The gate to the village: Shlomo Carlebach and the creation of American Jewish "folk".

Author:Kelman, Ari Y.
Position:Essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

"Chassidim believe that in the highest heavens there is a sanctuary that song alone can unlock. Could these songs be the keys to that Gate? Sing them and see." Rachel Anne Rabinowitz, liner notes for Shlomo Carlebach: Live at the Village Gate

"Hevra, let's pretend we're happy."

Shlomo Carlebach, Waban MA, 1995

"Please open the gates for me. Please open the gates." That's how Shlomo Carlebach introduced himself to his audience at The Village Gate, the legendary Greenwich Village club where he performed on a number of occasions during the early 1960s. This beseeching, almost liturgical invitation opens his 1963 album, "Shlomo Carlebach: Live at the Village Gate," and serves as an introduction to his version of Psalm 118: "Open the Gates of Righteousness /I long to enter and give thanks." According to Carlebach, he wrote the melody for the song on his way to the performance, when he may well have been contemplating the connection between his music, its connection to sacred Jewish texts, and the music scene of the moment in New York's Greenwich Village in which he had become an active participant as a singer, performer, composer, and somewhat marginal figure in the Folk Revival. In other words, Carlebach wasn't necessarily talking about the club, but he might as well have been.

Gates, after all, are places of admission and transformation. They open and close, they protect and they make possible. They are liminal places. Literal thresholds. They are places of tricksters and traders, of migrants and paupers and, in the legends of Jewish midrash and folklore, they are where the messiah, appropriately dressed as a vagabond changing the dressing on his wounds, will eventually be found. And, of course, gates, both closed and open, gesture to the Holocaust, a term barely more than decade old in 1962, its survivors trying to reconstitute their broken lives, and something about which was deeply embedded in Carlebach's psyche. (1) As a child, Carlebach barely escaped Belgium as the Nazis entered the country and this unspeakable tragedy inflected almost everything he did. He was a post-Holocaust itinerant and his was surely an immigrant experience. He came from elsewhere.

It is therefore no mistake, as Stephen Petrus and Ronald Cohen have noted in their recent documentary history, Folk City: New York and the American Folk Revival that the phenomenon consisted largely of individuals who were not native New Yorkers but who were themselves immigrants from elsewhere. (2) By the 1940s, New York and Greenwich Village specifically, had become a destination for aspiring bohemians and folkies looking to find a community of like-minded, politically progressive people for whom music played a powerful organizing force. It is also widely known that Jews played a prominent role in this revival. Bob Dylan became the most well-known but others such as Theodore Bikel, Jack Elliott, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary), Arlo Guthrie, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, and Millard Lampell, lyricist and performer with The Almanac Singers (with a young Pete Seeger) were also Jewish performers, though only Bikel included Jewish material as a regular part of his act. (3) Bikel, who was also already successful on Broadway, became widely known in the folk world through his live radio show on WBAI, "Theodore Bikel at Home," recorded at the folk music club The Bitter End. Bikel's show included folk music, poetry and commentary on the Folk Revival.

On the production side, prominent Jewish figures included Moses (Moe) Asch, the founder of Folkways Records and son of Shalom Asch, the celebrated Yiddish novelist and poet, Maynard and Seymour Solomon, founders of Vanguard Records, Irwin Silber, co-founder of Sing Out! magazine, Israel "Izzy" Young who established and operated the Folklore Center, New York Times columnist and folk music devotee Richard Shelton (nee Shapiro), Jac Holzman founder of Elektra Records, Manny Roth who founded the folk club The Cock and Bull on Bleeker Street (later bought by another Jew, Fred Weintruab and re-named The Bitter End), and Art D'Lugoff, founder of the club Folk City and later, the Village Gate. (4) Also prominent in the folk music scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the work of Ruth Rubin, the prodigious collector of Eastern European Jewish folk music, whose collections found a wide audience on Asch's Folkways label. Without extrapolating too far afield, one could add to this list the great concert promoter Bill Graham, who rose to fame during the late 1960s as a promoter of rock concerts, but who was very much a part of the New York scene in the early 1960s. Yet another example would be Michael Lang who produced the Woodstock festival in 1969. (5) All of those mentioned (and there are many others) were largely secular Jews with no direct link to the Jewish musical tradition from Eastern Europe. All but one. (6)

