Klezmer!  Jewish Music from Old World to Our World

(Book) by Henry Sapoznik

Schirmer Books, New York, 1999
340 + xviii pages, ISBN 0-02-864574-X, $29.95

If a more handsome looking and aesthetically pleasing volume on traditional music has been produced within the past few years I certainly haven't seen it.  From dust jacket to cloth binding to high quality internal paper this effort exudes class, and all at a relatively cheap price in this age of expensive academic hardbacks.  I opened the pages wanting to love it.  Cover pictureThe photographs were the first feature to catch my eye.  Reproduction was good, and included were some that I had not seen before, which is always a worth a gold star.  I then ran my eyes quickly over the text.  Familiar long-time musical companions like Dave Tarras, Abe Schwartz and Harry Kandel leaped out to greet me, and I felt warm.  I went a little further, and what did I find (the author would definitely get that Byrd Moore in-joke, I mentally chuckled)?  Uncle Dave Macon.  I had another look at the dust jacket.  Well, all right ... The Klezmorim.  Hmmm.  Kapelye in Mexico!  My spirits began to sink.  Perhaps this wasn't going to be the book I had been looking for after all.

Many reviewers are familiar with the 'if only he had stuck with that' syndrome, on those occasions when the contents of a book turn out to be at odds with what s/he had hoped for.  At such times, one can only try to bite back and be as impartial as possible.  I finally concluded that this is a book which cannot decide exactly what it wants, or ought, to be.  For one thing, perhaps the main title needed to be less specific.  Certainly a good portion of the early chapters is concerned with (sometimes quite detailed) aspects of Jewish music which fall outside the accepted modern definition of 'klezmer.'  What that description may be is inevitably a little fluid, but this is to be expected when so little is known from the defining, pre-1900, period.  But let us take as a yardstick that used by compilers of modern CD releases, which include Sapoznik himself.  Fascinating though some of the portions here on the Yiddish theatre, vaudevillian depictions of ethnic stereotypes, and the liturgical cantorial traditions may be, they are not recognisably klezmer, although they may tangentially touch upon it - possibly even influence its development - at times.  The long extract (pages 85-89) from Gypsy Rose Lee's autobiography, relating to playing the same vaudeville bill as Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt is a gem, but I question its validity in this context.  Numerous CDs of the great cantors exist, and there is a good double on the Fremeaux label of the 'theatre tradition' (Yiddish.  New York-Paris-Varsovie.  1910-1940, Fremeaux FA 025).  But, unlike the present volume, with its fabulous cover photo of an eleven piece band, these are not marketed under the klezmer banner.  Nor should they be: they stand as traditions in their own right, and each has its devotees.  As a broad and basic definition, then: klezmer = instrumental : the remainder = vocal.

The volume under review begins with a fine overview of the genesis of the instrumental klezmer genre per se, written by a knowledgeable historian whose sleevenotes to a Naftule Brandwein CD I have lauded on this very website, then changes direction mid-way to become an autobiography.  Attempts at academically rigorous historical analysis and autobiography rarely make for comfortable bedfellows.  Gail Holst's Road to Rembetika.  Music of a Greek Sub-Culture.  Songs of Love, Sorrow & Hashish, first published in 1975, springs immediately to mind, although it works better than it might owing to the greater weight of former over latter.  The one demands complete impartiality and rational assessment, the other is (happily) shaped by subjective recollection and emotional response, with all the inherent faults outlined by historians of oral culture during the past three decades.

So, long before reaching page 243's opening sentence, 'With the passing of the European players for whom the meaning of "klezmer" was unamibiguous [sic]...' I concluded that those serious doubts about the wisdom of combining the two forms were well founded.  Portions of the personal narrative were certainly fascinating, and I found myself thinking more than once, 'Yes, something very similar happened to me.'  We both, it appears, discovered pre-war old timey music at about the same date.  Sapoznik had the advantage of being on the right continent, allowing him to visit some of the old surviving musicians.  Among these were the celebrated North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell, and the anecdote telling of how a chance comment by Jarrell sparked the author's initial delving into his own musical culture is amusingly recounted.  Yet here in England I was sitting at the feet of similarly revered Dartmoor melodeon player Bob Cann.  And despite my attempts at absorbing his style, and Sapoznik taking what he could from, first the southern old timey musicians, and, later, the older klezmer players, neither of us could, if we were being completely honest, claim to be anything more than a pastiche.  A plastic reproduction of a Chippendale.  Indeed, the author actually confesses, on page 251:

Though the tenor banjo did have a modest place in Yiddish dance bands during the middle 1920s, it had never been associated with klezmer music.  I crafted a new style that borrowed heavily from military drum press rolls, trombone lines, and tsimbl playing.
All right, so you're a band that's freely plundered ideas from rock music, free jazz, and proto-metal groups such as Led Zeppelin (page 250) to create a new syncretic form.  That's legitimate in and of itself.  But in the words of Shania Twain, 'That don't impress me much.'  In England there are plenty of gigging barn dance bands who also do exactly that, but they don't claim to be the direct offspring of 'Scan' Tester's Imperials or the Tintagel and Boscastle Players.  So, when an attempt is made in Chapter 7 (tellingly entitled '"Future and Past" and Future' - I should have seen it coming), at legitimising the recent klezmer revival as an unbroken continuation of what had gone before, it has the off-key ring of unchallengeable self-justification:
... affixing it [i.e.  the term 'revival'] to the active across-the-board performance of klezmer music denigrates the subtle and irrevocable process of continuity that is the key to the widespread renewal of the music...  (page 245)
I couldn't agree less.  The revivalist band The Klezmorim performing at a jazz and blues festival in Switzerland, where I saw them about 1985 (my girlfriend of the time was Jewish, but the rest of us in the audience seemed to be Gentiles), is (literally) a world distant from Abe Schwartz's Orchestra playing for first generation emigrants in New York seventy years earlier.  Different psychological mindset among the musicians, different social circumstances, different type of audience, different economic motivation.

No, the current folk revival (here in England as well as among ethnic groups in America, and indeed elsewhere) is not the older tradition, and nor should we expect or claim it to be.  Accept those caveats and it generates its own justification.  And if you feel it warrants your time and attention all well and good.  Personally, I don't.  All the very worst aspects of the current global roots mix-and-match music scene feature here in their Jewish incarnations.  We learn of a band which 'actively subscribe to the fusion ethos,' and another whose musical philosophy consists of 'the exotic modalism of Eastern Europe, the improvising aesthetic of new jazz, hard-edged rhythms of rock, and Middle Eastern music. (page 253)'  Ho hum.  Even Sapoznik's all-encompassing philosophy of cultural continuity, it appears, has its limits, and he does not shrink from an occasional acid-tinged judgement.  His dismissive assessment, 'many of today's fourth-generation klezmer bands' names are their most entertaining feature' (page 246) sort-of sums up (in an admittedly existential manner) my own feeling about the whole post-war revival.

As I said, the autobiographical half of the volume actually contains numerous valuable and fascinating nuggets on, for example, the retrieval (oral and otherwise) of first generation immigrant klezmer history, of junking 78 rpm records, of the trials and tribulations of getting out those first vinyl reissues (the response of Folkways' Moe Asch - 'Who's gonna listen to this crap?' (page 186) is a true gem), of collaborating on Richard Spottswood's major tome of ethnic discography.  But my feeling was that all this material relating to the older tradition would have best been served by a single contextualising chapter, l Holst.  Much of the pastiche revivalist narrative would, perhaps, have been more appropriate as a series of themed articles in something like fRoots, which caters to such things, and, indeed, has published a number of pieces on the klezmer revival over the years.

