112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

Posted by jeff on May 17, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

I originally published this post 7 years ago. I have no recollection of the specific failures referred to in the first paragraphs here. But I’ve been going through a major rough patch lately, walking out of the big musical enterprise I created and which has consumed me in recent years. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I believe we each carry  with us a propensity for optimism/pessimism, to a great extent regardless of circumstances. 


James Taylor – ‘Yesterday’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘If I Needed Someone’ (1970, live)

I’ve been having a pretty lousy week. It’s included two rejections in creative enterprises where I thought I was in a position to succeed. The first one was a shock and an insult, connected to a project for which I’m overqualified and underappreciated, but which was very convenient and fun for me; the second was the culmination of a long process of positioning myself to succeed at the highest level in a field I care about deeply. The rejection there hits deep and long-range, although the door wasn’t closed for the future.

I’m called a creative guy. I’m always getting involved in Projects, usually of an artistic nature. Joining an existing group, often impacting it strongly, sometimes inventing my own gig, either solo or joint venture. I do this regularly and energetically. The people close to me say, “Oh, you’ll pick yourself up and invent something new.” Well, judging me by my record I probably will.

But this week is a low point, one of those times when you walk around muttering

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Or drinking a little too much scotch. Or reading Ecclesiastes. Or being short-tempered with those near and dear to you. Or listening to early James Taylor.

Which is where I was this week, back in James’ first album. James is half a year older than me. At twenty, I was a confused and rebellious budding hippie from a good Jewish home, studying (well, kind of) in college. He was a disturbed junkie from a patrician home.

James’ father was dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, an alcoholic. At 18, James was sleeping 20 hours a day. At 19 he was institutionalized for 9 months. At 20 he had formed a band in NYC and was addicted to heroin. At 21 he was dropping acid in London; became the first artist signed to the Beatles’ Apple label; and recorded his first album, which went unnoticed commercially. At 22, in California, he recorded the seminal “Sweet Baby James”, which included the title song and ‘Fire and Rain’, and single-handedly created a genre still thriving half a century later.

James Taylor – ‘Sweet Baby James’ (1970, live)

But it’s the neglected, overlooked first album that has been such an intimate friend to me all these years, the one I still go back to on days like I’ve been having this week. It’s there that young James first engages the world, and expresses all the bewilderment, the profound disappointment, the discouragement, about this world we live in. I’m no longer 20. But it’s weeks like this where 40 years of experience, inurement, calluses, cynicism, just don’t help. Weeks where the pain cuts right to the bone. James’ first album is the eloquent soundtrack for that pain. So you put on the headphones, and you put on the album. “Something’s wrong, that restless feeling keeps preying on your mind. Roadmaps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.” Or “It does you no good to pretend, you’ve made a hole much too big to mend. And it looks like you’ll lose again, my friend, so call on your rainy day man.” And you feel, if you’ll pardon the expression, that you’ve got a friend.

James Taylor – ‘Rainy Day Man’ (1970, live)

James Taylor, Peter Asher

The Apple album was highly (many say over-) produced by Peter Asher, formerly of Peter & Gordon (‘World Without Love’, ‘Woman’, both written by McCartney), brother of McCartney paramour Jane, just a couple of years later the producer of the iconic West Coast albums of James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and others. Paul McCartney played bass on ‘Carolina In My Mind’ (as far as I remember, the first time a Beatle had guested on another artist’s album; it was akin to a god descending from Olympus). ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, one of the most affective love songs I know, clearly inspired George Harrison’s ‘Something’.

James Taylor – ‘Carolina in My Mind’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘Something in the Way She Moves’ (1970, live)

Listening to the Apple album today, as I have been for 40 years now, I find that the sound really has gotten a bit brittle. The strings aren’t bad, but don’t approach the profundity that the solo singer-songwriter-strummer displays. James’ resilient, warm, resonant baritone that two generations have been so drawn to, is not flattered in the Apple recording. It’s a bit thin, a bit reedy.

