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044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Posted by jeff on Mar 25, 2018 in Other, Song Of the week

Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Slaves in Mea Shearim

Well, Passover is just around the corner, and She Who Must Be Obeyed is busy polishing the wine cups and sterilizing the corkscrew. She’s given me a few minutes off from helping for good behavior (actually, for gross incompetence), so I’ll try to squeeze in a few appropriate words on the music of the season.

Pharoah

I can’t complain about the spring cleaning tasks. Well, I can, but I shouldn’t. Not when I think back to my forefathers, and the travails they underwent at the hands of Ol’ Pharoah. I know just how bad they had it, thanks to the moving description of those hardships by our soul brethren, the African-Americans who created the spirituals. Slaves were forced to go to church and sit on benches, to quell any ecstatic impulses they might still have from their native African worship. Shackled spiritually as well as physically, they were resourceful enough to create a lasting body of music which jumbled up their old religion and music with the new ones their European masters were imposing on them, resulting in songs of faith which expressed all the suffering and indignity they were living, albeit couched in thinly veiled Bible stories.

Paul Robeson’s (1898-1976) is a remarkable story by any standards. His mother died when he was six, so he was raised by his father, an escaped slave who graduated college and served as minister of a Presbytarian church in Princeton, NJ until his politics got him fired. Robeson was the only black at Rutgers University, class valedictorian, and All-American football player. He put himself through Columbia law school by playing professional football and basketball. In his spare time, he starred in a play which played in New York and London.

Slaves in America

He married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, a descendent of slaves and Sephardic Jews, a graduate of Columbia in chemistry. She passed on medical school to manage her husband’s business affairs. His other affairs she also learned to manage to live with, as they practiced an ‘open marriage’ until her death in 1965.

After Robeson quit his NY law firm (because a secretary refused to take dictation from a black man), his interests turned to the stage. He was the first to bring spirituals to the concert stage, starred in a play by Eugene O’Neil and was cast to star in the movie version of Porgy and Bess (till he argued politics with the director). In 1930 he went to London to play Othello (because no American stage company would employ him–although later, from 1943-45, his Othello became the longest running Shakespeare production on Broadway to this day).

He also sang ‘Ol’ Man River‘ in the immensely popular Broadway musical and movie “Showboat”. It was written for him by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (neither of whom were particularly black, but both of whom had slavery hard-wired in their cultural heritage). The song has become one of the definitive expressions of black suffering. Robeson later changed the lyrics to transform the song from a lament to an expression of defiance.

Paul Robeson

In the 1930s and 1940s he was a star, performing spirituals in concerts throughout the world. But he also became radicalized politically, actively supported causes as wide-ranging as labor unions, the fight of the Republicans against Franco, the plight of Jewish refugees from Hitler, Welsh coal miners, the independence of African countries from colonial rule, the civil rights of blacks in the US, the integration of blacks into professional sports, (gee, just typing the list is getting me tired), and most notably empathy with the Soviet Union. Testifying before HUAC regarding his pro-Stalinist proclamations, he said: “You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about [Stalin], please.”

His passport was revoked for a number of years, and when it was restored in 1958 he traveled to Moscow to accept the Stalin Peace Prize. His later years included self-imposed exile to the Soviet Union, mental and physical health problems caused at least in part by constant surveillance. He attempted suicide, was probably slipped LSD by the KGB, underwent shock treatment in East Germany, was hounded by the FBI (he reportedly owns the largest file in their archives), and finally retired to his sister’s house in Philadelphia. Whew. And that’s leaving out a lot.

L to R: Desdemona, Othello

But we stray. The Wife is calling me back into the kitchen. So let’s put on the soundtrack of our festival of freedom, and get back to work. I’m not quite clear how Yoshke slipped into the last line of the song. If you sing it at the table seder night, I suggest you improvise some other lyrics.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land (let my people go)
Oppressed so hard they could not stand.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.

The Lord told Moses what to do,
To lead the children of Israel through.

They journeyed on at his command,
And came at length to Canaan’s land.

