05 December 2009

New York: Yiddish notes

Yiddish music is experiencing a revival, based on collections in various archives and through releases of recorded music from those collections.

The New York Jewish Week's Jonathan Mark reported on the Mayrent Collection which is now available - in part - as a three-CD set with 67 tracks compiled from old 78s. “Cantors, Klezmorim & Crooners 1905-1953” ($25, JSP Records/Living Traditions) as released to mark KlezKamp's 25th anniversary and the festival of Yiddish music and art, set for December 23-29.

The music is from the collection of Sherry Mayrent. She is associate director of KlezKamp and Living Traditions, a Yiddish arts preservation group, of which ethnomusicologist Henry Sapoznik is an important figure.

On eBay, Mayrent found 100 cantorial records - the collection of a deceased cantor - and paid $40 for them in 2004. Later, she bought another mostly-klezmer collection of 200 recordings. Over five years, she acquired some 5,000 Yiddish recordings of all genres (from cantorial to comedians and everything inbetween).

According to the story, only 6,000 Yiddish recordings (pre-1942) were produced in the US, with another $5,000 in Europe prior to the Holocaust.

Ethnomusicologist Henry Sapoznik, of the nonprofit Living Traditions, is a partner on the project and wrote the album booklet. The five-time Grammy winner for early folk and country music productions, also received a Peabody Award for his "Yiddish Radio Project."

In the story, there are vignettes from his notes, covering Robert Johnson, Itzikel Kramtweiss, the Yenkovitz and Goldberg Band, Sholom Aleichem reading from his own stories, and women cantors in recording sessions.

Sapoznik is intrigued by the cross-pollination of Yiddish-American culture. On one cut, Nellie Casman, of the Yiddish theater, was backed by Larry Shield, whose band played on hundreds of Yiddish and cantorial sessions. He also composed and conducted the movie scores for “Our Gang” and Laurel and Hardy.“

"How many hundreds of thousands of people have heard those scores?” asked Sapoznik. And yet “we can hear the same influence that he brought to those movies in this orchestration for Yiddish theater.”Sapoznik observed, “The cantorial tradition,” so central to Yiddish recordings, “was the key DNA of Eastern European Jewish music. Everything — klezmer, Yiddish theater, folk songs — that’s what links them all together. And yet every one of those other musical traditions has experienced a revival except the cantorial.”
In the story, Sapoznik hopes that as many as 8,000 other Yiddish recordings will be digitally remastered and available online "in the next year or so."

As Tracing the Tribe has often written in its posts on the Florida Atlantic University Jewish Music Archives and the Beit Hatfutsot music archives collection in Tel Aviv, Yiddish music recording stopped soon after WWII. American Jews lost the Yiddish of their parents and grandparents and, in Europe, six million Jews (most of them Yiddish speakers) had been lost.

Thus ended the heyday of Yiddish theater and radio. With the creation of the state of Israel, Hebrew became more important than Yiddish.

But, as the world turns, everything old becomes new again, and there are those individuals, such as at Living Art, who are the hold-outs for a new generation and who are preserving their expertise through organizing Yiddish festivals and making recordings, such as the Mayrent Collection, available.

For more information on Yiddish music collections, which have been preserved through donations of old records, search through Tracing the Tribe's archives, using "Jewish Music" or "Yiddish Music."

Have you inherited a collection and you don't know what to do with it? Are you now helping an elderly relative clean out their home? Don't simply throw out those recordings and sheet music. Contact an archive and donate the material so that it will be preserved for the future.

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