Friday, April 2, 2010

For Realz. Why Jewish music is and isn't camp. A response to Rokhl Kafrissen

I've just read Rokhl Kafrissen's Jewish Currents article "Yiddish American Music: “Camp” or For Real?" (Update..Rokhl just put an updated and expanded version on line.) and am a bit annoyed. The premise of Kafrissen's article is that the eclectic choices that the Reboot Stereophonic label makes are based on a criteria other than what they claim. They claim important moments in Jewish American musical history...they deliver camp, music that can only be loved with a certain conspiratorial giggle. Hey look...the Barry Sisters are singing "Raindrops are Falling on My Head" in Yiddish and wearing fur capes. Yick!

Our Way album cover
In the article, Kafriessen's foil for Reboot Stereophonic is Henry Sapoznik's Sony Legacy reissues, with the rerelease of the klezmer classic "Tanz!" showing up Reboot's re-release of the Barry Sisters "Our Way". Kafriessen spends a good chunk of the article demolishing any possible reason for releasing the Barry Sisters album. It wasn't their best album. It wasn't the best Yiddish interpretation of American pop. It doesn't live up to Reboot's record jacket utopian hype. It can be associated with "anti-klezmer backlash among a certain kind of Jewish hipster." Tanz! on the other hand (quoting Sapoznik), is "fueled by a unity of overall construction that gives Tanz! a thematic coherence years ahead of its time. It is arguably the greatest klezmer record ever issued.” This argument, though, goes unscrutinized both in its detail and in its relevance. I'm not about to challenge Sapoznik about the brilliance of Tanz!. But I am going to challenge Kafriessen about it's relevance to this discussion. The bottom line was that Tanz! and The Barry Sisters 'Our Way' were both released. Arguing that one is a better album is amusing, but ultimately a waste of column inches. They will last or vanish based on their relevance to their audience over time.

More importantly, I see Kafriessen's denigration of Our Way as not a critical victory showing us we don't need camp, but as a fundamental mis-read of American Jewish musical history. Ever since the 1970's, with the wonderful flowering of the klezmer revival, there has developed a foundational myth that klezmer some how exclusively represents legitimate Jewish popular music, with it's deep ties to the pre-war Yiddishkeit culture and it's wonderful, talented, musicians. This is a lovely myth, but it is a myth none-the-less. The musics now categorized as klezmer have every inch the pedigree and musicianship claimed for them, but they do not represent an exclusive flowering of Yiddiskeit musical culture. There is a wide range of musical types ranging from chazzanes (cantorial) to folk songs to Yiddish theater with equally old pedigrees. Secondly, all of these musical forms were mingled with (and helped create) a dizzying array of American and Jewish American forms the moment the musicians hit the shores of the US.

And yes, some of all that was klezmer, but a lot wasn't. And a lot of it was funny, off-kilter, off-color, and theatrical. I adore the "hot licks" of klezmer as much as Kafriessen, but spend a a few minutes in the bins of your favorite used record store (yes, LPs) or with Reboot Stereophics wonderful blog and then book "And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost" and a very different picture emerges. American Jewish music was, and is, adventurous, exploratory and genre-busting. And, sometimes, to an American Jewish community that struggled to hold on to its identity while rapidly assimilating, it was (and still is) campy...

In my opinion, the Reboot Stereophic re-releases celebrate this. Their release of the Irving Fields Trio's Bagels and Bongos is a window into the lost world of the Jewish Latin music craze. "God is a Moog" may be "unclassifiable" as Kafriessen notes, but it was a brilliant experiment and was inspirational to current generation of electronica artists. And even Our Way is a fun listen, a reminder that our grandparents were pretty much like us. Jewish and American, trying to make sense of both. And they wore leisure suits. Yick.

Kafriessen would have done better to use the wide range of musical styles on Sapoznik's compilation album "From Avenue A to the Great White Way" as a foil. Or to celebrate Micky Katz comedic releases instead of moaning about his unappreciated instrumental recordings. The bottom line is, Kafriessen and other writers about Jewish music would do better to skip the hand wringing, admire klezmer, but knock it down from it's place of privilege in our collective lore, and celebrate the richness and diversity of Jewish music in general, and Jewish American music in particular.

Update...Just for fun, here's a one of my favorite Barry Sisters tracks, recorded in with the extraordinary Cantor Moishe Oysher. I saw it performed recently by some marvelous local Michigan cantors. It was as sexy and wild on stage as it is on record.

HALEVAI - Moishe Oysher and The Barry Sisters


rokhl said...

Hey Jack,

So glad you took the time to read and respond to my piece!! Can you correct the spelling of my last name in the title?