Oh, let us all from bondage flee,
And let us all in Christ be free.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

039: Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’
058: Dave Frishberg, ‘Van Lingle Mungo’
102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

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102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

Posted by jeff on Feb 21, 2018 in Israeli, Other, Personal, Song Of the week, Vocalists

I landed in Israel in 1970, twenty-two years old, carrying a passport from the Woodstock nation, Uncle Sam in hot pursuit to conscript me to Viet Nam. I was carrying one suitcase of clothes (no winter coat) and one box of records without which I wasn’t going anywhere.

The music scene in my adopted country was as foreign to me as the backwards alphabet, the Bolshevik political climate and the Levantine cultural assumptions. The Big Deal in popular music back then in the interbellum years (1967–1973) was the army troupes.

The IDF (Israel Defense Force) was a civilian army. Everyone joined at eighteen, boys for three years, girls for two. They still do, actually. In those days, the IDF (Zahal in Hebrew) was at the center of the country’s mind, pocketbook, and Top 40. The dream of every young musician was to be accepted to an army entertainment troupe (lahaka tzvait), of which there were more than a dozen, and most of the future stars ascended through this farm system. Each comprised a dozen or more conscripts. They would develop a program of songs composed and directed by the leading lights of Israel’s popular culture, and spent their service performing for the troops.

These programs were the heart and soul of Israel’s popular culture. The music was innocent, the frame of reference communal rather than personal. Here are a couple of clips from Lahakat HaNahal, “The Officer Forgave” (with very telling photos) and “Comradeship” (an archetypical expression of the Zahal ethos).

Musically, I felt like I had been exiled to Goth from Medici Florence – Dylan, The Band, Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y, Janis, Hendrix at the height of their creativity. So I bought myself a little Phillips record player (paying 120% tax) and spent a number of years avoiding the native music by hiding my head in my box of 40 albums.

But then came the Yom Kippur War, with my new country tottering on the brink of extinction. In its wake, everything changed, including the music. The idealism of youth was shattered, and Israel began to awaken to the big world outside. Two new artists spoke to my ears in aesthetically mature and culturally engaging voices – Kaveret (Beehive) and Matti Caspi (b. 1949). His first two solo albums (1974, 1976) are still among my very favorites today.

Matti has travelled a long and bumpy road, musically and personally – an acrimonious divorce, self-imposed exile to Los Angeles, never reaching the same creative heights of those early albums. What has remained a constant is his sinuous, challenging, beautiful melodic and harmonic voice. You can invariably recognize a Caspi composition within a couple of bars. He’s primarily a composer (always using collaborators for lyrics). He’s a knock-out arranger (as our SoTW will show), a very honest and touching singer, an almost virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and a terrific performer. He also has the driest sense of humor this side of the Sahara (actually, we’re pretty close).

I really can’t do justice to the entirety of Matti Caspi’s large and varied corpus. Here’s one of my favorites, ‘How Dares the Star?‘ And another, ‘Here, Here’, using musical terminology to describe a song about a relationship. Here’s one of his most moving love songs, ‘Brit Olam‘ (Eternal Covenant). And here’s one of the funniest clips I’ve ever seen, ‘A Man Should Not Be Alone‘ (which also got its very own SoTW 150 all to itself, together with the Adam and Eve story). The text is from Gen 2:18. Matti was born and raised on a kibbutz, so he’s no stranger to the cowshed. Note the footwear. Towards the end, he says, ‘Kulam!’ (Everyone join in singing!).

In 1973 he was doing his reserve duty writing a program for the Air Force Troupe (my reserve duty, in contrast, usually consisted of planting mine fields—do you know how heavy anti-tank mines are?). There Matti (25) met Netanela (19), with the blackest hair on God’s earth, Uzbeki cheekbones and a timbre thicker than Nina Simone’s. Over the years he employed her voice as a unique color in his musical palette. Back then, a year before his first solo album, he composed a song based on lyrics by Shimrit Orr, ‘Shir HaYona’ (The Dove’s Song):

Way up above the towers
The dove spreads her wing, gliding afar, her eyes longing.

High above like bell-clappers (sic!),
At daybreak she coos, and at nightfall is dumb, her wings alight.

Onwards, onwards, above the water she hovers, still waiting.
Way up above the Hills of Gilboa, above the clouds, the road is long.