That being said, the songs are masterpieces of introspection. ‘Something’s Wrong’, ‘Sunshine, Sunshine’, ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, ‘Rainy Day Man’, ‘Carolina in My Mind’ – you can put me on a desert island with those five songs. I might hang myself from the one palm tree. But I’d do it with a smile on my face.

James Taylor – ‘Sunshine, Sunshine‘ (1970, live)

Like any well-balanced adult, I try to steer clear of the state of mind where you’re looking deep into the abyss of the meaninglessness of existence. But this week it caught up with me. So while I was wallowing in self-pity, I put on not the Apple album, but an old bootleg cassette I had of a live performance in Syracuse, NY, from February 1970. James had just finished recording the album; I’m not sure if it had even been released. When he introduces the song ‘Sweet Baby James’, no one claps. He was still reveling in relative obscurity. But it wouldn’t last long.

The Syracuse recording is quite remarkable. The sound is problematic, but who cares? Everything else is perfect. It includes some fine humor (a Ray Charles Coke commercial and his ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’, a snuff commercial), some old folk standards, most of the songs from the Apple album in definitive unadorned versions, a couple from the second. It also has a moving treatment of The Impressions’ ‘People Get Ready’, and his reading of George Harrison’s ‘If I Needed Someone’. If it doesn’t move you, someone ought to put a mirror underneath your nostrils.

James Taylor – Ray Charles Coke commercial (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – Snuff commercial (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘People Get Ready’ (1970, live)

And there’s another song you’ve heard several million times called ‘Yesterday’. It was written by Paul McCartney of the Beatles. He woke up one morning with the tune fully formed in his head, and assumed that he had heard it somewhere. He went to John, George, George Martin – none of them recognized it, but they all thought it was great. Paul wrote tentative lyrics for it just to give it some form. ‘Scrambled Eggs’ was what he called it (“Scrambled Eggs/Oh, my baby how I love your legs”).

Way back in SoTW 018, I wrote about a little-known Paul song that I dearly love, ‘Distractions’. I maintained that it was an exceptional song in his oeuvre.

Paul’s musicality is legendary, at times divine. “All My Loving”, “And I Love Her”, “Another Girl”. And that’s just the A’s up through 1965. But honesty, depth, soul-searching, have never been his fortes, to put it mildly. At his worst, the Prince of Plastic, the Sheikh of Shallow. At his best, a modern-day Mozart. Even the brilliant “Penny Lane”, a nostalgic trip back to childhood, leaves your heartstrings unplucked (compare it to the flip side of the single, “Strawberry Fields”). It’s just not what Paul does.

I caught a lot of flack back then. But when you listen to our Song of The Week, James Taylor’s version of that song, you might just see what I mean. It’s been performed an estimated 7 million times, was voted the best song of the 20th century in a 1999 BBC Radio 2 poll of music experts and listeners, and chosen as the #1 pop song of all time by MTV and Rolling Stone magazine.

Yawn. You listen to James’ treatment of the song. You tell me which version touches you more deeply. You tell me if you don’t feel like you’re hearing the song for the first time since 1965.

The one good thing that happened to me this week was that I sent James’ version of ‘Yesterday’ and ‘If I Needed Someone’ to a few choice friends of refined musical taste. They generated reactions such as “humbled and touched, that was beautiful” and “I have to admit, it’s a lovely touching rendition.” And “I seem to have been missing something in James Taylor”. That’s one of my missions in life, to spread the gospel of great music. I was frustrated in a couple of my endeavors this week, big-time. But I’ve still got James, and I still have some friends on whom I can foist him, so things can’t be all that bad. Can they?

