddishists, but many important features such as dialect and style are out of reach for anyone without an advanced knowledge of Yiddish. While there have been a few writings about Yiddish song, there is almost no published modern scholarship that has looked at issues of performance or musical structure beyond the song lyrics. And the written page and even musical transcriptions can never convey the nuances and beauty of performance that can be conveyed by a video (or at least audio) recording of a master folksinger.
Inside the Yiddish Folk Song, a new website project currently under construction, which will be housed by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, aims to address these needs. A collaborative project under the direction of Mark Slobin and curated by Pete Rushefsky, the website’s contributors include Michael Alpert, Walter Zev Feldman, Ethel Raim, Josh Waletzky, and Itzik Gottesman.
The website aims to be an accessible, comprehensive online introduction to the full complexity of the Yiddish folk song tradition — including history, cultural context, genres, linguistic and musical structure, performance practice, and deeply held aesthetic choices. The website will provide an interactive experience rich with multimedia that can be tailored to the visitor’s level of experience and interest.
Ari Kelman spoke with Mark Slobin, the director of the project, to share with In geveb readers about this new forthcoming resource.
Ari Kelman: Could you give me the big picture overview of the project?
Mark Slobin: It came out of Yiddish New York originally, where we had a round table on the Yiddish folk song. I started talking to Josh Waletzky, and to Ethel Raim, and one thing led to another, and we started this little conversation group. We were so happy talking with each other about these issues, in the absence of any analytical literature whatsoever on the Yiddish folk song. And we began to think we need to make something out of this that would be a public resource for people.
All of us felt that there is now a generation of people who are in their twenties or early thirties who are turning to Yiddish as an expressive form, a personal expressive form. We didn’t see that 10 years ago. The klezmer revival was not very interested in Yiddish language. There was a nucleus of interest in the Yiddish song around Adrienne Cooper, who was an unflagging and extraordinary proponent of the idea of the Yiddish song.
After Adrienne’s passing, there seemed to be a real lull. Then Josh Waletsky and Ethel Raim noticed a change. They were teaching at Yiddish New York, and also doing their own teaching, working with apprentices, and New York State Council for the Arts funding. They began to notice this extraordinary interest at places like KlezKanada, where Josh was doing a workshop on translating into Yiddish from English, writing your own song lyrics.
It began to be clear that there was a groundswell of interest in Yiddish song, and that people really don’t have much of a knowledge base to go on in terms of how to think about two aspects of the Yiddish song: the analytical structural questions of melody, rhythm, meter, and so forth; and the expressive performative aspects — the aesthetics, how you do a song. Those two things are linked, obviously, but are somewhat different dimensions of creating an ability to deal with the song, or to create your own songs.
So, I suggested this idea of a website, and Pete Rushefsky connected us with the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, which already hosts Yiddish-song-of-the-week.
The other important factor is that ten years ago you couldn’t find Yiddish songs from folks moyl, oral tradition. Original recordings of Yiddish folk singers were pretty hard to find. You had to go to some archive, ask to listen, put on headphones, and then what did you do with it? With the new internet databases, particularly the Ruth Rubin Collection at YIVO and the Stonehill Collection, and also the gradual growth of the Yiddish-song-of-the-week, which is an amazing resource compiled by Itzik Gottesman, also a member of our project, you can now literally have thousands of Yiddish folk songs in original performances at your fingertips. So, it seemed like it would be helpful to do a little bit of a roadmap, or some kind of a guide.
My original title for the site was Afn veyg shteyt a lid, which everybody said was a little too poetic. So, I ended up with Inside the Yiddish Folk Song.
Zev Feldman signed on as well, and then eventually Michael Alpert. Somebody’s always Skyping in from somewhere in the world, given the peripatetic nature of these participants, and as the retired one with more time, I have been doing the framing, recording discussions, transcribing them, sending them around, trying to schedule things and organize an outline for this project.
The idea is really that when we put this out — and it’s pretty modest — that it will be a springboard. It’ll be a base station on the way up the mountain of Yiddish folk song, and that we can create the next base camp as more people chime in and add their insights in this literature.