The allusion, of course, is to Noah’s dove, searching for dry land. The dove holding the olive leaf in its beak is Biblical. In early Christianity, the Hebrew ‘aleh’ was mistranslated as a branch. As a symbol of the peace of the soul, the dove appears in 4th century Christian art.  It referred to political peace as early as the 5th century, but was popularized by Picasso’s drawing La Colombe for the UN in 1949.

Matti orchestrated the song for a popular musical festival (when you watch the clip, remember that ‘music festival’ for me meant Woodstock), gave it to Netanela to sing, and the result was indelible. Here’s the memorable live performance; here’s the original recording (pay special attention to the beautiful orchestration).  Here’s a lesser, later version of Matti and Netanela dueting on it.

Netanela also had her ups and downs personally and musically. She had several very fine hits (‘We Haven’t Discussed Love Yet’, ‘White Days’), mostly penned by Matti. Then she married a Swede and split her life between the North and the Near East. Her career went off track, even though her version of  ‘Eli, Eli’ was used in the final scene of the Israeli version of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (‘Jerusalem of Gold’ was used elsewhere, but was too maudlin for the local audience). The words (original title ‘Walking to Ceasarea’) were written by 21-year old Hannah Senesh before she was parachuted as a Palestinian soldier by the British behind Nazi lines to try to save the Jews of her native Hungary. She was caught, tortured and killed. ‘Eli, Eli’ has become a secular Zionist prayer, obliquely pleading for the fundamental right to live freely. (My God, my God, may it never end, the sand and the water, the sound of the sea, the lightening in the sky, the prayer of man.)

‘Shir HaYona’ expresses a similar sentiment, a wish for transcendence, also a secular prayer. It struck a most responsive chord in the hearts of a people reeling from a national trauma, and gave voice to its deepest wish – to simply be left to lead a normal life in peace. In 1974, even though much of my musical tastes lay elsewhere, my heart was in Israel, recovering with everyone else from that national post-war shock, and this very beautiful song gave voice to that longing. I think the sentiment, and the song, are still very beautiful and truthful today.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 14: Woodstock, the event (Hebrew); Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’ (in English)

SoTW 044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

SoTW 086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

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273: The Necks, ‘Sex’

Posted by jeff on Nov 3, 2017 in A Cappella, Jazz, Nordic, Other, Rock, Song Of the week

The Necks, ‘Sex’

Rachael Price, ‘They All Laughed’  (the whole song)

Tarzan and Jayne

When I was 11, I wanted to be The Lone Ranger.
When I was 12, Mickey Mantle.
When I was 13, Mickey Hargitay (Jayne Mansfield’s husband).
When I was 14? A disk jockey on WSAI.
When I was 15? A disk jockey on WSAI.
When I was 16? A disk jockey… Well, I’ll leave it to you to extrapolate.

But I’ve matured. I no longer want to be a DJ on a Hit Parade station. I want to have a late-night slot on a very hip FM station, where I can wear shades (sunglasses) On Air and pick songs not by teeny-bopper sales (or by the $ of the distributor’s gift to the DJ) but by my very meandering rivulet of semi-consciousness.

So I’m going to fulfill my little fantasy this week, and present you with my personal Top Ten of the past fortnight or so, the best of the music that tracked its dirty little feet across my virtual turntable. In ascending order, just like at WSAI, to keep suspense at its peak.

Necks

[If you click on the What’s New tab on this page, you’ll see a chronological list of all SoTWs]

#10 Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle bootleg, 1971)

Yes, we dedicated SoTW 270 to this very cut, and SoTW 271 to a wider sampling of bootleg covers by Laura. I’ve been binge-ing on her bootlegs, and you’ll probably be hearing more about this inspiring music. But for a month now, I just can’t get enough of this thrilling, chilling treatment of a superb song I had previously not appreciated sufficiently.

#9 Barbra Streisand, ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’

I’ve listened to BS’s version of ‘Stoney End’ a couple more times, trying to figure out why that was a hit instead of Laura’s original, but to no avail. The world is not a fair place. I wrote a posting a long time ago (SoTW 20) about why I admired Barbra Streisand until she became famous at the age of 22, and never since. I listened to the “Stoney End” album. It’s not embarrassing, just a waste of vinyl. Or bytes or whatever. Barbra trying to be hip. She should just be Barbra.