Thank you!!

-rokhl kafrissen

Jack said...

Oop. Sorry about that. All fixed.

Jack said...

By the way, my disagreements with some of your assertions aside, thanks for writing the article. There isn't nearly enough thoughtful writing on Jewish music out there. Good job. (And bonus points for using the term camp and actually defining it :) Nice job.

rokhl said...

One of the points on my next manifesto is that Jewish music (and all Jewish art) should be treated with the same seriousness as any other art. It makes me mad how many journalists turn off their critical faculties as soon as they see the word 'yiddish'.

Anyway, glad to get a dialogue going!

Jack said...

Rokhl, you won't get any argument from me. I would love to see the quality of writing on Jewish music improve. I would say that serious art writing on Jewish music is not the only valid perspective, but it's an important one that gets less attention that it deserves. And the other perspectives (e.g. religious, cultural) should be approached with a critical judgment as well.

Joey Baron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joey Baron said...

What a great discussion. If the Vinyl Trail isn't camp, then why is it presented with such kitsch? Then again, maybe campiness is just one more way to deal with assimilation?
For me, Klezmer music is far from the final word in Jewish music. But I do think the klezmer revival provided the musical inspiration and accompaniment to a revival in Yiddish culture and, more importantly, to a creative, expression-based, search for Jewish identity.
Whether you listen to Chazzanut or Chasidic Hip Hop, Bernstein or the Brill Building, let music help you rejoice in your Jewishness.
Joey Baron
Boston Jewish Music Festival

Jack said...

Hi Joey,

I think that's a great question and since I wasn't involved with the production of the albums, I can only speculate. First of all, as far as I'm aware Reboot Stereophonic used the original album covers. Which changes to the question to whether or not the original albums were expected to be kitschy and how that plays into our perspectives now, decades later. The Irving Fields cover is a great example, full of bongos and snazzy latin jackets. A new album with that cover would have a sense of deliberate kitsch or retro cool. I'm not clear on how the original would have been perceived at the time of issue. Stylistically it's on par with a lot of albums that used to be in my Grandfather's collection. He had a thing for Harry Belafonte, another king of quasi-legit, quasi-kitsch music. Reboot might have been going for the retro cool feel, a sort of Mad Men on disc. Or just a faithful production of a period disc. Not sure.

One thing is for sure, the discs are fun, colorful and unexpected. Some, including Rokhl seem to want to turn their noses up to that fun and dismiss it as camp and theatrics. Ok. But most popular music is theatrics, so that's not much of a critique.

Anyway, I agree with you that klezmer provided an important musical inspiration (and what great music), but historically it's not the only one. Contemporary with the klezmer revival was the pop liturgical revolution, with Carlebach on the traditional side and the reform songleaders on the liberal side. This movement has had as much impact on the current Jewish musical / cultural scene as klezmer has.

rokhl said...

I just want to make two points that I think are getting lost here:

1. The music and its presentation are two separate things. I am a huge Barry Sisters fan. Just because Our Way is not the Barry Sisters best doesn't mean I think it's worthless. More Barry Sisters the better!! My argument is about the framing and presentation of the material. I'm happy to have more Jewish music available. But I could have written a similar article comparing the material on Jewface, for example, and the material on From Avenue A to the Great White Way. It's great to have access to this sometimes disturbing, but fascinating part of history. But I would argue that the Stereophonic focus on the grotesque aspects of that history is not the only way that this material can be understood. Just look at the way that Sapoznik handles it in his excellent booklet for 'Avenue A'. The focus on the grotesque says something about our perception of ourselves.

2. Stereophonic didn't discover or recover the Barry Sisters and more than they did Irving Fields, for example. Plenty of people discover the Sisters on their own without being exposed to the Stereophonic materials. They come to it because they love Yiddish or because they're into 40s swing, for example.

DJ SoCalled (Josh Dolgin) had been working with Irving Fields for quite a while before Stereophonic reissued Bagels and Bongos. Dolgin even brought him to Klezkanada a few years ago where they collaborated musically. As far as I know, Fields had NO involvement with the reissue of B&B.

This music is out there waiting for people to listen to it, anew. It's important stuff. Some of it is fantastic music. And I believe that it's good enough to be taken on its own terms, in its own context, without having it served up in a palatably edgy context with a wink and a nod on the side.

Jack said...


These are good points and worth taking individually.

