Friday, August 1, 2008

Sweet Home Jerusalem, Music and the Culture Wars

Music has always been about identify. We sing about what we care about, adopting and adapting musical forms that identify us as part of a group. While I don't tend to explicitly focus on the specific agenda's of the music I write about, the fact that I'm even writing about specific music is an exercise in culture. What is being Jewish about?, listen to my answer.

I ran across a video this morning that was a fascinating exercise in cultural identity and political propaganda. In the video, Israeli guitarist Menachem Herman rock's his way through a cover of the American classic rock song Sweet Home, Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd retitled "Sweet Home, Jerusalem." The video is a cut & paste job filled with idyllic images of Jewish Jerusalem.

Like the original lyrics, the song lyrics, written by Rabbi Lazer Brody, are classic cultural chauvinism prompted by an external slur. The original song was Lynyrd Skynyrd's defensive response to folk-rock guitarist Neil Young's song Southern Man which painted the American South (of the time) as racist. Skynyrd's response

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down.
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
a southern man don't need him around anyhow.

Herman and Brody's version appears a defensive response to recent political suggestions by the UN (and Barak Obama?) that Jerusalem be divided.

"Well I heard the UN talk about her
But a Jewish boy won't drink this brew
Uncle Sam please remember, that
Jerusalem won't be split in two!"

So why am I calling attention to this? Songs like this are both essential and dangerous. They're essential as rallying cries and cultural banners for any group under seige, as clearly the religious Zionists feel they are. Sweet Home, Jerusalem gives a way for members of the group to identify each other (hey, he's singing SHJ too!) and share their experience. Music has always made great rallying cries.

Songs like this are dangerous though, too. Lynyrd Skynard claims they wrote Sweet Home, Alabama because, while Neil Young's comments about a racist South may be partly true, the song was "Neil ... shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two." (citation) The problem is that SHA saves all ducks and makes no apology for the racism. Sweet Home Jerusalem makes no apology for any of Israel's role in the current Israeli / Palestinian problem and offers no constructive response to the idea of Jerusalem's division (which is popular in Israel as well as the west) other than the anthem "Jerusalem won't be split in two."

Personally, I struggle with conflicting ideas and emotions about Israel and Jerusalem and am not at all condemning Herman and Brody for their feelings. (In fact, I'm pretty sympathetic.) But waving a musical banner like this has its risks. Mostly, I wanted to call attention to it as a interesting and topical case of Jewish music being used as weapon in a culture war. That's something I haven't written about much and should be more attentive to.

Sweet Home, Jerusalem

(By the way, I'm an honest guy so I'll fess up. I've don't like most classic rock, partially because of the chauvinisms that underly much of it and I've never liked Sweet Home, Alabama.)

Hat tip to Lazer Beams for posting the video (and writing the words) and BlogInDm for linking to it.


Israel B said...

Unfortunately "SHJ" is really a terrible rip of SHA. I'm not a true believer fan of the original or the genre, but it was a good rock track and well produced. This? Not so much...

The thing about these rallying point songs is that they tend to "preach to the converted" rather than attract new members to the cause

Eric C. Friedman said...

One oddly funny part of this is that Artemus Pile lived on Mt. Zion for a while, and even played with some of the "Diaspora Yeshiva Band" offshoots. He'd probably approve of this song, based on the time I spent with him (but that was over 20 years ago).

Another odd point is that, when I left Jerusalem to briefly live in Toronto at the end of 1990, it was during the worst part of the Oka "Rebellion" & siege; one thing the Ontario radio stations delighted in playing was "Sweet Home, Alabama", because it turned out that Ontario wasn't any better than the segregated South, in the end.