Necks

But I did trip over this little gem—Randy Newman’s stunning ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’, recorded for the “Stoney End” album (1971), released only in 2012 on her “Release Me” CD. It’s just Streisand with Randy accompanying her on piano. It doesn’t have a single electron of the sincerity of the original, from Randy’s masterpiece first album, which had its own posting in SoTW 85. But still. The girl’s got pipes.

#8 Cilla Black, ‘Alfie’

While we’re on the subject of chanteuses shouting, I happened to hear the original version of Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s ‘Alfie’, by Cilla Black, orchestrated and conducted by Burt himself. Coincidentally, this song also had its own dedicated SoTW 220.

There’s a great clip of that session, mucho recommended. And here’s the two of them reflecting back on that recording session years later.

Cilla Black (nee Cilla White) was born in Liverpool (1943), a pal of The Beatles, managed by Brian Epstein. They gave her ‘Love of the Loved’, ‘It’s For You’, and ‘Step Inside Love’. Like many non-Brits, I was surprised to learn that Cilla became a major media ikon in the UK, hosting her own TV variety shows and whatnot. You might enjoy the rather charming and unpretentious TV biopic, “Cilla”.

Värttinä

#7 Värttinä, ‘Lasetus’

Flowing along the ‘women singing strongly’ stream, Värttinä is a Finnish world music band that’s been around for 30 years. They started out as a youth group collective, and have morphed into a successful group with floating membership, which “revived the unique polyphonic music of the Finno-Ugric people of Karelia”, eschewing ‘the long-accepted cultural notion that women should sing unaccompanied’. Oh, those Finns!

Come on, give it a chance!. No dedicated SoTW to these gals (yet), but we have explored the Finnishish band Folk‘Avant in SoTW 264, Nordic Roots music in general in SoTW 71 about Lyy, and their cousins The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – SoTW 30.

Necks

#6 The Real Group, ‘Li’l Darling’

Scandinavian singers. And in two weeks, Maestro Peder Karlsson is coming to our shores, so you know who I’m going to be listening to: the young The Real Group. Here they are in a favorite of mine, written by Neil Hefti for Count Basie’s seminal album “Atomic Basie”. Here’s SoTW 168 on ‘Girl Talk’, another great song by Hefti. And here’s SoTW 101, featuring Kurt Elling’s version of ‘Li’l Darling’.

The Real Group in its young days made a lot of pretty perfect music. I’ve written about them a lot, including SoTW 59 ‘Joy Spring’ and SoTW 209 ‘Waltz for Debby’.

The human voice. The only instrument created by God. You listen to the young The Real Group, and you know He really knew what He was doing.

Vocalocity

#5 Vocalocity, ‘Nueiba’

Well, that’s easy. The Real Group inspired the entire genre of Modern A Cappella, of which I’m a proud devotee. Four years ago, together with my partner and buddy Ron Gang, I formed Vocalocity, a 40-voice rock choir/power vocal ensemble. I’ve written about us in SoTW 207.

One of the many aspects of the group that I’m very proud of is that we sing pretty much only scores that were custom-written for us by the greatest arrangers of this genre in the world. We also get a big kick out of commissioning foreigners, especially them Nords, to revisit classic Israeli rock-pop standards.

So here’s a brand-new studio recording of Vocalocity singing ‘Nueiba’ by Shlomo Gronich. It’s arranged by the wonderful Ms Line Groth Riis. Here’s Gronich’s original.

The song is from 1982, when Israelis were feeling isolated and threatened militarily, politically, economically. Young people would take off for Nueiba for a few days, an oasis in the Sinai desert on the shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. It was an ultimate escape, an isolated, idyllic getaway from all the world’s stress (the first 8 bars of Line’s arrangement). I was there in 1971, the week before my wedding. Sand, sea, surf, quiet, peace. Unspoiled, peaceful, natural beauty (all the rest of the song).

Touché

#4 Touché, ‘But Beautiful’

Paddling along the a cappella stream, Jesper Holm is a great conductor of Modern A Cappella. We in Israel just brought him to teach a group of conductors as part of a course given by the Royal Academy of Music from Alborg/Aarhus, the only institution in the world (I believe) to offer a degree in conducting this music. His group, Touché, is the closest I’ve heard to vocal perfection. You hear a cut and say, ‘Okay, they gave it a face-lift in the studio’. But I’ve heard them live, twice. They’re perfect live on stage as well.