First of all, the separation between presentation and musical material is not one you made clearly in your article. If that's truly your concern, ok. Let me sum up what I think your thesis is (mostly so that you can correct me if I'm not getting it).
- there's a rich history of Jewish music
- Some reprint publishers (exemplified by Sapoznik) approach this history in a thoughtful way, focusing on the most critical historical or artistic moments and highlighting these moments in their musical selections, marketing, artwork, and liner notes.
- Some reprint publishers (specifically Reboot Stereophonic) approach this history in a crass consumerist way, sifting through it for the camp and the grotesque and highlighting them in their musical selections, artwork, and liner notes.

Implicit in this distinction, is your applause for Sapoznik and disdain for Reboot. That about right?

That's a clear thesis that's arguable on its merits, which I've tried to do and could continue to do. My opinion is that each of the Reboot recordings represents an important moment in the history of American Jewish music, from both cultural and musical history perspectives. That is not to say that are the best musical performances ever, but each is a touchstone to an important period of Jewish American music and culture.

And yes, Reboot's marketing is eye-grabbing and uses visual referent points to highlight those periods in time. Camp? Kitsch? Retro-cool? Period? All in the eye of the beholder. But no doubt chosen to both attract attention and and an audience, particularly an audience that didn't live through those periods. Sapoznik's marketing? historic and depersonalized. The Avenue A album just looks boring and looks like it should appeal to a collector. Comparing the cover of Tanz! and the cover Bagels and Bongos, both are the historic covers. Reboots album name certainly suggests kistch to a modern eye, but it's reflective of the period.

Which leads to your second point. It seems that your argument is that plenty of folks love the Barry Sisters, so that Reboot is accomplishing nothing. That's a sour grapes argument. First of all, few people listen to the Barry Sisters. Few people listen to historic Yiddish recordings of any kind. Josh Dolgrin is poor example. He's a wonderful, professional, musician who has made an art form out of sampling historic recordings (in addition to his fine accordion playing of licks learned from those recordings). He does not represent a typical Barry Sisters fan. As for his working with Fields, I'm well aware of it and it's wonderful. Fields still has a lot to offer. But his album was out of print until Reboot reissued it. The Barry Sisters disk, I believe, was as well. Are you seriously arguing the Jewish music world would have been better off if Reboot hadn't reissued them? Are you arguing that Reboot has introduce no one to the joys of these recordings? That seems a stretch. Again, what seems to be implicit in your argument is that your happy that their reissed, you would just prefer that someone else other than Reboot was doing it.

That's sour grapes. Go suggest to Sapoznik or someone else that he take on a similar project. For me, I'm quite grateful that Reboot is doing what their doing. They're doing their best to expose a new generation to a lot of Jewish American music that has been marginalized by the Klezmer revival. And, in the process, suggesting that it might be fun to listen to.

Bashe said...

Hi Jack, I enjoyed your article and this thread up until it turned a little shrill. I don't think you're representing Rokhl's article entirely fairly; in no way does she express "disdain" for Reboot. She's merely wondering why there seems to be a fixation on their part on some of the "cheesier" aspects of 1970s Jewish popular music. (Which may be a function more of its 1970s-ness, rather than its Jewishness?) You also make no comment on one of the truths that her article hits on -- that the Barry Sister's Yiddish versions of popular Anglophone songs flatters non-Yiddish speakers into thinking that they "know" Yiddish. And thus, don't have to bother learning it.

Jack said...

Hi Bashe...Sorry 'bout that. Didn't mean to get shrill. And fair enough. My use of the word "disdain" may come off a bit hyperbolic, though I didn't mean it as such. It's pretty much on par with her use of the word "grotesque," which I'm sure she meant in a non-hyperbolic was also.

And I do hear you about 70's cheesiness. There's no way anyone can look at the Our Way album cover and not sense that. My objection to the article is that Reboot's recordings are all reflective of there times. Unless you argue that the albums aren't worth re-release, it's hard to argue the cheese factor.

And your right, I didn't touch on her point about Yiddish. Mostly because I found it tangential to the main themes of the article. But, in my opinion, that claim suffers from the same flaw as the rest of the article. It makes a strong assumption that American Jews care enough about Yiddish to seek out an album that makes them feel the know it, and that Reboot chose the album for that reason. That's a big claim. Outside the Chassidic communities, and some Orthodox communities, Yiddish hasn't been a living language in generations. While I'd be as happy as anyone to see the situation change, this album will make no difference one way or another. I doubt this album would convince anyone, even for a moment, that they know Yiddish. On the other hand the familiarity of some of the recordings may help point out to listeners that they have something in common with the audience of the original release and help them get over the foreignness of the language. I see that as a positive entry point into Jewish music (and Yiddish itself), not the delusional sugar rush that Rokhl does.(hope that doesn't sound shrill :)