Ari Kelman: Tell me about the focus on folk songs. You noticed there was a kind of gap right around the time that Adrienne Cooper passed away. But also, you made reference to the klezmer revival earlier. I’m interested in why you focus on folk song as a particular form instead of, say, what’s come to be known as klezmer music, or theater music, or art music?
Mark Slobin: Because this is what appeals to us most. To me, it’s the basic mame-loshn of the Yiddish tradition. It is a vast wellspring and oytser of extraordinary songs.
Now, the question is what is a Yiddish folk song? And you raise that implicitly by saying there’s theater songs, there’s this kind of song, and that kind of song.
Zev Feldman has written as a very nice essay [for the website] that pinpoints where in this world of Yiddish expressive performance we’re locating what we’re calling the folk song. It’s a big problem in Yiddish — as opposed to, say, the Lithuanian folk song — that many of the pieces that people have in their brains or their memories that they would say are folk songs are actually written by known composers starting in the mid-19th century and into 20th century. Starting with the maskilim, and then going through the Broder Singers, Elyokem Tsunser, Mark Warshavsky, and so forth. You have a large number of songs in Yiddish, which people feel very close to, and which they think of as folk song. We’re not very interested in that.
What we’re interested in is what we call the lyric folk song, which was largely sung by women. It tends to be a pretty gendered phenomenon, although men sing it and learn it as well. These songs were sung in regular daily life in Eastern European Jewish communities and were the expression of deep feelings, often very personal feelings. They tend to be strophic, they tend to rely on a variety of melodic types, and are very flexible and supple in their forms of expression, but constitute a really large corpus of European folk songs, which unlike every other European national tradition, has very little literature around it.
There’s a little in Beregovski’s writings. He talks about this a little bit in a very tantalizing way, but not substantially enough for what we’d like to do. Ruth Rubin is not ever analytical [from a technical, musical perspective]. She is historical and contextual. She gives you information about genre, but she doesn’t go into technical detail. We feel Yiddish folk song is a great treasure house, not just for Jews and Yiddish-interested people, but actually for the whole idea of the European or Euro-American folk song tradition. It’s kind of an Atlantis, you know?
Ari Kelman: You mentioned Ruth Rubin. Can you talk a little about the work that she did, and imagine with me for a second what this effort would look like without the collecting that she did in the 1940s and 50s?
Mark Slobin: Ruth was a determined collector, and she was a determined singer. She would travel around singing exactly the kind of songs we’re interested in. She would sing unaccompanied. And she used to talk about how wherever she turned up to sing, at Jewish places or American libraries, they’d say, “Where’s your pianist?” She’d say, “I don’t need a piano.” They’d say, “But where’s your guitar?” And she’d say, “I don’t need a guitar. I am singing the real folk song.” Her passion and dedication to the unaccompanied folk song is very important because she left this collection of recordings, and because she put the idea on the map that you could sing unaccompanied songs, and that they had real power. And she wrote books around the idea of the folk song.
But without her, we actually have other material. One of the things that’s happening at Yiddish New York this year — which is going to be kind of revolutionary, and really intertwines beautifully with our website project — is an unveiling to the world of the YIVO Yiddish folk song project of the mid-1970s, which was run by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. She trained a whole group of people. They did an extraordinary project with NEH funding, and the project has never been used. So, it’s now all at YIVO, and they’re going to digitize that.
This is so extraordinarily important not only because there are recordings of a select group of very good singers singing, but also because the questionnaire that Barbara designed that goes with it is absolutely brilliant. It’s way better than An-sky’s famous questionnaire, because he was asking about everything but the kitchen sink. Barbara’s questionnaire is incredibly focused: where did you learn this song? Who sang this kind of song? When would this song have been sung? What do you gather from this song? For each one of these songs, we have this paper [questionnaire with answers] as well as recorded interviews and performances. There might be a couple thousand songs there, better documented than anything that’s ever been done for the Yiddish folk song. So when that comes online, it is going to be a total game changer for people. They can get at the heart of the tradition, in terms of its contextual understanding, its emotional grounding, in a way that has not been available before.
