J.J. Goldberg

My May Day Concert: Classic Songs of the Chalutzim and Coal Miners

By J.J. Goldberg

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If you missed May Day, whether because of Shabbat, frantic preparations for Lag B’Omer or celebrating the Mets’ incredible winning streak, you can actually still celebrate International Labor Day on Sunday, May 2 (in the Diaspora, at least). To help get in the holiday spirit, I present, courtesy of YouTube, some my all-time favorite songs of labor and freedom.

First of all, the anthem of Zionist labor, Chaim Nachman Bialik’s “Birkat Ha’am” (“The People’s Blessing”), better known as “Techezakna” (“Strengthen the hands of our brothers renewing the soil of our land — let your spirits not fail, come joyously, shoulder to shoulder to the people’s aid”). This is a version from 1970s, recreated in traditional Second Aliya style by the mellifluous Russian Jewish baritone Ilke Raveh. Check out the mustache. (Here’s a great old version of same, with all the verses, in a film clip from pre-World War II Poland, sung by Cantor Israel Bakon, who died soon after at Belzec.)

That obviously has to be followed by the anthem of American labor, “Solidarity Forever.” The iconic recording is the 1940s session by Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers. Here’s a link to that one (it’s accompanied by a moving black-and-white photomontage, plus it has all the verses). However, I’m posting the version below because it is so striking and up-to-the-minute that I couldn’t leave it out. It’s sung by group of members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, slightly off-key and holding mugs of beer, but clearly aware of which side they’re on.

Now, ripped straight from the headlines, here’s an old Kentucky coal-miners’ song, “Which Side Are You On?” sung by alt-rock legend Natalie Merchant. Miners are asking the same question again this month in Kentucky, as well as West Virginia and parts of China. (After the jump I’ve got a bunch more miners’ songs, including Tennessee Ernie Ford’s monster 1955 pop hit “Sixteen Tons,” plus Bob Dylan and Joan Baez doing “Dark as a Dungeon” and U2 & Bono singing “The Springhill Mining Disaster,” which really could have been written last week.)

Also from today’s headlines: Tales of border police in the Southwest turning back desperate migrants during an economic blip, this one back in 1935, as described by Woody Guthrie in his Dust Bowl ballad, “If You Ain’t Got the Do Re Mi.”

Now, here’s another Bialik labor anthem, “Shir Ha’avoda Vehamelacha” (usually if imprecisely translated “Song of Work and Labor”), known to generations of Zionist summer campers as “Mi Yatzilenu.” It’s sung here by a 1980s Israeli supergroup that includes Yehudit Ravitz, Shlomo Gronich, Shemtov Levi, Ariel Zilber, Poogy stalwarts Alon Oleartchik and Gidi Gov. The words mean “Who will save us from hunger? Who will give us milk and bread? Oh, whom do we thank, whom do we bless? Labor!”) (Click here for a fabulous old clip of Nachum Nardi, the prolific chalutz-era composer who set Bialik’s wordsto music, banging this out on piano with Bracha Zfira singing it Yemenite style.)

What follows are two versions of the Socialist Internationale. One is in Hebrew, belted out by what looks like thousands of teenagers from the Noar Oved youth movement at a May Day rally in front of Tel Aviv City Hall in (I think) 2008. (If those blue shirts look familiar, you may have seen them on local members of Habonim-Dror, the overseas wing of Noar Oved.) Listen at the end as the announcer wishes the crowd “chag sameach.” The second version is sung in Yiddish by pensioners at what looks like a Mapam veterans’ May Day celebration. (I’m guessing. Anybody recognize this?) That’s Yossi Sarid at the dais, clearly unfamiliar with the Yiddish version.

Here’s the Hebrew:

Here’s the Yiddish:

This next is one of the greatest social protest songs ever written, “Sachki, Sachki” (“Laugh at my dreams, laugh at me because I still believe in humanity and freedom”) by the early 20th century Zionist poet and rebel Shaul Tchernichovsky. This is an ethereal 2008 version by Shani, a Jewish-Arab Israeli girls’ choir.

Here’s Utah Phillips singing a wonderful rendition of Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” (“You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”) with Ani DiFranco and others doing call-and-response. Feel free to sing along.

And speaking of Joe Hill, here’s one of his last songs, “Rebel Girl,” written in prison just before his 1915 execution. It’s sung by bluegrass great Hazel Dickens, preceded by a reminiscence by the actual Rebel Girl he was writing about, fellow IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) activist and future ACLU founder and Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

I promised some songs from the coal mines. This is Tennessee Ernie Ford singing his 1955 hit, “Sixteen Tons,” which spent 10 weeks on the country charts and another eight weeks on the pop charts, not something that happens much these days to coal miners’ laments. It was written by country legend and guitar-picking legend Merle Travis. (If you’re interested, go here to see ol’ Merle himself singing it.) Introducing Ford in this clip is his lifelong friend and fellow Tennessean, Dinah Shore.

Here’s Bob Dylan with Joan Baez (sound only) singing Travis’s other coal-mining classic, “Dark as a Dungeon” (“…way down in the mine”). It seems to be from Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour; that’s Scarlett Rivera’s fiddle in the background.

This is another angry coal-miners’ plaint, “Miner’s Lifeguard,” sung here in a stunning version by the Wilson Family, a six-sibling, close-harmony a capella group from just outside Newcastle in northern England, where they know something about coal.

Here’s Bono singing “The Springhill Mining Disaster,” which tells the true story of a deadly coal mining accident in Nova Scotia in October 1958. It was written shortly afterward by husband-and-wife singer-songwriters Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger (she’s Pete Seeger’s older half-sister). You can hear their folkier and more subdued version here. .

Speaking of Seeger, there’s probably no more appropriate way to wrap up our little concert than with the 1950 Billboard No. 2 hit that made him and The Weavers into mainstream stars, “Tzena Tzena.” (No, their English words have nothing to do with the Hebrew original, which is a ditty about the life of the chalutzim. The original had “mi ben chalutz ish chava” instead of “mi ben chayil ish tzava.” The Weavers’ version is about the famous crowds dancing in the streets after the state was declared.) It’s probably the only Israeli song ever to hit the top of the charts in this country.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Chaim Bialik, Internationale, Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, Shaul Tchernikhovsky, Sixteen Tons, Techezakna, Woody Guthrie

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