‘But Beautiful’ was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke for Bing Crosby to sing to Dorothy Lamour in the movie ‘The Road to Rio’ in 1947. I think Jimmy and Johnny would be pretty darned pleased to hear what Jesper and Touché have done with it.

#3 Jacob Collier, ‘Human Nature’

If you want to know what’s new in music, listen to what Jacob has done in the last two months. Here’s a new live performance of his treatment of the Michael Jackson song. I think it’s pretty great.

I’ve sung Jacob’s praises in SoTW 236 and will probably continue to do so in the future. He’s been working with a singer I admire, Becca Stevens (I had the opportunity to ask her all my geeky questions.) Here’s their brand new clip together. They seem to be having a lot of fun.

I have some reservations. He’s an overwhelming genius, everyone agrees. But he has yet to touch my heart. Is he freakishly talented, but merely a millennial with a digital personality? Or is he being expressive, just in a language I don’t perceive, let alone understand? Ah, Jeff, why spoil the party?

Ooh-ooh-ooh

#2 Rachael Price, ‘They All Laughed’

Guesting on Chris Thile’s “Prairie Home Companion” (PBS) just two weeks ago. On the site you can find links to a whole bunch of really outstanding videos which I recommend highly.

Chris Thile is a great musician (see SoTW 131), and I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen before on clips here such as ‘Calvin and the Ghosties’ and Your Lone Journey / Hell Among the Yearlings , by Chris and Rachael and an all-star band. This (and a bunch of other clips from the show) are knockout music.

But it’s Ms Price who steals the show with the Gershwins’ standard ‘They All Laughed’. By all rights, this should be #1, but I wrote about Ms Price in collaboration with Vilray in my very last posting, SoTW 272, and previously about her band Lake Street Dive (SoTW 206), and you gotta give someone else a break with the headline.

She does the Peggy Lee ‘I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart’ and Simon’s ‘American Tune’.

But it’s ‘They All Laughed’ that’s been keeping me awake at night. I’d like to tell you what Rachael Price does to me when she does that thing with her shoulders and her hands on “Ooh-ooh-ooh, who’s got the last laugh now?”—it’s like… it’s like… Well, there might be kids reading this, so I’m not going to write it.

Isn’t the suspense killing you? Drum roll, fanfare, and–

Necks

#1 The Necks, ‘Sex’

Some of my friends and I have been listening to The Necks pretty much non-stop for the last few weeks. They’re an Australian jazz-rock minimalist piano trio that’s produced about 20 distinguished but indistinguishable albums over the past 20 years.

Most of the albums, like “Sex”, contain one single hour-long cut droning along timelessly on only two chords, or even one, with miniscule changes. It’s hypnotic, it’s a trip. I really enjoyed writing SoTW 86 about Steve Reich and Minimalism, because I learned an awful lot doing the research.

The Necks “Sex”

One needs music like this. Intelligent entertainment. I need music all the time. But you can’t listen to ‘Visions of Johanna’ or ‘Crescent’ when you’re just waking up, or when you’re trying to fall asleep. Or when you’re trying to concentrate. Yeah, sometimes The Real World raises its ugly little head and demands the focus of our attention. Like Work, or Wife, or just mental Weariness. But I still need music. And The Necks are so darned useful for sharp, convincing, meaty background music.

All of The Necks’ albums sound pretty much alike (and I’ve been listening to all 20, over and over). Full disclosure: I chose “Sex” just to catch your eye, because I’m pleased to promulgate obscure music which deserves to be heard. I admit, they’re not the most inspiring music I’ve ever heard, but one can’t be inspired all the time.

They keep me going. But when I’ve caught my breath, I keep going back to #2, Rachel (‘Ooh-ooh-ooh, who’s got the last laugh now?’) Price. She takes my breath away. She tries harder.

That’s all for now, folks. See you again next week, same time, same imaginary station.

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5

247: Perry Como, ‘Kol Nidre’

Posted by jeff on Sep 28, 2017 in Other, Song Of the week

Perry Como, ‘Kol Nidre’

Cantor Joseph Malovany, ‘Kol Nidre’

Al Jolson, 'The Jazz Singer'

Al Jolson, ‘The Jazz Singer’

Uh-oh.