At Yiddish New York 2019, there was a panel with Barbara, and some of the people who worked on the original project. That’ll be kind of a revelation to people when that begins to filter out.
Ari Kelman: I had no idea that existed. Have you known about that for a long time?
Mark Slobin: Nobody did. I was involved in it in the beginning, so I knew about it, and I chipped in a little in the early years, but it stayed with Barbara and it’s just not been out there until now.
Ari Kelman: Wow. That’s so exciting.
Mark Slobin: Yeah. It’s amazing. So, this is the golden age of the Yiddish song, strangely enough.
Ari Kelman: You mentioned earlier the technical elements of folk song, and you mention that the people in the recordings in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s collection are very fine singers. What is it that makes somebody a great singer of folk songs?
Mark Slobin: Recognition by other people. This was an egalitarian community where people recognized who the good singers were. Everybody could tell you if you went anywhere, “That’s a good singer.” That’s really the essence of folk life, which still existed for a while. But even in the late phases when Ruth was collecting, and even when Barbara’s collecting, it was easy to ask people: who are the really good singers here? Everybody knew who they were.
The criteria for that of course are local aesthetics. A folk song doesn’t exist without a local aesthetic, a consensus of what is good, what is beautiful, what do we value, or even what is Jewish. All of these have to be understood consensually by a community. We never know what folk really means. And I’ve spent my life doing this, and written books on what is folk music. There’s no way to say what folk music is, but to the extent that there’s a core of it, it’s about a consenting community with an aesthetic and belief system that agree on something — a performance style, a repertoire, an appropriateness, a set of venues and contexts, and so forth.
Ari Kelman: So, I guess in a context in which most listeners are not native Yiddish speakers, that kind of consensual community doesn’t exist. How do you imagine the songs and their new interpretations are going to translate?
Mark Slobin: It depends how that community thinks about itself, and what might be its responsibilities or its mission. You have two things involved today: a post-community age and a post-vernacular age. You have individual reasons for wanting to do this, and then the possibility that there might be collective groups that get together and do it. In the case you just spoke to, there are people who feel personally this is a matter of identity for them personally and for their generation. And then there are groups, little nuclei of this that happen at KlezKanada, but also singing groups that are organizing themselves, or bands that were klezmer bands who now are adding the idea that they also create their own songs. They’re not just playing fiddle tunes or something; they’re also creating a body of song. So, there’s both individual and collective [approaches]. It’s all small scale of course in this post-vernacular period — in terms of people who are not in the Orthodox or Hasidic communities, whatever you call secular or mainstream Jews — who are interested in this. But they find each other, and they seem to enjoy each other’s company. So, it’s got both a personal and a possible collective sensibility and practice [among those who are] engaged in this right now.
Ari Kelman: And so, given the local and distributed dimensions of what makes a good folk singer, I noticed that [in the description of the website you sent me] you mentioned that there would be learning modules on the site. Are there any kind of broader agreed upon characteristics that run the spectrum [of folk songs]? Or is it all so local? And if it is local, how do you translate that into teachable material?
Mark Slobin: The answer to that is Josh Waletzky, Ethel Raim, and Michael Alpert. These three people have spent forty years or more as insiders to this tradition, creating activity, and ground rules, and a kind of a practice. But they also have internalized all the singers that they have come across.
There’ll be two videos. One of Ethel Raim teaching a single person, an apprentice. And the other of Josh Waletzky — and [we recorded one of these] just last night — doing a song circle. So, that’s the collective where a group of people come to his house every week, and they work through some songs. He teaches them; they all learn these songs. So, we’re going to have videos of an individual session and a group.
The whole analytical section is based on exactly one song. Our idea is to drill down as deep as you can. It’s like drilling through the Arctic ice shelf and pulling out a core. It’s a really wonderful example of a deceptively simply sung song that doesn’t produce a lot of complicated issues, but that you can sit and talk about for hours, and mine for its power and its elegance of construction.
