For those who’ve enjoyed my holiday musical meanderings over the years, I’ve got something a little different today: a journey through the history of one song. The tune will sound the same, but the words and messages change. Or, in a way, don’t change. You’ll see what I mean.
This is about one of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs, “The Many and the Few,” which retells the Hanukkah story in inimitable Woody fashion. The tune comes from an old Irish drinking song, “Old Rosin the Beau” (aka Resin the Bow, aka Roisin the Beau). It became a standard fiddle tune in the early 1800s in the Southern hillbilly culture that was Woody’s musical cradle. By 1860 the tune was familiar enough that the Hutchison Family Singers of New Hampshire could use it for an Abraham Lincoln presidential campaign song, “Lincoln and Liberty.” On the other hand, it was also used as a marching tune by a (possibly fictional) Confederate unit, known to some as Kelly’s Irish Brigade, that was active on the Kansas-Missouri front where John Brown got started before the war and where Jesse James continued the guerrilla war afterward.
Here’s Woody himself, singing “The Many and the Few.” (And here are the lyrics.)
The first version I ever heard, though, was an Irish rebel song from the very late 1800s, “The Men of the West,” sung by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. It tells of Wolfe Tone’s failed United Irishmen rising against the British in 1798. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, the 1798 rising came the closest and fell the most bloodily of all the Irish uprisings over the centuries. To my ear this song has some of the same feel as “The Many and the Few,” the big difference being that the Maccabees won and the United Irishmen lost. Then again, over the course of a century-plus of Maccabean-Hasmonean reign their victory turned sour, whereas the Irish defeat turned to victory just over a century later.
Here are the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem singing one of the great battle songs of freedom, “The Men of the West.” (And here are the lyrics.)
How did Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie, the bard of the Dust Bowl, come to write a whole cycle of Hanukkah songs?
In honor of Bob Dylan’s 73rd birthday on Saturday (May 24), Maariv asked four Israeli singer-songwriters — Eran Tzur, Sun Tailor, Dan Toren and Uzi Ramirez — to write about the “defining moment” in Dylan’s influence on them personally “as musicians, artists and listeners.” Each brief contribution is accompanied by a musical clip that the artist chose to accompany his words (yes, they’re all “he”).
The article is here (Hebrew only). I’ve translated some excerpts, which I’m posting along with the clips they picked and links to a few selected clips by the contributors themselves. (The above photo, by the way, was taken by his ex-wife Sara in Jerusalem, where they were celebrating their son’s bar mitzvah at the Kotel. It appears on the inner sleeve of his Infidels album.)
Maariv’s Ohad Ezrati, introducing and describing the project, writes:
Besides his being one of the great musicians of all time, Dylan has established himself as a symbol of freedom and equality, of independent creativity and thinking outside established frameworks.
Hear Eran Tzur sing his “Hu veHi” (“He and She”).
In the summer of 1998 I was headed out for a long vacation on tropical island in southern Thailand and I took along Dylan’s new album Time Out of Mind, which had come out a year earlier.
I’d been on a long timeout from Dylan, and this captured me all over again. I remember trying to write under his influence. I came up with a song, “Blues for the North,” that follows the blues chord pattern of his “Highlands,” which closes the album.
Bob Dylan sings “Highlands”:
Sun Tailor (Arnon Naor)
“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” The first time I heard it was on a train from Cambridge to London. I fell in love with it. It put words to what I was feeling then, in real time.
Dylan speaks of a love that comes to him after years of disappointment and longing, and he’s deep within a beautiful tale and yet finds himself thinking about the heartbreak that’s coming soon.
It’s amazing how it’s possible to write a song about love in the present that suddenly becomes a song of mourning for the future, and make it all sound so right and real.
Sun Tailor sings Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”:
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.
Sebastiano Conca: ‘Alexander the Great in the Temple of Jerusalem’ (1737) / Wikimedia Commons
What follows is a Forward editorial in celebration of Hanukkah from back in December 2004, when I was editor. I was rather proud of it then, and I think the message holds up pretty well. Down at the bottom is an extra treat: a cover version of “The Many and the Few,” Woody Guthrie’s epic retelling of the Hanukkah story, ending with the words “Thank God we’re the seed of the Jews.” Don’t miss it.
Hanukkah, Forever New
December 10, 2004
In trying, as we do every year on this page, to understand Hanukkah’s magical hold on the American Jewish imagination, it’s worth examining the holiday’s marvelous malleability, its Zelig-like capacity for embodying the very values that each generation needs it to uphold.
Yes, drowning out Bing Crosby is part of the holiday’s appeal, but only part. There is so much more to celebrate: national independence, religious freedom, rebellion against tyranny and — fast gaining in popularity — the battle of piety against assimilation. But which to teach first?
It wasn’t always so complicated. When the festival was first proclaimed by the victorious Maccabee warriors in the year 165 before the current era, it was a straightforward celebration of a military victory over a foreign occupier, a sort of early-model ticker-tape parade. That was coupled, of course, with a religious message: the rededication of the ruined Temple in Jerusalem, marking the restoration of the Jews’ freedom to practice their religion after a decade of Syrian-Greek oppression under the mad king Antiochus IV. In a combined display of triumphalism and pragmatism, the victors extended the festivities for eight days in order, so the contemporary narratives say, to make up for the eight-day Temple pilgrimage of Sukkot that should have been held two months earlier but was canceled that year by the war.
By the time the rabbinic oral law was codified in the Talmud 500 years later, Hanukkah had become something else. Having again lost their sovereignty, and plainly fearing that their new masters might take a celebration of guerrilla warfare the wrong way, the rabbis recast Hanukkah as a pacific festival of light-giving spirituality. They even discovered a miracle that the Maccabees’ contemporary accounts somehow hadn’t noticed: that little jar of oil that lasted eight days. Thus they prudently emphasized that God, not man, is the author of historical upheavals.
During the long night of oppression in medieval Christian Europe, Hanukkah effectively went underground. With no freedom to celebrate, Judah Maccabee became a children’s myth. The message of liberation was transcribed in code onto the dreidel, a gambling toy that subversively mocked the pious Christmas season all around.
In modern times, Jews living in freedom in Israel and America have managed, almost miraculously, to recapture much of Hanukkah’s original spirit. For Israelis, it celebrates the Maccabees’ military victory over foreign occupation. For Americans, it celebrates the eternal battle for freedom of conscience. As we do so often, each of our two great Jewish communities manages to capture the very half of the tradition that the other one misses.
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”):