For further listening edification:
The BBC broadcast a fine live James Taylor performance in 1970, including another Beatles song with a dark, drug reading, With a Little Help from My Friends.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also enjoy:

046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’

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282: Shuli Natan, ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ (Naomi Shemer)

Posted by jeff on May 11, 2018 in Song Of the week

Sunday is Jerusalem Day, marking the 51st anniversary of the reunification of the city. There’s a song inextricably intertwined with that event, ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ (‘Yerushalaim shel Zahav’). So this week I’m going to share with you here my personal connection with the city of Jerusalem, with the idea of Jerusalem, a thumbnail overview of the history of the city, and a look at the song so strongly identified with that event.

My Jerusalem

I came to Jerusalem on September 1, 1970, planning to spend nine months investigating my Jewish identity and then return to the US. My world was still reeling from the Kent State shootings, the draft breathing down my neck, and a lot of other walking nightmares best left in the attic. Yeats’ “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed” or The Stones’ “Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away”, take your pick.

I was 21, and terrified of what the world had in store for me.

I arrived at the dorm in Kiryat Shmuel in the middle of the night, climbed up to the top floor and collapsed. In the morning, I awoke to see three doors: The hallway. A closet.  And then I opened the third door and found a balcony with this view:

The rust-colored stucco roofs of Rehavia; The Valley of the Cross (the olive grove from which Jesus’ cross was taken, with no road yet traversing it); the Monastery of the Cross; Israel Museum; Hebrew University; the Knesset (parliament); and most of all, the sky.


And my life has never been the same. It was love at first sight.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish sages said “Ten portions of beauty came down into the world; Jerusalem took nine of them, and one of them for the entire world. There is no beauty such as the beauty of Jerusalem.” (Babylonian Talmud)

That day I went to find Egon, a German-born American poet with a beard down to his bellybutton. I found him digging in the archaeological site at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, at about the level of 800 BCE. In other words, I had just gone back 2700 years overnight.

It was that sense of timelessness that got me–the stones, the history they had witnessed. And the beauty–the city turns a profound shade of golden pink at sunset, the angle of the sun hitting the hand-carved stones of the buildings.

The air itself, אוויר הרים צלול כיין, mountain air as clear as wine.

The palpable vibration in the air.

Israel was in the exhilarated throes of its victory in the 6 Day War, full of patriotism and confidence and optimism. Back in Cincinnati I had seen bumper stickers aimed at us long-hairs, “America–Love It or Leave It”. I wrote a silly song about my feelings at the time, which somehow found its way into the Library of Congress, ‘Talkin’ Jues Blews’. The song was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Two months later, I met Yonit. Three days after that, as she was about to board the 15 bus on Jabotinsky Street, we kissed. A week after that we were engaged. A year after that, we were one of the first families to move into French Hill. A year later our daughter was born, two years after that our son.

For a year I worked for a book wholesaler, delivering Newsweek all over this magical city on my orange Vespa. That’s when I got to know her intimately. Then while I was studying at Hebrew University, the Yom Kippur War broke out. It slowly sunk in that the doomsday scenario so feared in 1967 had almost come true in 1973. In our military victory of 1967, we had not achieved security. We were still surrounded by enemies seeking our destruction.

But today we’re going to talk about that unique interbellum period of euphoria, when Israel was the David to the Arabs’ Goliath, when we were the valiant, courageous, victimized underdogs.

Quickie History Lesson

c1000 BCE     King David captures Jerusalem

c960                King Solomon builds the First Temple on Mt Moriah, the Temple Mount

586                  Babylonia destroys the Temple, Israelites sent to exile

516                  Jews return to Israel, rebuild a smaller Second Temple

37 CE              Herod builds the large Second Temple

70 CE              Romans destroy the Second Temple, many Jews sent to exile

c700                Muslims build Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa mosque on Temple Mount


The Temple Mount is about 36 acres in size, or 11 football fields. From the destruction of the Temple till about 1880, Jerusalem was a God-forsaken backwater populated by about 10,000 Jews (praying at the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the Temple), 5000 Muslims and 5000 Christians, all living within the city walls.