When Ethel teaches an individual, as the person starts to sing, Ethel says, “You have to understand how you arrive at that note. Let’s arrive at that note.” And she’ll sing it, and then say, “Now, we’re modeling ourselves, in this case, on Lifshe Schaechter-Widman’s performance. This is how Lifshe did it.” But then Ethel says, “However, that’s not at all how Harry Ary did it, and Bronya Sakina never approached notes that way.” She has in her head the entire repertoire of all those singers that we have recorded, and has internalized their performance practice. This is an aesthetic and a working practice, and she’s able to make comparative statements about it. [We can demonstrate this because] these people have that extraordinary knowledge base. Alpert is exactly like this as well, and Josh. Joshua Waletsky started writing songs in Yiddish at sixteen when he was a camp counselor, and they said, “Can you write some Yiddish songs for next week?” He’s been doing this for fifty years. So, we’re lucky.
That’s why I’m so delighted to do this right now because none of us are getting any younger. Most people in the earlier folk-singing generation have passed, but there is still a collective wisdom that’s inherent in these people’s knowledge.
Josh Waletzky started as a structural linguist in graduate school, and his first publication is actually in structural linguistics in Yiddish. So, Josh is very interested in the absolutely technical nitty-gritty analysis of folk songs: rhythm, meter, prosody, and a whole bunch of issues like that — the questions of pulse, tonality, melodic counter. These are things that no one has done anything with in the Yiddish folk song. Although, they reminded me, I wrote an article in 1983 which actually kind of foreshadows this work saying, “You know, we might want to do this for the Yiddish folk song.” But there is really no literature for us, and it’s the only major European folk song tradition that doesn’t have this kind of a literature. If you’re talking about Hungarian folk song, there are I don’t know how many cubic feet, how many linear feet of shelf space that analyzes it. Nobody’s ever done this in Yiddish.
Ari Kelman: I’m trying to track the movement from the kind of consensual community described where you could just ask somebody who was a good folk singer and everybody kind of knew, to this [moment] where [Yiddish folk song] seems fairly rarefied, and the process of transmission is more technical. Could youconnect the dots for me historically?
Mark Slobin: It’s technical, but it’s also personal. As I say, the sensibility of Lifshe Schaechter-Widman is personal, and she has her profile and her personality. That’s an historical fact. And we know her biography. We know where she came from, and how she learned these songs. She’s been really well interviewed by Itzik Gottesman, who happens to be related to her. And so, we actually know a lot about the sound and sensibility of some of these figures, and that’s the historical continuity in what’s been collected since World War II from these surviving exponents of the tradition.
But, this whole thing is predicated on sitting on a void obviously, or an abyss. There should be 10 million Jews out there still doing this, and we would all do our field work out there, and that would be very nice. History made sure that this would not happen. So we always have what I call crumbs from the banquet that are still there, and we’re sweeping up all these crumbs, and try to make something out of it. We’re stuck in that position. There’s no way out of it historically.
Ari Kelman: And so, how are you hoping to balance the natural [current] that’s built into the folk music tradition witha sense that you see sometimes in the klezmer scene, and in folk revival scenes in general, where there’s a kind of orthodoxy, like a first wave orthodoxy?
Mark Slobin: Well, nobody created that around the folk song. They created around instrumental music. Instrumental music is a whole other world, and it’s been very well done; Zev Feldman’s history is out there now, and Joe Rubin’s really large volume is going to be out soon on the evolution of klezmer in New York. There is a literature, and we understand instrumental music a certain way. This is another kind of world.
Ari Kelman: Who are the younger singers who you think are really taking up this tradition, and what is it that they’re doing that’s so interesting or exciting for you?
Mark Slobin: A really nice example is Sasha Lurje who grew up in Riga and came to Germany, and is an extraordinary singer, as well as several other Europeans who came to the style in recent years. I’m particularly interested in people I’ve talked to recently who are writing new folk-style songs in Yiddish, such as Sarah Myerson and Adah Hetko in the US.
