Friday, February 27, 2009

Camp Rock -The Music of Reform Youth

Photograph of Cantor WallyI was recently pointed to a great article on the history of Reform Jewish youth camp music. According to the author, Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin, the Reform youth camps movement "began with the founding of the National Federation of Temple Youth in 1939 ... to foster and maintain a network of temple youth groups, which stresses both religious and educational programming." Hitting it's stride in the early 1950's Reform camp music incorporated a blend of American popular folk (Weavers, Kingston Trio) and protest songs, Yiddish folk songs, Israeli "hialutznik" songs, along with "some hymns from the old Union Songster." The music was embedded in the daily life of the camps and was structured around singalongs led by older youth, often with guitar or banjo accompaniment.

According to Cantor Wally, from this start the music evolved to follow the style of the day, often with a bit of a time lag. In the 1960's it embraced protest music in the style of Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, and Woody Guthrie. In the 1970's it engaged the electrified pop-rock of Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, and Joan Baez. The 70's also brought to the forefront the first serious professional camp songleaders and composers, including familiar names like Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, and Michael Isaacson. As Cantor Wally notes, "Echoing the rise in Jewish ethnic pride, camp music nationwide saw a strong shift in the early ‘70s from what had been 80% brotherhood songs to 95% Hebrew (with "Sabbath Prayer", from the musical "Fiddler on the Roof", thrown in on Friday night)." The 1980's saw a decline in songleading and camp music, as the camps struggled with out-of-date songbooks and a generation of campers that were more used to rock concerts than folk music singalongs. This decline was addressed by the end of the decade and through the 1990's by a series of songleading workshops, new songbooks, and a new generation of professional songleaders such as Craig Taubman who could incorporate electric guitar, keyboards, and drums into their music.


Debbie Friedman - Lechi Lach

This Debbie Friedman video exemplifies the contemporary songleader approach, mixing participatory singing with rock instrumentation, Hebrew with English lyrics, and a stage presence that facilitates and instructs.


In addition to tracing the history of the camps in isolation Cantor Wally connects their development to that of the Reform synagogue liturgy, noting "the tremendous impact the participatory style of the camping movement." He quotes that "Synagogues tend to be "10-15 years behind the camps as far as change. Whatever was a trend in the camps, it takes a generation to find its way into the synagogue." That said, Cantor Wally is quick to point out that the contemporary Reform synagogue is not last decade's camp. In addition to the integration of camp melodies and styles, it also incorporates a mix a traditional Reform Hebrew hymns, Chazzanut, and art song. But "[t]he 'gap' between the worship style of camps and synagogues is shrinking."

My one frustration with the article, and this is a "great stuff, give me more" kind of frustration, is that it presents a picture of Reform camp music evolution as being disconnected with the similar evolutions in the other Jewish movements. For example, the camp service songlist that Cantor Wally provides includes a number of Chassidic songs from Reb Shlomo Carlebach. There is no discussion of however, of how Carlebach's music represented a parallel evolution in Chassidic music that had a similar impact on Chassidic and Orthodox liturgy. While completely chronicling the evolution in Jewish liturgical music across the wide spectrum of Jewish movement over the last century is clearly a much larger task than Cantor Wally was attempting to take on, it would have been illuminating to see where Cantor Wally felt these evolutions actually influenced each other.

As a quick final note, like the article "American Yiddish Instrumental Fusion Music in the 1950s and 1960s" I mentioned in my post "Recovering the Yiddish Cha Cha," "The Music of Reform Youth" represents an academic masters thesis and has, at times, a slightly academic tone. But that tone never gets in the way, making this a highly informative and highly engaging article.

Update: A blog reader just informed me that "The Complete NFTY Recordings: 1972-1989 (5 CD Set)" is available from URJ Books & Music. NFTY is the National Federation of Temple Youth mentioned above and at the core of the Reform camp movement. Here's the URJ blurb...
"The long-awaited collection of the seven original NFTY recordings is finally here! All original record albums have been digitized and remastered for superior sound in this 5CD set. Includes 28-page full-color booklet with complete album histories, a historical essay from NFTY-ite Elyssa Mosbacher and track/songwriter information. Discover the rich history of NFTY and URJ camp music - a little bit of Jewish liturgy, a little Israeli folk and some American folk music all mixed into one."
Hat tip to Jewish musician and educator Adrian Durlester for pointing me to the article.

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