In about 1880, the Zionist movement (led by Herzl) inspired Jews mainly from eastern Europe to come to Israel with the vision of recreating a national homeland. The first Jerusalem neighborhoods were built outside the city walls. My grandmother was born in one of them, in about 1885.

As the Jewish population grew, so did the resistance to it from the local Arab population.

In 1917, the British conquered Jerusalem from the Turks. Jewish immigration increased. Friction grew between Jews, Arabs and Brits. In 1939, the gates were closed to Jews trying to flee Europe. In 1947, there were approximately 100,000 Jews, 30,000 Muslim Arabs and a similar number of Christians (some Arabs, mostly foreigners) living intermixed geographically, although most neighborhoods were predominantly Arab or Jewish. The Old City (the Walled City) had a strong Arab majority, the population outside the Old City was mostly Jewish.

The British announced their plan to end of the Mandate in May, 1948. The UN voted on a Partition Plan dividing the country into two national states, with Jerusalem under international control. The Jews accepted the plan, the Arabs rejected it. The British left, the Jews declared an independent state, the Arabs attacked. In the ensuing war, the fledgling Jewish population (the Yishuv) managed to hold off the invading Arab armies and establish an independent Jewish homeland for the first time in 2000 years.

But the military victory in Jerusalem was only partial—the Old City, in fact all of eastern Jerusalem, remained in Jordanian hands.

A wall was built dividing the city. Jews were forbidden from crossing the border, forbidden from praying at the Wailing Wall. The synagogues in the Old City were destroyed and defiled.

The 6 Day War, Re-unification of Jerusalem

In 1967, Egyptian president Nasser decided it was high time to throw these infidel interlopers into the sea. The combined Arab armies greatly outnumbered that of Israel, and annihilation seemed imminent.

The air was fraught with tension. In all the Arab capitals, mobs were screaming for Jewish blood. The reserves of the Israeli Defense Forces – virtually the entire male population – had been drafted, bringing the country to a nerve-wracking standstill.

Naomi Shemer (l), Moshe Dayan

In the middle of this, at the behest of Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, songwriter Naomi Shemer (1930-2004) composed an ode to Jerusalem in honor of Israel’s 19th Independence Day, May 15, 1967. It was performed by the young, unknown Shuli Natan at a music festival, and overnight became the song on the lips of every Israeli citizen during these unbearably tense weeks. Egypt expelled the UN troops from the Sinai peninsula, amassed troops on the border with Israel, and blocked Israel’s southern port of Eilat by closing the Straits of Tiran.

“Jerusalem of Gold” (“Yerushalayim shel Zahav”) expresses the modern Jews’ longing for Jerusalem, echoing the complaint of the Israeli exiles as expressed in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, remembering you, Zion…If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten.” In May 1967, that psalm was reflecting a political and military reality, as well as a spiritual and historical one.

Shuli Natan

On June 5, Israel launched a pre-emptive air strike against the Egyptian air force, destroying it on the ground, and effectively determining the outcome of the war within hours.

Without a plan or forethought, driven by centuries of longing and decades of strife and suffering, Israel also captured the Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from which Syria had mercilessly shelled Israeli settlements in the north, and the West Bank from Jordan. Including the Old City, including the Temple Mount, which was now under Jewish control for the first time since its destruction two millennia earlier.

The ram’s horn was blown freely, marking what was perceived as a ‘Hidden Miracle’; i.e., one with no direct supernatural intervention (cf the splitting of the Red Sea during the Exodus), but a confluence of happenings which defies rational explanation.

The Song and the Two Jerusalems

Naomi Shemer then added the fourth verse to the song. No longer was Jerusalem the object of our longing, the cause for our tears. Overnight, Jerusalem was real.

In the Jewish tradition, there are two Jerusalems—heavenly Jerusalem and earthly Jerusalem. And never the twain shall meet.