The single exception was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who, for a few short years in the early to mid-1960s, brought the city's Orthodox Jewish community into the New York Folk Revival and brought the sound and ethos of folk to American Jews. His 1963 album "Live at the Village Gate" bridged the older fading aural aesthetics of cantorial music and the more participatory styles of American Jewish prayer that would later become desirable and even normative across the denominational spectrum, with the adoption of music by Carlebach and Debbie Friedman into congregational prayer. (7)

But it would be an historical mistake to conclude that the subsequent popularity of his music demonstrated his prominence or popularity during the Folk Revival of the early 1960s. Below we argue that while Carlebach certainly was present in and benefited from the Folk Revival that helped spark his career, he never made the impression he might have had he been more open to its larger social and cultural agenda. It was largely a utilitarian relationship whose outcome was the creation of "Jewish folk music" as a genre not of lullabies or love songs, but of liturgy. (8) Quite different than the song collecting of Ruth Rubin, which focused largely on secular music, or the more ethnomusicological efforts underway in Israel to document and distribute the music of Jews from Arab lands, Carlebach drew on and played to people who knew something about synagogue life which was and remains the foremost location in which adult Jews gather together to sing. (9)

In this respect, Carlebach's contribution was unusual as a folk singer. He did not sing "folk songs," but rather, he sung his own compositions, written to suit liturgical and biblical passages, in a folk style. But in this way he played a pivotal role in the creation of the genre of "Jewish folk music" that suited the American mid-century emphasis on religious life. Carlebach was instrumental in creating an American Jewish folk music sound, whose popularity manifested, as history would unfold, in synagogues across the denominational spectrum for whom Carelbach's modern sound would come to represent the timbre and modality of "Jewish folk music."

In contrast, he became much more invested in the hippie movement in the Bay Area in the later 1960s and it is there, we argue, where Car lebach really sought to adopt the broader beliefs, attitudes, and strategies of the American counterculture for explicitly Jewish ends. But without a more careful look at his participation in the New York Folk Revival and his exit from that world, one cannot fully apprehend the rise of one of the most important Jewish figures in postwar America, and the most influential composers of American liturgical music in the 20th century.

Contextualizing Carlebach

Though ensconced in the social milieu of the Folk Revival, Carlebach was, in some ways, a marginal figure whose own approach to folk music was something of an anomaly, even among other Jews. (10) Dylan, Jack Elliott, Dave van Ronk and others initially much preferred the folk songs of other ethnic and national traditions, while Asch and the Solomon Brothers invested their efforts, largely, in recording "traditional" music from whatever communities they could, capturing everything from lullabies to work songs, spirituals to chain gang chants. This revival was in large part sparked by the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax in the 1940s and 1950s that brought traditional music to urban New York. (11) Lomax told The Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger's first group, "What you are doing is one of the most important things that could possibly be done in the field of American music. You are introducing folk songs from the countryside to a city audience." (12) Performers such as Clarence Ashley, Muddy Waters, John Hurt, Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, Little Walter, Odetta, Aunt Molly Jackson, Woody Guthrie, Son House, Rev. Gary Davis and many others found their way to New York and other big cities like Philadelphia and Chicago and influenced a whole generation of young musicians looking for what they understood, not unproblematically, to be "authentic" American music. When young musicians like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs began writing their own folk songs it caused an uproar in segments of the folk community that was dedicated at that time to performing and recording only "traditional" songs. It should be noted, however, that Dylan's breakout "Blowin in the Wind" in 1962 was actually adapted from the melody to a Negro spiritual "No More Auction Block" and his famous protest song "Chimes of Freedom" was an adaptation of an Irish ballad "Chimes of Trinity" that he learned from Dave van Ronk (who learned it from his grandmother) so even the original folk music of that period could be understood as a product of adaptation of older folk songs. (13) In addition, political activism which was so much a part of folk music in the 1950s (and played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement) also split the community between the traditionalists and the activists...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP