J.J. Goldberg

Music for May Day: Songs of Kibbutzim & Coal Mines

By J.J. Goldberg

Here’s a little video collection I put together for May Day 2010, with some updates, to help get in the holiday spirit. Fortunately, it’s still relevant. Unfortunately, that’s because we haven’t made much progress in the interim toward economic justice.

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 (you may remember him from our recent Passover concert singing “Bein Gvulot”). 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: Tales of border police in the Southwest turning back desperate migrants during a little economic downtown. “If You Ain’t Got the Dough Re Mi” was written back in 1940 by Woody Guthrie in his Dust Bowl Ballads collection. It’s a deceptively light-hearted number describing the desperate migration of farmers from Oklahoma to California after the dust storm disaster of 1935. Woody’s version is classically plain and unadorned. John Mellencamp did a rocking bluegrass version that’s a terrific listen. But I’m posting the 1977 version below by Ry Cooder and his Chicken Skin Band, because Flaco Jimenez’s amazing accordion turns it into a Tex-Mex-style commentary on today’s news.

Another one from today’s headlines: “Arbetloze Marsh” (“March of the Unemployed”) by the Bundist Yiddish poet Mordechai Gebirtig, who was born in Krakow in 1877 and died in the Krakow Ghetto in 1942. He’s best known for his 1938 alarm over the looming Holocaust, “Es Brent” (“Our Shtetl Is Burning”). But Arbetloze Marsh has been enjoying a revival lately, and for good reason. The version below, sung in English and Yiddish, is by the Berlin-based klezmer band Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird. For a more traditional rendition, here’s a spirited, unadorned version by Theodore Bikel, backed by an accordion.

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. There’s one American visible in the foreground — you can tell by the emblem of a fist and wheat sheaf silkscreened on the back.) 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.

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A Passover Concert: Songs of Liberation and Longing

By J.J. Goldberg

To get us in the spirit of the Seder, here are a few songs of exodus, freedom, rebellion and an only kid. We’ve got selections by Bruce Springsteen, Chava Alberstein, Pete Seeger, Moishe Oysher, Bob Dylan, Shuli Nathan, Paul Robeson, Paul Simon, Lahakat HaNachal, the Maccabeats and many more, including two late and very much lamented friends, Debbie Friedman and Meir Ariel. Also Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

There’s a lot to tell. Tradition teaches that the Exodus was a long night, and so is the Seder. So I’m putting it up in two parts.

First up: a quick recap of the Passover story, as retold in this unusual version of the gospel classic “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep (‘coz Pharaoh’s Army got drownded).” It’s performed by the Soul Stirrers, gospel group where Sam Cooke got his start:

Next, of course, comes “Go Down Moses.” This song has many, many unforgettable versions, but for my money there are none as powerful as this one from Preston Sturges’s 1941 film, “Sullivan’s Travels.”

It was a tough choice: I was strongly tempted to go with the unparalled classic version by Paul Robeson. I lovethis up-tempo one by the great Golden Gate Quartet. And this swinging version by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is a gem. All well worth a listen. But for sheer emotional power, none brings you to tears like the one below.

Background: Sullivan, a Hollywood film mogul who’s gone bumming to see the real America, gets arrested and put on a Southern chain gang. In this scene the prisoners brought to see a movie in a nearby black church. The pastor and lead singer is Jess Lee Brooks.

The Haggadah tells of four rabbis who were sitting all night in Bnei Brak recalling the events of the Passover, until their students came and said, Masters, it’s time for the morning prayers. Some commentators suggest that they were actually plotting their own liberation—the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans—and the students’ message was code for “make like you’re praying, the Romans are coming.” If so, here’s what that all-nighter might have looked like, from “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

The Magid — the portion of the Seder that retells the events of the Exodus — reaches an early emotional climax with the passage “Vehi she’amda la’avoteinu velanu” (“And that which stood firm for our ancestors and for us — for not just one enemy rose against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise up to destroy us, and the Holy One, praised be He, saves us from their hand.”)

Here’s “Vehi She’amda” and the paragraphs that follow, sung by the great Cantor Moishe Oysher and choir. Even if it’s not your style, take a taste. There’s none better.

The exodus isn’t just an ancient story. In living memory the Jewish people were brought from a house of bondage to redemption in the land of Israel. Most didn’t make it, and those who did had to sneak across a much wider sea than Moses crossed, in an operation that would have tested Joshua. I speak of the pre-state Aliya Bet. Here’s their song (and one of my all-time favorites), “Bein Gvulot” (Between Borders) sung by Hillel Raveh. “Between borders, over impassable mountains, on dark, starless nights, we bring convoys of our brethren to the homeland. For the young and tender we will open the gates. For the old and the weak we are a protecting wall.”

And of course, the climactic moment when Moses stood on the Red Sea shore, “smotin’ that water with a two-by-four,” in the words of the old spiritual sung here by Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band.

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The Year Pete Seeger Didn't Sing in Hebrew

By J.J. Goldberg

Pete Seeger, California, 1950s / Public Domain

In the spring of 1998, Pete Seeger headlined a free concert in Central Park celebrating Israel’s 50th birthday, sponsored by the Cantors’ Assembly. The event prompted a critical press release from the Zionist Organization of America, protesting the Cantors’ Assembly’s giving a platform to a harsh critic of Israel.

The evidence for the prosecution was an ad to which Pete had added his name in 1982 or ’83, protesting Israeli actions in Lebanon. They could have come up with worse stuff if they’d known where to look (more on that later). But there was a flip side to Seeger’s record, and it was a lot longer and deeper. His 1950 recording with The Weavers of the Israeli folk tune “Tzena, Tzena” was the first and still the only Israeli song ever to hit the American pop charts, coming in at No. 2. For years afterward, he made a habit of performing and teaching at least one Israeli song at every one of his sing-along concerts. He may have done more than anyone besides Leon Uris to teach Americans to love Israel in its early years.

Well, I decided to write about it in my weekly column, which was self-syndicated in a few dozen local Jewish weeklies. I got Seeger’s home number from the late folk patriarch Art D’Lugoff, called him up, introduced myself and asked him about it. It was a delightful conversation. I even got to put my 4-year-old daughter Emma on the phone—she knew his music well, as I had at her age, and was thrilled to speak with him. Pete was gushing about her when I got back on the phone. He talked briefly about what an inspiration Israel was to American progressives during the cold war years of the 1950s. He explained that “Tzena, Tzena” was the B-side of their “Goodnight, Irene,” which was No. 1 for 17 weeks in 1950, and the deejays discovered that when they turned the record over they had another hit on their hands.

My column went on to poke fun at ZOA president Mort Klein’s habit of publicly attacking “critics” of Israel—I noted the cases of Martin Indyk and Aaron David Miller—whose far longer records of support and love for Israel consistently went unmentioned. The ZOA was not amused.

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