In the video we’re doing, Ethel is teaching Eléonore Weill who is French and lives in New York; she is an instrumentalist who wants to improve her singing. So she goes to Ethel, and she’s getting very good at picking up the performance style, and the subtleties are very, very deep in terms of just understanding how you approach a note.
People are writing new songs in Yiddish, and they don’t know these traditions. They don’t know that that isn’t the way you would construct a verse; that isn’t a good way to approach notes. Or they don’t use the principles of the old aesthetic. Of course they’re entitled to do that, but what we’re hoping is that by means [of the website] that they will have a better foundation for at least understanding what the older aesthetic was, which they can then take or leave depending on their personal aesthetics. As they go on, they may want to do other things. But they should know this, how it worked, and how people put songs together. That’s really what we’re trying to do here.
Ari Kelman: Are there any other elements or insights to the project or to Yiddish folk song that you want the readers of this interview to know?
Mark Slobin: What we’re always impressed by is the extraordinary elegance of construction of the folk song: economy of means and expressive power combined with meaning. These are often songs about suffering. They’re songs about women separated from people they love. A lot of them are about unrequited or unfulfilled love, given the conditions of life in Eastern Europe with arranged marriages and so forth. These are very personal and very deeply felt songs. There are funny songs and there are other kinds of songs. But we’re interested in these lyric ones, which cut to the heart of feeling, and which are then both personal and collective because other people sing them. We’re able to do [deep analysis] with one song, and that’s the kind of approach that I think is economical, and might be able to convey itself to readers.
Ari Kelman: Apart from the documentary work and exposing the inner workings of this music, what do you hope the website will do? What would be a sign of its success for you?
Mark Slobin: If it grows. I’m not sure the mechanism by which we monitor and bring in new parts to it, but I’d like this to become an ongoing open source thing of people who know what they’re talking about, and don’t have any axes to grind, contributing further knowledge [of Yiddish folk song], and deepening the knowledge about this tradition. That’s what I’d like to see happen. And simply, we have to also publicize it and get it out there to all kinds of other people — ethnomusicologists, and folklorists, and so forth — to tell them, here’s a new kind of tradition that you could check out.
Ari Kelman: What do you hope it does to the Yiddish music scene?
Mark Slobin: I hope it enriches it, or gives people more resources to do their creative work. There’s a lot of creativity going on. I don’t exactly understand why this generation has got this attachment to Yiddish, but it’s real. Some of them are tying it to political issues, which they see in this material, others simply as personal fulfillment, or the idea that in America today identities become so conflicted and contested, you just can’t walk around without an identity. And this culture appeals to them as an identity choice. But this is all very American stuff about identity choice. I don’t know what all those motivations are, but I find it pretty interesting.
Ari Kelman: And what do you think folk music brings to that identity choice?
Mark Slobin: Well, I hate to use a word like authenticity, but that is how people feel it. But there’s something intrinsic in this stuff. When I was teaching at Wesleyan, I did a course called Yiddish expressive culture, and we did film, poetry, theater, and folk songs. This was [with] students who had no background in this stuff, and I made them buy the Ruth Rubin anthology that I edited with Chana Mlotek. It’s an expensive, heavy book. I thought, I’m crazy. They’re going to say, “Why did I spend all this money with these songs here? So, what is this about?” But I gave them a lecture on the Yiddish folk song and I said, “You’re going to come back with a performance version of one of these songs, just any way you like. You just go find something, a song in here, and do something with it.”
To my surprise, they all came back full of enthusiasm and interest, [saying things like], “That’s such a beautiful melody. I had to do something with it.” “I didn’t know they were interested in socialism. Oh, this is amazing.” And they produced their own versions. These were people who had no particular stake in this. So, I think there was a magnetism and a kind of wellspring quality to this stuff, as any folk tradition, that people recognize and are drawn to in our very entropic times.
The Inside the Yiddish Folk Song website, which will be hosted by the website of the Center for Traditional Music & Dance, will be launched in mid-2020.