with this champagne-bust of a post then, we embark.
and hence we commence our sonicultural adventure, a trip across (real) time and (imagined) space, a journey into the middle of the last century, into a middle-class home, into the middle of long island.
you may be surprised, if reminded, that the middle stands between near and far, high and low. it mediates these extremities, quite literally.
but we’re not interested so much in the literal on this voyage (at least not at this point). we’re interested in the symbolic, in the narratives that music mediates and which themselves animate musical meanings. but let’s begin with some literalities, if simply to couch the symbolic in a more meaningful, relatable context.
seymour and bernice are my wife’s maternal grandparents. they’re not my own grandparents, so i don’t know all that i should know to attempt such an excavation as this, though i hope to learn much by way of listening. recently, as becca and i visited her grandparents, seymour and bernice offered me their record collection. they haven’t had a record player for years, and bernice just got an ipod nano, so who needs a few big, heavy boxes of vinyl sitting around? i guess i do, since i accepted their offer without hesitation. there was something just too tantalizing about all those records, not just for their hidden gems and samplables, but somehow for the sum-total of their expression of a life of record collecting. what would these records say about my in-laws and their lives and the way society and culture looked and sounded to them? i had to find out.
when we returned from long island, i unpacked the boxes, went through each and every one, putting the records in piles according to the imaginary maps in my head, listening to any that caught my eye, putting aside a stack of favorites, and attempting to come to terms with the collection and what it expressed. some of the records seemed rare, some utterly common. there was more classical (and opera, specifically) than i had hoped for, but this was significant in itself (and a fine collection in its own right). the records mainly represented the era in which they were collected (i.e., the 50s and 60s), with relatively few big surprises and a fair number of delights: plenty of swing and standards, pop and dance records, a good whiff of exotica, lots of neo-folk stuff (a la pete seeger), but then a fair amount of jewish music, from the kitschy to the cantatorial, russian and yiddish folk songs to jazzed-up klezmer and israeli nationalist anthems. mostly 12s, a few 10s, and a handful of 78s. i was told that some records (mainly the russian ones) were inherited from an aunt, and that some were probably the kids’ (one of whom, my mother-in-law, will no doubt be gassed to hear the records released by her childhood summer camp — limited pressings indeed, and for good reason).
the music i plan to share with you as i go on these travels with seymour and bernice will mainly be those tracks or records which caught my attention, those that are most curious to me — and, of course, those that sound best. all things considered, this will undoubtedly be a strange trip, and i will acknowledge at the outset that it may well ultimately express my own musical imagination more strongly than it expresses anything that might relate to seymour and bernice, or their family, or mid-twentieth century
long island, new york america. but that, i hope, is what might save this exercise from being the sort of thing that should be confined to one’s parlour (if one has a parlour these days). i hope that my role as curator or interpreter or whatever-you-wanna-call-me makes these travels not just bearable but enjoyable — perhaps even something in which you can participate.
i envision this venture/project/travelogue as taking a road somewhere between pace’s L.O.V.E. and jace’s vinyl rescue service (as well as the seemingly defunct stickershock). i see it as another way that riddim = method, which is to say, another way that music can express ideas, can open up into broader conversations, can provoke us to think, to contemplate, to make sense of the world. it seems that this medium’s (i.e., the internets’s) ability to share and revise, discuss and debate, tag and archive media is unparalleled in its power, and i hope to tap into that — if only partially, suggestively — to tell this story. i invite you to build the narrative with me, to riff off of it, and to start your own. i’ll lend you my ears if you lend me yours. so many record collections, so little time. but worlds upon worlds to discover. and this is as good a way in (and out) as any…
// i wish you L.O.V.E. //
the first track i will offer is from a record that caught my eye on that first day home, partly because of the stereotypically gay-parisian scene (and thus its kitsch potential) and partly because of the shiny sleeve. the song is a midcentury french pop standard, “que reste-t-il de nos amours?” — written by charles trenet. it appears on living strings at a sidewalk cafe, an LP issued in 1963 by camden RCA, whose other releases included living strings play henry mancini, the shimmering sounds of living strings, and where did the night go with the living strings. (i’ve left the telltale, and cherished [by us hip-hop folk], vinyl static around the song so as to frame it with reminders of the sound’s original material form.)
