Review: Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter: Ballads From the Yiddish Gothic

Zeke Levine

On their album Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter: Ballads From the Yiddish Gothic, Jeremiah Lockwood and Ricky Gordon, performing as the duo Gordon Lockwood, conjure a bygone world. Lockwood and Gordon tell us “the ballads appear to us from a world of fantasy, memory, and symbol,” a plane that is vividly brought into the contemporary moment thanks to Gordon Lockwood’s innovative arrangements for drums, guitar, and vocals.

This stirring album, released through Ayin Press, features five arrangements of established Yiddish ballads performed in an original style rooted in the duo’s collaborative performance of American blues repertoire. Jeremiah Lockwood offers his virtuosic acoustic guitar chops and expressive vocals, while Ricky Gordon holds down the groove through a range of textures and techniques that makes use of the entire drum set. The album can stand alone as an audio recording, as many audiences streaming the album on platforms such as Spotify can attest. However, the fullness of the project is experienced through the online multimedia site prepared by the duo, which includes videos of the recording session embedded within a presentation of text that features personal reflections on the music as well as offering historical perspective. In this way, the album harkens back to an era of Yiddish folk song albums produced by record labels such as Moses Asch’s Folkways, whose lengthy liner notes featured transliteration and translation, as well as historical frameworks for the songs on the albums.

Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter brings renewed attention to a repertoire of female Yiddish ballad singers whose performances may not have graced concert halls, but who bore a lively tradition of Yiddish song through intimate and informal singing among friends and family. In the introduction to the project, Jeremiah Lockwood specifically credits Lifshe Schaechter-Widman, a dynamic singer and matriarch of the Schaechter family of Yiddishists, many of whom still play a major part in contemporary secular Yiddish culture. Lockwood draws on Schaechter-Widman as a singer of ballads to demonstrate the evocative power of text and performance embedded within these songs. Many of Schaechter-Widman’s songs–along with many other songs– have been recorded, digitized, and curated by Itzik Gottesman on Yiddish Song of the Week. This album is not only a testament to the singers themselves, but to the effort made to preserve and make available their voices.

Track 1: “Standing in a Corner”

The song, recorded by Itka Factorovich Sol, narrates an experience of desperation, longing, and shame, expressed through the resigned desire for drunkenness. Gordon Lockwood’s presentation of the song is in 6/8 time, evoking a drunken lilt as suggested by the song’s lyrics. With Jeremiah Lockwood taking the lead through an involved acoustic guitar pattern, Ricky Gordon dances around the beat, using the drumset to its fullest creative potential.

Throughout the vocal presentation of the song, Lockwood moves between Yiddish and English, offering a bridge between the Yiddish ballad tradition and the American blues tradition that formed the origin of the duo’s musical connection.

Track 2: “Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter”

Credited to Schaechter-Widman, the song’s lyrics evoke the intensity of jealousy among young lovers. Jeremiah Lockwood weaves an intricate fingerstyle strumming pattern through a haunting set of chord changes, providing a darkness that emphasizes the complex passion of the song’s lyrics. Lockwood intersperses English translation through the presentation of the Yiddish lyrics. Ricky Gordon follows the guitar, throughout, with a sparse drum arrangement that, again, employs the entire palette of the drum set.

Track 3: “In My Heart Burns a Fire”

Another Schaechter-Widman composition, this ballad extolls the high highs and laments the low lows of love. In contrast to the first two songs on the album, this number establishes a strong groove early, providing a sturdy foundation for the rest of the song. The 7/4 presentation of the intro groove morphs into 4/4 time, offering a steady backing to Lockwood’s vocals. Reflecting the dramatic peaks and valleys of young romance, Lockwood takes advantage of his whole vocal range throughout the course of the song.

Track 4: “When It Rains”

The third Schaechter-Widman contribution to the album, this song is sung from the perspective of a girl who disobeys her traditional mother to seek love. The lyrics tell not only of romantic passion but of generational conflict.

Given in the rhythm of a lilting ¾ hora, this song, again, establishes a firm beat upon which the rest of the song lies. Jeremiah Lockwood’s acoustic guitar skills are on full display, as he moves between a number of textures, scales, and approaches, throughout the course of the song.

Track 5: “Sleep My Little Bird”

The author of this ballad is anonymous, and so the song is reluctantly credited as traditional. While the duo, here, presents it under the name “Sleep My Little Bird,” Yosl and Chana Mlotek, in their songbook Mir Trogn a Gezang, give this song as “A mol is geven a mayse,” citing its published origin in a 1901 collection of traditional songs. This song, more than any other on the album, is well known to many contemporary singers of Yiddish song.

Musically, Lockwood’s guitar introduction evokes a complex harmony, foreshadowing a novel presentation of the familiar melody. Over the four minutes of the song, Jeremiah Lockwood and Ricky Gordon collectively build in intensity, reaching a dramatic climax and descending gently.