The big one’s coming up. Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. The Day of Judgement. The final verdict in the Book of Life.

As a boy, my Christian friends had ‘He’ll know if you’ve been bad or good.’ What was at stake was a new Lionel caboose.
I got God Himself with His indelible quill inscribing “who will live and who will die; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning.”
After that, you don’t need “House on Haunted Hill” for nightmares.

It all starts at the beginning of the month of Elul, 40 days before Yom Kippur, when the serious ones among us start getting up every morning (still night for me) at 4AM or some such unGodly hour to recite prayers of penitence. Then 10 days before, you get Rosh HaShana – two full days of wearing white, dipping apples in honey and spraying your dress shirt with pomegranate juice, hoping (praying) that He inscribes you (at this point in magic ink which takes 10 full days to dry) in The Book of Life. Or else…

800_afe2ed68f5589d31e73e2402b1b81fadThen the night before you take either a chicken or 18 units of your local currency and wave it over your head three times to transfer to it your transgressions. I’ll let you guess which means I employ.

On the afternoon of The Evening, here in Israel everything shuts down. By the time the sun is heading for the horizon, there’s nary a soul on the street. The radio and TV stations close down. You ask forgiveness from those you’re closest to for anything you have done to hurt them over the year. Because Yom Kippur only works to absolve you of your transgressions against Him if you’ve already made amends with humanfolk. Three out of every four Jewish citizens prepare to fast.

A simple last meal, all spruced up in your finest whitery (except for the rubber souled shoes), you take the Dead Man Walking trudge to the synagogue–hoping for the best, fearing the worst, something even more ominous than the 25-hour fast that’s just begun. Water, fire, sword, beast…

You sit in your reserved seat (that cost you a pretty penny) as the cantor takes his place on the altar, and he begins that familiar, haunting chant: Kol nidrei, v’esarei, ushvuei, v’haramei, v’kinusei, v’chinuei…

כָּל נִדְרֵי, וֶאֱסָרֵי, וּשְבוּעֵי, וַחֲרָמֵי, וְקוֹנָמֵי, וְקִנוּסֵי, וְכִנוּיֵי …

kol_nidre_in_the_machzor_of_worms

Kol Nidre from Worms prayer book, circa 1275.

The whole congregation is so geared up, so tense, so penitent, so scared out of their wits, that the guy could be singing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ (in a minor scale) and you’d be on the verge of meltdown.

Actually, it’s not far from that. Kol Nidre is legalese, a contract. More precisely, the dissolution thereof. It’s a string of technical terms: All the vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and pledges, and consecrations that we’ve taken upon ourselves – seven technical terms of legal commitments, English can’t keep up with them – we disavow them. We declare them null and void with another list of gibberish verbs to satisfy the lawyers.

Not only that. The prayer—I mean, the contract– is mostly in Aramaic, the long-dead lingua franca of the neighborhood, Jesus of Nazareth’s native language, the language of the Talmud. Only one sentence in the middle is in Hebrew.

Al Jolson, 'The Jazz Singer'

Al Jolson, ‘The Jazz Singer’

Not only that. The content has no clear connection to atonement. It’s pretty much perceived as “If I said to myself ‘I swear I’m never taking this route to work again in my life’”, I’m retracting that. All my vows not involving a commitment to another person, I’m unilaterally dissolving. It’s a technicality, making sure that none of my stupid promises stick, so that I won’t get in trouble with The Big Boy for not keeping them. It’s so deeply ingrained that all year long some folks of my ilk say, “Okay, so I’ll see you for lunch on Tuesday, b’li neder” (but it doesn’t count as a vow).

And, of course, the melody.

Some believe that the tune for Kol Nidre was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The opening of Kol Nidre is what the masters of the Catholic plain-song term a “pneuma”, or soul breath. It begins with a long, sighing tone, falling to a lower note and rising again, as if only sighs and sobs could begin the prayer service.

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Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt

What I’m driving at here is that it’s not the inherent content of this legalese text that moves us so on the cusp of the most solemn day of the year. It’s the moment, the state of mind and soul, the drama.

What’s the point of Kol Nidre then? For me, it’s the beginning of a 25-hour attempt to purify myself spiritually, to cleanse myself of unkept promises and transgressions by genuinely and profoundly atoning before my conscience and God. The point transcends legalese.