right away, i’m struck by the sentimental, if not outright schmaltzy, strings — typical of pop arrangements of that era and hallmarks of what came to be known as easy listening music. the second thing that grabs my attention, though, is the mellow, latin-ate percussion. one thing that emerges from the experience of listening across many of these lounge-y records from the 50s and 60s is the degree to which latin styles permeate the parlourscape of the period. after a certain point, such signs are not exactly exotic anymore, and it’s interesting to hear the way american music absorbs various “foreign” currents to the point where they become so ubiquitous as to seem utterly unremarkable, utterly american.
after these initial impressions, i find myself following the melody, finding pleasure in tracing its romantic contours. the arrangement erupts into wonderful little surprises, however scripted, as when the flutes bubble-out their transitional riffs or when the accordian takes up the melody, giving it a decidedly (if imaginatively) french sound. (the hanging vibraphone arpeggio that concludes the song is just the sort of thing that amon tobin might employ to end one of his sample-based epics.) the song’s swelling grandeur, while predictable, is not only audible and visible (see below), it’s downright palpable — and that’s a sign of affect accomplished.
france here appears both foreign and familiar, dressed in the dulcet tones of international pop and yet fairly exotic too. the sounds themselves, and the record sleeve’s promise of “music to whisk you away to cafes international!“ express both a longing and an affinity for the foreign, perhaps even a cosmopolitanism that we might hear as progressive. but is it articulating an individual’s desire to experience different senses of place? or a generation(s)-removed nostalgia for the old world? or, perhaps, an international alignment — e.g., NATO — that may have seemed appealing in post-WWII, cold-war-era
the language of escape and difference, fantasy and distance running through the sleeve notes would seemingly point us more toward nostalgia and desire (e.g., to go abroad — a relative novelty given the recent advent of mass air travel), at least as far as the marketing team was concerned. here’re the notes from the back of the sleeve:
It’s the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, the Caffe Doney in Rome, the Cafe Demel in Vienna, and a state of mind and wistful dreams anywhere at all. This is the sidewalk cafe, a relaxed, alfresco world of wicker chairs, marble-top tables and aproned waiters – part club, part meeting place, alive with laughter and talk.
Here is the music of the sidewalk cafe – gay songs, sad songs, songs of memory.
From Germany, music of love and the warm atmosphere of “Gemutlichkeit”: Du du liegst mir im Herzen (“You Are in My Heart”); Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart; You Can’t Be True, Dear from a German Hit called “Du kannst nicht treu sein,” and the classic Lili Marlene, adopted as a world-wide favorite by American G.I.’s in World War II.
From Austria the lovely waltz Vienna, My City of Dreams.
From France, I Wish You Love (“Que reste-t-il de nos amours”), written by the French idol Charles Trenet; another French favorite, J’attendrai (“I’ll Be Yours”).
From the U.S., three lovely hits which have become sidewalk cafe favorites the world over: Play, Fiddle, Play, an entrancing waltz; My Heart Cries for You, one of the big hits of 1951, and the enchanting Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo from Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer‘s movie hit “Lili.”
it’s interesting to me that germany, austria, and france have been so thoroughly recuperated in the american imagination by this point (“warm atmosphere”?!), as well as how these particular european places don’t necessarily seem to matter so much at all. indeed, one could have one’s “wistful dreams” anywhere at all if one wants. and, what do you know, there is a direct reference to WWII and the way that europe came home, and went ‘round, with the boys. finally, the comforting notion of american global influence rears its head in the last paragraph and yet, interestingly, it appears alongside the explicit acknowledgment of the french actress who popularized the song to which they refer and of the composer, the only american composer mentioned and a man with a conspicuously cuban name.
so, i’m thinking “ambivalence,” but that’s a no-brainer. this is obviously more complex territory than that, and the decades between its production then and its reception here, as an mp3, will obviously make our hermeneutical endeavor that much more tricky (if fun).
listen again: what does it sound like to you?