The source for this cosmic dichotomy is Hosea 11:9: “For a god am I, and not a man – [I am] holy among you; I will not enter the city.” (כי אל אנכי ולא-איש – בְּקִרְבְּךָ קָדוֹשׁ – וְלֹא אָבוֹא בְּעִיר) In Tractate Ta’anit of the Talmud (5A), the sages wonder why God’s being holy would preclude him from mingling with Man. R. Elhanan explains: I will not enter heavenly Jerusalem until I have entered earthly Jerusalem. (אמר הקב”ה, לא אבוא בירושלים של מעלה עד שאבוא לירושלים של מטה.)

“Jerusalem of Gold” has become Israel’s unofficial anthem. In the 51 years since the 6 Day War, the two Jerusalems have existed side-by-side. Well, one on top of the other. Physical Jerusalem, where people work and play and pray; and super-physical Jerusalem, where the longing for an unattainable ultimate is as real and undefinable as it has always been.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how to deal with that. I’m as bewildered by this untenable reality coexisting with this impossible super-reality as I was when I came to Jerusalem 50 years ago.

As you’re driving to work, you pass the Temple Mount. If you’re Jewish or Muslim or Christian, you wave to God. Do you get that? All three monotheistic religions believe that God–in one sense or another–resides there. It’s where the cosmic meets the profane. That creates the vibrations – and the beauty – that are so uniquely my Jerusalem.

Other SoTWs about Jerusalem:

Going Up to Jerusalem with Kurt Elling

172: Anúna, ‘Jerusalem’

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281: Carla Bley with Steve Swallow, ‘Lawns’

Posted by jeff on Apr 27, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

You have two options:

  • You can look at the picture of Carla Bley, say to yourself “Well, she just looks silly”, click Delete and spend the next seven minutes listening to a digital organ play Chinese torture music while you wait on the phone to make an appointment for the orthodontist.
  • You can watch this clip of Carla Bley and her partner Steve Swallow playing her composition ‘Lawns’, and witness as true an expression of love as can be made through music.

I’ve watched this clip of ‘Lawns’ maybe 30 times in the last month. I mean, I really like it.

She’s a character, a dynamo, hilarious and wacky and imposing. But she is first and foremost a singular composer of elusive, intriguing, beautiful songs.

Her partner Steve Swallow eschewed the double bass for an electric bass in the late 1960s, a pioneering move for a progressive jazz musician. It’s true that the bass traditionally and by nature provides support for a lead instrument. And the fact that Carla is such a strong composer (and imposing figure) that she might seem to ‘wear the pants’ (jeez, you can probably get arrested today for using that phrase) in the relationship. But when you actually listen, you see that he more than holds his own. First of all, he’s more of an instrumentalist than Carla. She’s plays a songwriter’s piano. He is a full partner in making the music.

It’s a voyeuristic experience, watching this couple making musical love. It’s not a Hollywood Barbie and Ken Get It On scene. It’s about real humans, serious and mature and wrinkled, and real love.

This is what love at 60 should be. Not screaming and strutting or popping buttons and groaning. It’s the gentle, warm intimacy born of years of two very individual individuals living together, creating a world bigger than the sum of their own selves.

It’s love.

‘Ladies in Mercedes’–from “Duets”


At 17, in 1955, Carla hitchhiked from California to New York, where she got a job as a cigarette girl in Birdland, a leading jazz venue. At 19 she married dour avant garde Montreal pianist Paul Bley for a while. Then she was married to Austrian avant garde trumpeter Michael Mantler from 1965 to 1991, with whom she pioneered the independent free jazz scene, establishing an artist-owned big band, record label and distribution agency for progressive jazz. And since then, from what I can gather, she’s been with bassist extraordinaire Steve Swallow, with whom she’d been collaborating musically since the late 70s.

She’s also recorded well over 30 albums in a wide variety of contexts–big band, smaller ensembles, and in recent years duets with Swallow and trios with him and saxophonist Andy Sheppard.

I’ve been listening to nothing but Carla for the last month, and I feel that I’m still far from having absorbed the life’s work of this major artist.