Sapoznik seems rather sketchy on the history of the cinema, and I was forced to conclude that his few brief attempts at chronicling the form had best been omitted altogether.  History is certainly skewed somewhat in the short section dealing with the New York based Yiddish movie industry (pages 148-150).  More than fifty feature length sound films were produced there prior to the second war, aimed specifically at the immigrant audience, and many of which featured music and song.  Sapoznik rightly laments the exclusion of any traditional music from Yidl Mitn Fidl, a film whose plotline integrally features klezmer musicians.  And yet, while accessibility of this ouevre is severely restricted on this side of the Atlantic (and, I suspect, on that side also), snippets in common currency include a wedding party scene from Aubrey H Scotto's Uncle Moses (1932), in which the guests are dancing to a band (unseen in the clip) which sounds remarkably similar to those which recorded klezmer in the city during that very period, yet this does not even warrant a mention.  Perhaps most unforgivably, he reiterates the erroneous received wisdom that authentic cantor Joseph Rosenblatt provided the vocals for cinematic cantor Warner Oland in Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927).  Yet, while in his bibliography he cites Behind the Mask of Innocence, an exhaustive and groundbreaking volume on social realism in the pre-sound era by silent film historian par excellence Kevin Brownlow, he doesn't appear to have read it very carefully.  Brownlow emphatically reports, on page 546, that, 'Warner Oland's singing was dubbed by Joseph Diskay not Rosenblatt.' (Incidentally, even though, as Sapoznik observes, Oland became best known for the role of Oriental detective Charlie Chan - as well as Sax Rohmer's insidious Yellow Peril, Doctor Fu Manchu - he was, in fact, Swedish!)

Moving on four decades, to the period in which klezmer had reached its nadir (see Chapter 5 in particular, which takes its title from that of 'the 1960s "surf-guitar-meets-klezmer" LP Twistin' the Frielachs' - now, that one's not in my collection!), any overview of popular culture which heightened the Gentile public's awareness of the (by then all but discarded) form must surely acknowledge George Roy Hill's 1920s jazz era movie musical Thoroughly Modern Millie.  It was produced during the very year (1967) that Sapoznik had 'put my Jewish music in deep freeze and was careening through all sorts of American music from rock to folk-protest and, ultimately, to traditional music.' (page 177) But personal experience ought not to blinker any historian to relevant sources.  However incongruous it may seem to have that most English of English roses, Julie Andrews, singing a Jewish wedding song - analogous, perhaps, to real life cantor's son, Al Jolson, performing 'Mammy' in blackface in The Jazz Singer, an irony not lost on Sapoznik (page 118) - the backing band (whoever they may have been) certainly brought the burgeoning delights of Jewish instrumental music to this teenage viewer just beginning a similar voyage of musical discovery.  (And, on that same theme of raising general awareness, I won't even go into the immensely successful, vaguely biographical pair of films - produced in 1968 and 1975 - featuring Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice.)

In the autobiographical section relating to his appearances in commercial films during the 1980s (which will prove useful to future historians of the cinema), Sapoznik reveals himself to be not the most impartial of historians.  He dismisses Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America with one word - 'potboiler' (page 206) - when, in fact, it has a solid reputation with many critics, and features a number of the truly great instinctual actors of our time, including Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern and Jennifer Connelly.

Well, any book which arouses such passions must surely be worth seeking out.  I have devoted considerable space to the second half, and almost no words to the first.  As this is clearly, for me at least, the most satisfying portion, it's time to move on.

The first chapter, concerned with the music's early evolution and development in the Old World, brings to light a good deal of fresh information.  And it felt good to be able to confirm that, yes, klezmer music conforms to what we know of practically all traditions in the pre-sound recording era.  We can never know how the music sounded; some musicians were able to read music, others were not (and I suspect that before the middle of the nineteenth century it was practically all handed down in oral, often family-based, tradition); bands and musicians were peripatetic, and played for a variety of audiences and in a number of different venues; brass instruments were a late addition to the older string line-ups; at times other musical forms were absorbed into the basic common stock - like everyone else they played polkas, mazurkas, waltzes and quadrilles after these became fashionable around the middle of the 1800s, for instance; they sometimes offended those in power and appeared at either civil or ecclesiastical courts.  Yes indeed: the pretty standard broad historical scenario.

