The Arty Semite

How to Sing Like a Real Folk Singer

By Itzik Gottesman

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A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here

Can you say with certainty that someone sings in an authentic Yiddish style? Fortunately, we have materials to help us figure it out — the records and CDs of folksingers, the recorded compilations from Ruth Rubin, Sofia Magid, Ben Stonehill and others; the recordings in the “Vernadsky Library” in Kiev, and the homemade family recordings that show up from time to time.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that you can’t speak only about one style, or even several. It all depends on the age of the singer, their birthplace and where they grew up.

Even in my family, two singers can sing in completely different styles. My grandmother Lifshe, from the small town Zvinyetshke, sang with a lamenting, sad voice, inviting listeners to sympathize with the suffering she expressed. My mother, from the larger city of Chernowitz, sang with less ornamentation but with a more secure feeling.

In the new recording from Brooklyn resident Herschel Melamed, “A Long Life In Yiddish,” you also hear a folksinger who sings in an authentic folk style. The CD includes 18 songs, and although the project was not undertaken as a commercial enterprise, it looks and sounds professional. In fact, two discs were produced with the same songs: one without musical accompaniment, and the second with the help of musicians Avi Fox-Rosen and Alec Spiegelman.

Herschel Melamed was born in Opalin, Poland and grew up in Luboml, where he worked in his brother Kalman’s shoe shop. At the beginning of the Second World War he became a soldier in the Polish Army and was later sent by the Soviets to a communal farm in the Ural Mountains, where he spent the war. His daughter Myra told me that he might have stayed there, but he learned that his younger brother Laizer had survived, so he left the communal farm and traveled westward to Chernowitz, where he married and where his daughter was born.

From Chernowitz the family traveled to Poland and then to Israel. In 1964 they came to America, where Kalman was already living. There, Kalman found him work as a cutter of ladies coats, which he did until he retired.

According to Myra Melamed, in his youth her father dreamed about becoming a cantor but didn’t have the money to study. He remained a folksinger and entertained the company around him. Mainly, it was a Jewish audience, but not always — in the Polish and Russian armies other soldiers enjoyed his singing in their languages. In Chernowitz, Melamed performed at weddings, and in Florida, in his later years, he was also invited to take the stage.

Happily, he recorded these songs when he turned 80, when his voice was still strong and sweet. The first songs on the CD are familiar prayers, and you can understand why he had ambitions to be a cantor. He sings with devotion but he doesn’t embellish unnecessarily.

Almost all the songs on the recording are familiar, but it’s worth hearing how Melamed sings them. He doesn’t rush, and he puts soul into his performance. The literary, poetic songs are especially suited to his unhurried, heartfelt style. When he sings with a faster tempo, it actually sounds more fascinating. I recommend “A Long Life In Yiddish” to anyone interested in Yiddish music, but especially to younger singers who want to learn at least one kind of authentic folk style.


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