One striking highlight of this album is the dynamic revitalization of archival materials. Beginning in the 1960s, a chief aim of both the modern klezmer revival and the Yiddish folk song tradition has been breathing refreshed life to musical materials whose fates may have been relegated to crumbling folios of sheet music or within the dusty grooves of old ’78s. In recent years, the digitization of Yiddish song field recordings has opened up monumental possibilities in terms of listener access. Lockwood and Gordon nod to, and celebrate, this push for digital accessibility by prominently crediting the blog “Yiddish Song of the Week,” spearheaded by Itzik Gottesman. In doing so, they follow in an established tradition, yet stand apart through a clear commitment particularly to the voices of women, and to elevating modern digitization projects which bring these voices directly to listeners.

Gordon Lockwood also follows in a long tradition, particularly in the United States, of syncretizing Yiddish materials with American aesthetic influences. As Joel Rubin, among others, have very artfully demonstrated, the grandfathers of the klezmer revival — figures like Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras — succeeded in their American environment by the conscious combination of Ashkenazi and American materials. In the 1950s, singers like Ruth Rubin and Theodore Bikel released albums of Yiddish folk songs through record labels that dealt mostly in American folk music. As such, the character of these albums demonstrates a confluence of Yiddish song materials with American musical aesthetics. Consider, for example, Bikel’s central importance in the American folk revival and Ruth Rubin’s close partnership with Pete Seeger. As the introductory page notes, the collaboration between Jeremiah Lockwood and Ricky Gordon stems from their endeavors within the blues idiom, and that influence is felt throughout the five songs.

While the overall intention of the album is impressive, representing an important musical and ethnomusicological intervention, the performances do not rise to the expectations set by the scope of the project. In attempting to reconcile such a variety of traditions and media, the album stumbles, offering the audience something that feels unfinished. It is indisputable that both Jeremiah Lockwood and Ricky Gordon are masters of their craft. However, in these performances it does not feel as if the duo is always aligned on the musical vision for the project. On one hand, the entire project evinces an unbalanced relationship between the two performers, with Jeremiah Lockwood as the primary musical agent and Ricky Gordon as an auxiliary layer of musical interest.

Moreover, however, the musical arrangements falter in their attempt to forge a new instrumental presentation that unifies two traditions, whose features may put them at odds. In Ashkenazi instrumental performance, and particularly the type which served as a model for the klezmer revival, there is a relatively rigid frame against which the instrumentalists ebb and flow. This is due to the function of the music, typically, as accompanying dance. Here, there need not only be agreement between the instrumentalists, but also between the band and the dancers. By contrast, the unaccompanied vocal tradition — the source of the album’s songs — offers the singer the flexibility to push and pull against any implied pulse, to shift mode and affect at a moment’s notice for dramatic effect.

It is not a straightforward task to merge these two musical approaches. While Gordon Lockwood makes an effort to do so, the result, in this regard, is less than satisfying. If the overall approach leaned more heavily on the side of the instrumental tradition, we would expect a more rigid locking in of the drum beat with the guitar, with the voice elevated as a solo layer above. If the project leaned more heavily to the side of the unaccompanied vocal tradition, we would expect that both the drums and the guitar would consistently follow the cue of the voice. Across the album, however, we hear an unsettled presentation in which these approaches compete. In some cases, there is the suggestion of a stable groove, which is betrayed by one or more of the musical layers. In other cases, we hear a flexibility which comes across not as idiomatic, but as un-coordinated. Taking this multitude of moments as a whole, the album presents as an experiment in Yiddish ballad performance rather than as a coherent aesthetic statement.

Given the impressive resumes and prolific chops of the musicians involved, there is every reason to believe that talent and skill is not the limiting factor in successfully managing these competing musical influences. It is far more likely that the production of this EP was premature in the life of this duo collaboration. The duo confirm this hunch themselves. On March 3, 2023,the group played songs from the album and sat down for a discussion at Relix Studios. This performance indicates a maturation in Lockwood Gordon’s coordination around the musical approach of the project, with a more balanced interplay between the stability of the groove and the flexibility of the solo voice. In this regard, the digital orientation of this album project may serve an important function. As traditional songs are continually re-presented as time unfolds, so can new performances of these arrangements be recorded and embedded on the Ayin Press website.

Levine, Zeke. “Review: Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter: Ballads From the Yiddish Gothic.” In geveb, May 2023:
Levine, Zeke. “Review: Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter: Ballads From the Yiddish Gothic.” In geveb (May 2023): Accessed Mar 02, 2024.


Zeke Levine

Zeke Levine is a PhD candidate in historical musicology at New York University, with a research focus on Yiddish song in mid-20th century America