// tighten your beltz //
the second example i offer you is from another record that grabbed me at first sight. again, it something about the design, rather than a verbal description of the contents, that caught my eye. the bold lines, the simple color scheme – it recalled for me various jazz records from that time, especially the modernist blue note sleeves. of course, the barry sisters are a handsome pair as well. and when i looked closer and saw the yiddish titles, my curiosity was piqued.
i put the record on immediately, and the first song proved to be the most arresting of the LP, a collection of yiddish folk/popular songs released by cadence records in the 1960s (no exact date found) under the unassuming title, the barry sisters sing.
as the song begins, plaintive strings conjure a sense of melancholy which seems to hang in the air, heavy with dreadful anticipation, as the opening gesture comes to a rubato resolution. when the sisters’ voices enter along with the rest of the arrangement, they quickly confirm these intimations of sadness: they sound tormented by grief, like souls longing for another time and place. they embrace the tune’s minor harmonies, drawing deep pathos out of chordtones and semitones, slurring syllables and bending pitches around their heavy hearts. they sound — if i may — like jews with the blues, and that’s not meant to be a pithy cliche: on the contrary, it’s meant to describe the very sound and sentiment underlying “beltz.”
known early in their career as the bagelman sisters, the barry sisters were among the most prominent exponents of yiddish swing, a jazzed-up approach to yiddish folk songs that emerged in an era which produced swing ballads and ethnic novelties alike (and in spades), and a genre that found favor among (second and third) american jews looking for a modern expression of their cultural heritage. as you can hear, the MOR arrangement bears witness to the degree that this subcultural style partook in mainstream popular musical vocabulary (another ending on a hanging vibraphone?!), but there’s something unnervingly distinctive about the accompaniment all the same. those sweeping strings could almost evoke nat king cole or dean martin in their cartoonish sentimentality, but then, they’re a little too ominous, especially against the barry sisters’ voices. allusions to and uses of the yiddish musical vocabulary and repertory would seem partly, if not largely, to account for this elusive but qualitative difference between the music of the barry sisters and their easy listening contemporaries. and perhaps they explain why — despite the looming threat of kitsch — the song sounds, even today, not so much a curio as a hauntingly beautiful performance.
of course, it gets a little goofy in the middle, with some uplifting strains which still manage to sound fragile, fleeting. the middle section doesn’t resolve, it leads right back to the beginning, the sad refrain, the painful memories. and then, a dreamy instrumental chorus, allowing us to fill in the pictures before the sisters return at the bridge to take us slowly, (bitter)sweetly home.
as it turns out, the sisters are singing about a far-away place after all, a former home of sorts (if only in metaphorical terms), a place called beltz/belz — a small town in ukraine which was also home to a hasidic dynasty. but their song is a more generalizable tale. it is a story of mourning, of grieving for a childhood memory — of life in a shtetl — that is no more. again the historical context of the record’s production is crucial to guess at its range of reception and resonance: post-WWII, holocaust hanging heavy over the lieu de memoire that is the subject of the song. the shtetl could thus be heard as a metonym for a former life that has been destroyed, ruined, lost. i didn’t get all of this upon my first listening, but i do think the song’s power of affect evokes this sentiment rather well — almost precisely. the only words i really recognized when i first listened were “mein shtetl,” which were enough in themselves to suggest a few possible themes to me, especially when paired with the lyrics’ sorrowful setting.
the sleeve notes provided me with more grist for the mill, including no little astonishment at the strange sort of self-deprecation with which the author (identified by the initials S.D.) introduces his/her remarks. allow me to share some excerpts:
You are now reading the opening sentence of a rambling essay of some five hundred words covering the entire reverse side of this album. But, truthfully, even if you were to stop reading right now, you would still know most of the facts in the case. You have already seen the front cover. You have been advised that here are a dozen familiar and beloved melodies which have their origins in Yiddish folk and popular music. They are sung in the warm and flawless style of the Barry Sisters. Some of the songs have been composed, and all of them arranged and conducted, by Abraham Ellstein. So, then, why continue to peruse the rest of this less than immortal prose? Shouldn’t an album of music, any kind of music, speak, or, rather, sing for itself? It should. And this one does. But there is a reason for this writing. It’s a reason that has to do with a normal reaction to a new musical experience. When you hear a work of genuine beauty, stature and originality for the very first time, you just cannot let go of it. There’s that exciting urge to examine it, think about it, talk about it. And so we thought that perhaps you would care to know just a little bit more about the background of the songs and the singers since never before has there been an album of music exactly like this one.