It’s music, the music of the Jewish soul. We all know that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,/to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak”. Not legal contracts.

There are countless recordings of Kol Nidre, ranging from the sublime to the profane, from the sacred to the ridiculous.

Perhaps most famous is Al Jolson’s rendition in “The Jazz Singer”, the first talkie (1927). Jack Robin (ne Jakie Rabinowitz) rejects his parents’ expectation that he will succeed his father as cantor, in order to pursue his career as a ‘jazz’ (popular) singer. In the movie, the errant, assimilated son is reconciled with his parents and his tradition. But that was a Hollywood ending, expressing the wish fulfillment of producer Sam Warner, the brother who kept peace between his two Alpha siblings Harry and Jack (unburdened by such compunctions over jettisoning  their tradition). Sam died at the age of 39, ending harmony within the Warner family, the day before the premiere of the movie. He was buried on the eve of Yom Kippur. Just like the movie.

Jan Peerce

Jan Peerce

I won’t even mention the 1952 remake of the film starring (Lebanese Maronite Catholic) Danny Thomas or the 1980 embarrassment starring Laurence Olivier and Neil Diamond (who at least was an MoT).

I wish my intuitive association for Kol Nidre were one of the great cantorial voices of the Twentieth Century. Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) was a poverty-stricken cantorial legend in the US. The Warners offered him $100,000 (equivalent to $1.3 million today) to portray the father in ‘The Jazz Singer,’ but they could not persuade him to sing Kol Nidrei. He felt that it was too sacred to be used as entertainment. They did persuade him to do a cameo in the movie, playing himself.

Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker (brothers-in-law and fierce competitors) both began their singing careers as cantors before succumbing to the bright lights of opera.

Richard Tucker

Richard Tucker

All of these versions include instrumental accompaniment. In a traditional service, it is sung either by the cantor alone or accompanied by a male choir. Of course, it can’t be recorded or filmed due to the prohibitions that apply to the day. So these recordings don’t really communicate the starkness of the moment. Here’s one dignified, authentic version, by Cantor Joseph Malovany (b. 1941), that communicates the beauty of the music. It’s worth watching till the end, where he talks a bit about Kol Nidre.

But we don’t choose our mind’s associations, and when you press the Kol Nidre button on the juke box of my mind, what comes on is the version by Perry Como (1912-2001).

Perry was the son of Italian immigrants, a barber, and one of the most popular singers of the mid-century. He was famous for his gentle voice, his calm demeanor and relaxed disposition, his cardigan sweaters, and his all-round niceness.

An example of Como’s popularity came in 1956, in a poll of young women asked which man in public life most fit the concept of their ideal husband: it was Perry Como. A 1958 nationwide poll of U.S. teenagers found Perry Como to be the most popular male singer, beating Elvis Presley, who was the winner of the previous year’s poll.

Perry Como

Perry Como

Perry had a weekly television show from 1949 till 1963, and a monthly one till 1967. That sentence bears some thought. Think of the stature of such a public figure.

In the late 1950s, Jews in the US were still living in the shadow of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, self-conscious of the hospitality extended to them by their adopted country (in harsh contrast to virtually every other state in the world), excluded from many hotels and country clubs and universities and industries, striving desperately to achieve acceptance and safety. My grandparents were “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”. Many Jews of my parents’ generation sought refuge in assimilation, but most still held a complex, tenuous commitment to their faith. But we absolutely carried the awareness of still wanting and needing to be accepted.

approved-gentilesAnd every year, just before the High Holidays, Perry Como – Mr Consensus – would sing Kol Nidre on network television. It was the ultimate expression of America embracing its Jews, the most reassuring promise that we were welcome and safe – perhaps the first time in history where a Jewish population would find such acceptance, such a haven.

Of course, I see things differently today. I see assimilation as an existential threat to American Judaism. I don’t know if Al Jolson’s great-grandchildren will be in synagogue for Kol Nidre this year. I will.

And I no longer depend on Perry Como for affirmation of my faith or peoplehood or personal well-being.  As far as my earthly life goes, I’ve put my eggs in a much different basket. And as far as my spiritual life – well, I’ll be doing some hard and serious thinking when listening to the music of the cantor singing Kol Nidre.

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