Although her reputation is primarily as a composer in the world of free jazz, I’ve found her oeuvre to be surprisingly diverse. And accessible. And fun. And rewarding.

‘Ups & Downs’–from “Duets”

The Route

Kurt Elling — ‘Endless Lawns’

Kurt Elling just released “The Questions”, a typically eclectic, surprising and serious theme album–this time probing “the big questions – What is this life? Does meaning have being? Why is there such suffering and pain? Where is the wellspring of wisdom?”

“We’re two musicians who have dedicated ourselves to a similar task – to be jazz musicians to the greatest extent of our abilities. We pay attention to the real heroes of the music, we play in the style and spirit of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived, and we don’t cut corners. We’re here to play great melodies and express authentic emotion – to be the real deal as much as we can.” [On his second consecutive collaboration with Bradford Marsalis; we discussed in SoTW 261 Elling’s treatment of Sting’s ‘Practical Arrangement’]

Here Carla Bley’s ‘Lawns’ becomes ‘Endless Lawns,’ with Elling’s new lyric interposed with a poem by Sara Teasdale. Thank you Kurt, both for your reading, and for getting me to go back and get past the hair.

‘Lawns’–from “Sextet”

Free Jazz

I was quite aware of Carla before this. First of all as the composer of a cut that’s long been very close to my heart–‘Jesus Maria’:

I listen to a fair amount of free jazz. I’m not opposed to dissonance, grit, or taking a leap of faith to follow a demanding artist. But my feet are placed firmly in the camp of “I’ll give it a 9—it’s got a good melody and you can dance to it,” just like most normal humans.

But here and there, there’s difficult music that grabs me.

021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’

037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)

178: The Claudia Quintet +1 feat. Kurt Elling, ‘Showtime’ (“What is the Beautiful?”)

In the early 1960s, the trio of Jimmy Giuffre (reeds), Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, made a series of free jazz recordings that speak to me very directly and strongly. Here are two versions of ‘Jesus Maria’ by that trio — from ‘Emphasis‘ (live) and from ‘Fusion‘, both 1961.

And here’s Carla’s own septet version. What can I say? I connect to Giuffre’s trio readings, not to the trombone-based septet. And if I’d stopped listening to Carla at this point, I’d have remained convinced that she’s a composer.

But there’s so much more.

Carla’s Music

As I said, I’ve been listening to her non-stop for a month now, but she’s been recording prolifically for 50 years, and it would be a serious injustice to think that one can fully digest the life’s work of a serious artist in a few weeks.

So I’m going to present you with a pile of music, and cordially invite you to do some exploring on your own.

Throughout much of her career, Carla’s main vehicle has been her big band. Here’s a fine blog posting reviewing that whole period. I’ll bring a few examples from those recordings below, but I’ve been mostly drawn in by her duets with Swallow and trios with him and Sheppard.


Here’s her song ‘The Girl Who Cried Champagne’ in three very different versions:


Here’s her beautiful ballad ‘Utviklingssang’ (‘Song in development’ in Norwegian)


Here are some interpretations of her “Ad Infinitum”:


And here are readings by three different artists of her ‘Ida Lupino’ (a hard-headed 1950s actress turned director of socially-conscious films, the first female to break into the Hollywood director Boy’s Club):

And here’s ‘Peau Douce’

Of this entire treasure chest, I keep going back to “Duets”. So I’ll leave you with one last taste of the musical intercourse these two artists share with us, ‘Romantic Notion #3’. Listen to the interplay between them. She puts up the coffee, he goes for the newspaper. After breakfast, they make music. Two distinct and distinctive personalities. Sharing a life. Making joyous music.

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135: Kaveret, ‘Medina Ktana’ (Little Country)

Posted by jeff on Apr 17, 2018 in Israeli, Rock, Song Of the week

Kaveret, ‘Medina Ktana’ (Little Country)

Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us, happy birthday dear Israel, happy birthday to us.