In one sense these are melodies and rhythms that might be said to possess a definite flavor and feeling even though no two of the songs are exactly alike. Several of them are popular tunes written by well known composers but the origins of some of the others will always remain a mystery. Who knows how many thousands of years ago a Palestinian shepherd first played the original strains of Hi Hora on a primitive reed? How old is a folk song like Rozenkes und Mandlen, and who wrote it? We will never know. What we do know, however, is that each song in the album has undergone a remarkable transformation. While losing nothing of their original charm, they have taken on an illuminating and new dimension. They are still Yiddish songs but now they speak to us in the universal language of music. They belong to everyone regardless of speech or background. My Yiddishe Momma is now everybody’s Momma. Gesselle is now everybody’s street of heartbreak, nostalgia and unrequited love. Beit Mir A Bisselle and Abi Gesunt are as modern and as swingy as anything in the juke boxes.
Quite sincerely, we believe that these will be your conclusions after you have heard the album. You are probably asking yourself how was it done? Well, it didn’t happen by accident. It would be altogether accurate to say that this album has been years in preparation. It was made by people who grew up with this music, who have known it, nurtured it and loved it. First, we have the Barry Sisters, Claire and Merna. All right, they were born lucky. They discovered, quite early in life, that they had voices. Claire’s voice is high and beautiful; Merna’s is sweet and low. Constant study and arduous practise succeeded in producing the breath-taking and seemingly effortless blend that is so characteristic of their unique and lovely style. The songs in this album go back to their childhood. But even at the beginning, Claire and Merna heard these melodies in terms of other rhythms and other notes. They were born in New York and were raised on the popular music of America. From the very first, they brought a new world interpretation to an old world tune. For a while, as their many recordings, broadcasts, and club dates might indicate, they were the country’s leading exponents of what was termed Yiddish Swing. But the girls were proving something else to themselves and the public. They were demonstrating beyond any shadow of a doubt that good music can break any language barrier. Today, they are one of the country’s leading singing acts, at home with any type of song anywhere in the world. To them, this album represents a return to an early, never forgotten and still active love.
The result is music that is older than all of our ancestors and as new as this morning’s paper . . . music that springs from a single nationality, and is as universal as the United Nations.
yep, it’s pretty quaint stuff, couched in terms of newness and normalcy, of foreigness and familiarity. it describes the music as modern and “swingy” and yet timeless, as being of universal appeal — they belong to everyone — and yet “from a single nationality.” i wonder whether the universalist rhetoric was meant to appeal to non-jews or simply to jews ambivalent about their jewishness? or am i simply being naive about midcentury, metropolitan jewishness? it is interesting to me also that, apparently, zionist discourse had not yet divorced the term palestinian from any association with jewish heritage.
i could say much more, but this entry has already grown too lengthy. suffice it to say that this complex gem of a recording points us to what will inevitably be another thread running through our musical travels with seymour and bernice: the weirdness and wonders of negotiating jewishness in the post-war era, a historical moment in which israel loomed large, across which the holocaust cast its long shadow, and during which many american jews of the post-post-pogram generation (i.e., born to first- or second-generation parents), were going secular, embracing cultural notions of jewishness, and trying to figure out which traditions and values and symbols to maintain and which to let go.
or at least that’s what i imagine i hear, at least at this moment.
what do you hear?
btw, if you want to hear more from the barry sisters, stay tuned, as i will surely revisit their catalog in another installment. and for more music along these lines, check out the yiddish radio project from NPR as well as josh kun’s hippocampus. [update: see also, the idelsohn society for musical preservation, involved with such salutary projects as jews on vinyl.]
// . . . //
more perhaps than even this monstrous first entry might portend, i hope to unpack a great deal of this collection in due time, working through it and learning as i go. on the way, i hope to get some feedback from you, dear reader and listener, as well as from seymour and bernice, who will surely be tickled by all of this and who will hopefully be happy that i’m enjoying their records.