Bintel Blog

When Jews Were So Cool Arlo Guthrie and Nina Simone Wanted To Sing Israeli Folk Songs

By Dan Friedman

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Somewhere in the popular mythology of Jewish paranoia there was a time when everyone loved us. The legend goes that just after the goyim stopped believing we all had horns and just before they started hating Israel for, well, surviving, there was a moment where we were so deeply beloved that black icons, white icons, men, women, children, yea verily all the nations of the earth flocked to breathe life into the corniest of our folk tunes. If even our cast off Hava Nagilas could be the epitome of cool then kal vachomer pretty much anything we did would be unbelievably hip.

I had always believed that to be a myth until the conspiracy of the elders of YouTube revealed the following evidence of its truth. Despite the slight mislabeling of the song title, here is Nina Simone singing (if something as lively and yet otherwordly can be described merely as “singing”) “Eretz Zavat Halav U’d’vash.” I think that it’s a Village Gate gig in 1961 but I’m sure some Idelsohn acolyte can help me out with the details. The way she performs it, the state of Israel was a paragon of hope and biblical redemption in our times revealed as nestling in the northeast corner of Africa. As the song has it Israel was: “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Then, just to show that we were not the preserve of the downtown hip elite, Arlo Guthrie, man of the people turned “Tzena Tzena” into something that whole crowds of cornfed Americans were prepared to pay entrance fees to dance to. Difficult to imagine, but that’s what the world was like in the five minutes that people didn’t hate us. Quick, let’s make a CD and a book about it!

Hat tip to Benjamin Ivry.



Comments
robbie Thu. Oct 1, 2009

got to be the coolest translation of Tzena Tzena I've ever heard.

steven Thu. Oct 1, 2009

Arlo's version of Tzena, Tzena is certainly toe-tapping, and perhaps his humorous description of its genesis made it easier for fans to enjoy. But remember that his wasn't the first "cross-over" version to become popular. Pete Seeger and The Weavers had a huge (for the time) hit with it, back in the '40s. And Arlo Guthrie was certainly no stranger to Judaism, folk singing or Israel. Aaron Lansky, in his book Outwitting History, tells the great story of meeting Arlo's mother, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, and learning of Arlo's early Jewish education at the feet of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Jake Marmer Thu. Oct 1, 2009

yeah, i love that Nina Simone recording - tremendous. i remember reading somewhere that she was friends with Shlomo Carlebach - wonder if it's true - does anyone know?

steven - what's the connection b/n Guthrie and Kahane?

factsrfacts Thu. Oct 1, 2009

"He (Arlo) received religious training for his bar mitzvah from Rabbi Meir Kahane, who would go on to form the Jewish Defense League. 'Rabbi Kahane was a really nice, patient teacher,' Arlo later recalled, 'but shortly after he started giving me my lessons, he started going haywire. Maybe I was responsible.'

http://www.woodstock.com/arlo-guthrie-concerts/

Eliezer Pennywhistler Fri. Oct 2, 2009

Should you wish to see and hear The Weavers doing Tzena, go to http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2004/01/04/tzena-tzena-an-old-hebrew-chestnut/ . Note that Arlo's arrangement and harmonization is identical.

Also note that Arlo mangles the words, becasue - Bar Mitzvah training or no Bar Mitzvah training - he had no idea what the words were. The Weavers weren't that sure either. I beg you all -- watch some of the other versions on that YouTube link. Especially the Wellingstons', who change the words to "halutzim" and have go-go dancers, Meshugga Beach Party - the world's premier Jewish surf music band (see also their "Zemer Atik"), the all-harmonica version, and Mink Stole's version with the cross-dresser (?) Vicky Boofont and Hasidic dancers. Jeez Louise!

Eliezer Pennywhistler Fri. Oct 2, 2009

@ Jake Re: Nina Simone and Shlomo Carlebach -- see http://www.jewish-theatre.com/visitor/article_display.aspx?articleID=1850 , and http://www.amazon.com/review/R2NBBBDLPB2R1E .

Eliezer Pennywhistler Fri. Oct 2, 2009

Should you wish to see and hear The Weavers doing Tzena, go to http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2004/01/04/tzena-tzena-an-old-hebrew-chestnut/ . Note that Arlo's arrangement and harmonization is identical.

Also note that Arlo mangles the words, becasue - Bar Mitzvah training or no Bar Mitzvah training - he had no idea what the words were. The Weavers weren't that sure either. I beg you all -- watch some of the other versions on that YouTube link. Especially the Wellingstons', who change the words to "halutzim" and have go-go dancers, Meshugga Beach Party - the world's premier Jewish surf music band (see also their "Zemer Atik"), the all-harmonica version, and Mink Stole's version with the cross-dresser (?) Vicky Boofont and Hasidic dancers. Jeez Louise!

Recruiting Animal Mon. Oct 5, 2009

Arlo would have obviously known this song from Pete Seeger who was a friend of his father.

I wondered why, if the Weavers were Communists, they were singing an Israeli song. I thought that the Soviets had turned against Israel in the late 40s but Wikipedia says they didn't start voting with the Arab states at the UN until 1954 and the song was recorded in 1949.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_Union_and_the_Arab–Israeli_conflict

PS: The Wikipedia entry on Tzena Tzena doesn't give the date of the recording. Unbelievable.

PPS: Arlo has a rural style of speaking but he wasn't raised in Oklahoma. (He is a fan of Ron Paul).

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