In Chapter 2 we pass through Ellis Island into the new land of opportunity.  Performance venues may change, although some remain the same, and the music adapts itself once again as the need arises.  Here we learn more of the great early recording artists, and oral family traditions are brought effectively into play.  There is also a good, but too brief, section on the early recording industry itself, in Europe as well as the U.S.: who, where, when, even at times why.  All these themes continue in the following two chapters as time marches on, and the Yiddish song (and occasional tune) enters the mainstream of American popular culture: on Broadway, at the movies, on radio.  Chapter 3, perhaps overall the best, features solid exposition on the post-1918 activities of the commercial recording companies, and provides biographical sketches of the major names from that era.  Reading on, we track its path instrumentally via Benny Goodman and the swing movement, and vocally via The Andrews Sisters, for whom all forms of ethnic genres - calypso, Latin, Bohemian - were grist to the mill, and didn't they sound good?  Then it contracts and returns to cultural marginalisation.  But, once again, this follows exactly the developmental route of most ethnic musical forms.

Not for nothing do discographers of traditional (or at the very least traditionally-rooted) musical forms - be it jazz, blues, old timey, or ethnic groups in the New World - use the date 1942 as one to end their researches.  It represents a distinctly identifiable watershed in changing musical fashions, in consumer taste, in commercial recording policies, in the ascendence of mainstream popular music over tradition.  The old music died as its bearers themselves passed on.

And so to the second half of the volume, discussed at length already.  But there are further, more general, comments that need to be made.

The book suffers badly - indeed, I consider this one of its major faults - from a lack of discography detailing historical material currently available on CD, although this may be economically motivated: the final page urges the reader to send money for a companion CD.  But for a work which is so obviously concerned with expanding awareness of the music this is hardly a productive route.  For reasons of honour and respect, if nothing else, one might legitimately expect attention to be drawn to the fine release by the author's revered teacher, 'the wonderful mentsh and fiddler Leon Schwartz' (page 188), on Global Village CD 109.  Not to alert the readership to the many compilations of the older, pre-1942, recordings - on Folklyric, on Rounder, on Trikont, and extensively on Global Village - really is unforgivable.

You may not, as the proverb claims, be able to judge a book by its cover, but in any avowed academic work you can do worse than check out the bibliography.  Here there are some sloppy bibliographical attributions.  Poor Victor Greene's excellent book is erroneously mistitled twice, as Passion for Polka on page 309, and as Passion for the Polka on page 305.  Kevin Brownlow's Behind the Mask of Innocence, mentioned above, is ascribed a sub-title which features nowhere in the volume itself except as a portion of the dust jacket (page 309).  Other errors are more subtle, such as the omission of a comma in the title of Rick Kennedy's book on the Gennett Company (page 310), and the substitution of a hyphen for the preposition 'to' on Richard Spottswood's epic ethnic discography (page 311), also mentioned above.  There may be more: I stopped looking at that point.  Having seen the titles of my own books on the social history of morris dancing between 1660 and 1900 being rendered inaccurately more times than I can count, I've convinced myself that to do so constitutes something of an insult to the author.  Perhaps the authors named above wouldn't actually care, but I know that when a bibliography is revealed to be sloppily constructed it makes me think twice about accepting at face value anything else that volume has to say.

'Tell me what you want, what you really, really want,' runs a lyric in one of the few truly memorable pop songs of the 1990s (alas, The Spice Girls never again got anywhere close).  What I really, really want is an exhaustive historical overview of the East European and Asia Minor instrumental klezmer tradition, with comprehensive details of its transplantation and adaption to the changing demands of the New World, as reflected most visibly in its recorded legacy, all topped off with a liberal sprinkling of oral testimony from (and biographies of) its performers, and a conclusion which ends at the demise of the recognisable old form.  And while it's a useful building block, this, unfortunately, isn't it.  There is yet another recently published book on the history of klezmer available, but only in German, which I do not read, although I have leafed through a friend's copy.  Maybe that is my ideal book, maybe not.  We'll have to wait for an English translation.  Another piece which cries out for translation from the German would, on the evidence of his superlative work in English, be the extensive sleevenotes - effectively a sewn-in major essay, replete with bibliography and discography - by Martin Schwartz for the 1991 Trikont CD Yikhes.  Fruhe Klezmer-Aufnahmen von 1907-1939.  One can only hope that Schwartz is writing his own major history of the genre.  Meanwhile, curious non-German readers can find much of what they seek in Henry Sapoznik's current volume, which, despite much of the foregoing discussion, is, in fact, recommended.  With the appropriate reservations, of course.

Keith Chandler - 7.1.00

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