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.
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.
Then, Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock (author of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”) sings Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Pie in the Sky When You Die”), after reminiscing about the day that Joe first brought the lyrics into IWW’s Portland, Ore., headquarters and Mac was able to perform it in public for the first time.
Then, two versions of “Solidarity Forever.” One is sung by Leonard Cohen, surprisingly (but appropriately, it turns out) hauntingly, almost as a lament. The second is belted out by Wisconsin state employees inside the state capitol rotunda in December 2011, complete with updated lyrics and some unpleasant interactions with the police. And, a few days after that, in January 2012, watch the Red Raiders Marching Band from Pulaski High School in Wisconsin, marching in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena and stopping in front of the reviewing stand to play Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” (lyrics). The moment is completely lost on the local TV newscasters.
Last, a slanderous but highly entertaining ditty, “The Cloakmakers’ Union,” attacking the leaders of the great Jewish-led garment unions (“the Dubinskys”) and the Socialist Party (“the Hillquits” and “the Thomases”). It was made up in the late 1920s by Yiddish communists, and is sung here tongue-in-cheek in the early 1950s by Dubinskyites Joe Glazer and Abe Brumberg. (The version I learned from my father, a lifelong employee of said cloakmakers’ union, was a little different. It went: “…The right-wing cloakmakers and the Socialist fakers are a bunch of strike-breakers by the bosses…”)
Paul Robeson sings “The Ballad of Joe Hill”:
Haywire Mac McClintock remembers Joe Hill and sings “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Pie in the Sky When You Die”):