It’s our 70thtoday, and the few millions of us here are mostly out on the roads, visiting air force bases, national parks, waving flags and fanning the grill with our families and friends. But not far below the surface there’s a sincerity in it all, a true recognition and celebration of our very existence, something we don’t take for granted.

The Center of the Universe

Did you know that Israel is the only country in the world whose national anthem is in a minor key? Could be because after 2000 years of persecution it was built on the ashes of a near genocide. Israel has fought three existential wars in its 67 years, and hence lives with an acute sense of fragility. It’s the only country in history recreated by a miraculous act of will out of a tribal imagination, the only nation to return to its homeland from dispersion, reviving a dead language on the way. It’s also the only democracy in this part of the world, a bizarre mix of refugees from every corner of the world stuck in the middle of the Levant, hence a sharp sense of irony regarding our still-evolving national identity. People run around like crazy trying to be normal in the most abnormal of societies.


In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the country barely survived obliteration, a bunch of army buddies formed a band called Kaveret (‘beehive’), sometimes also known as Poogy (after the name of their first album, “Poogy Stories”). The leader and chief songwriter was Danny Sanderson, an Israeli who grew up in the US on rock and roll. In three years they recorded three albums as out of place and ahead of their time in the Israeli musical landscape as the country is in the Middle East – sophisticated in music, production, performance and content.

Patriotic symbol

Many of their songs have become cultural icons, still sung today by teenagers and recycled by rock stars. I’d like to share one with you, sort of a mock anthem, a modest little song that captures the spirit and ethos and self-image of this noisy, neurotic little country better than anything else I know of – ‘Little Country’.

We Israelis get pretty tired of seeing ourselves on the front page of the NY Times every day. On the other hand, we also see ourselves as the center of the universe. Go explain it. Well, Sanderson’s lyrics do it best – our wry perception of our very existence, our precariousness, our homey patriotism better expressed in self-effacing humor than in pompous parades.

Happy birthday, Israel. Here’s SoTW’s official nomination for our unofficial anthem.

מדינה קטנה

במקום די רחוק, קרוב לכאן
אספנו את עצמנו
הבאנו חברינו
ולא אמרנו מי ומה

In a pretty remote place near here,
We gathered ourselves up,
Brought all our friends,
Didn’t say anything.

בדרום בצפון או במרכז
שכרנו קצת שמים
דמעות הביאו מים
פתחנו ארץ חדשה

In the north, in the south, or in the center
We rented some sky,
Tears brought the water,
We opened a new land.

מדינה קטנה מתחמקת מצרה
את הכתובת לא תמצא
היא שמורה בתוך קופסה
בעולם כל כך קשה
להתבלט זה לא יפה
נתחבא כאן ולנצח לא נצא

A little country avoiding trouble
You can’t find the address,
It’s kept in a box,

In such a hard world
Sticking out isn’t nice,
We’ll just hide here and never leave.

שני בתים, שני סוסים ,שלושה עצים
נוסעים תמיד ברגל
שרים שירים בלי דגל
נושמים שנים ללא סיבה

Two houses, two horses, three trees
Travelling by foot
Singing songs without flags,
Breathing for years with no reason.

מלחמות אסונות חולפים בצד
אנחנו בתוכנו
וכל מה שאצלנו
תמיד ניתן למחיקה

Wars, tragedies, pass on by,
We inside ourselves
And all we have
Are always erasable.

יום אחד אם כדאי אולי נצא
כל עוד נעמוד לאורך
אני לא מרגיש ת’צורך
נחיה נמות ואז נראה

One day, if we should, maybe we’ll go out.
As long as we stand up straight
I won’t feel the need.
We’ll live, we’ll die, then we’ll see.

Additional Listening from Kaveret:

Medina Ktana (Little Country)

Shir HaMakolet (The Grocery Store Song)

Yo Ya

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

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

109: Daniel Zamir, ‘Shir HaShomer’ (Red Sea Jazz Festival, 2011)


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