Inside the Yiddish Folksong
An Online Project by Michael Alpert, Walter Zev Feldman,
Itzik Gottesman, Ethel Raim, Josh Waletzky and Mark Slobin
Before we amble through the inner spaces of the Yiddish song, a question (nu, this is a Jewish project): why are we doing this now? It’s because we’re at an historic moment, for two reasons:
1. Never before have we had the key to the treasure house of Yiddish folksong. Major collections are now a click away online, and the deep data of the work of the 1970s YIVO Yiddish Folksong Project will also be available.
2. There’s more interest than there has been in a generation. People want not just to understand, but to personalize the Yiddish folksong, a gratifying moment in the post-vernacular era.
We think of this project as the opening foray into unoccupied territory: the analysis of the Yiddish folksong tradition. We welcome submissions from people who have been doing parallel thinking over time and want to make their findings public. So we’ve added a couple of new sources and would also be glad to hear about other materials we have missed in the resource section below, whether those are historical or current projects.
If people would like to submit essays about their own findings, please address them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll look them over and let you know what we think about including them on this site.
Meanwhile, to guide your thinking and practice, we offer a wide range of topics. Authors of each section are indicated; the framing remarks are by Mark Slobin.
First, we identify the genre of the folksong within the culture of eastern Ashkenazic Jews and the surrounding European societies. Second, we spotlight structure, zooming in on the details of text, melody, and their intense interaction in performance. Analytically, we’re interested in what’s more fixed and what gets varied, the interplay of the stable and the shifting or, to use another metaphor, what’s the skeleton, the hard tissue, with its joints and articulations, and what’s the flesh, the soft tissue that allows for a breathing, sensing body which leads us to: Third, the inner, aesthetic world of the song, beginning with profiles of two figures whose singing and recordings have been influential, and continuing with a close look at how songs are embodied and transmitted live.
To keep it simple, we’re relying on just a few unaccompanied lyric songs that tell moving tales of personal feelings, tapping the deep wellsprings of women’s Yiddish singing. We chose one poignant song of unrequited love as the centerpiece for our analytical framework, and a couple of others for issues of performance practice—aesthetics in action. We combine technical discussion with video excerpts of teaching sessions by two seasoned mentors, Ethel Raim and Josh Waletzky.
THE PARTICIPANTS’ PERSONAL PATHWAYS AND PROJECTS
The authors have been learning, collecting, performing, studying, and sometimes writing Yiddish songs for decades. It’s an aging brain trust that wants to transmit its collective wisdom at this pivotal moment. Let’s get to know the group, gathered under the benign banner of Pete Rushefsky, Executive Director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance:
Michael Alpert is a National Heritage Fellow of the United States and a pioneering figure of the international renaissance of East European Jewish music and Yiddish culture since its beginnings in the 1970s. He is known worldwide for his solo and ensemble work with Brave Old World, Itzhak Perlman, Theodore Bikel, Daniel Kahn, Frank London and many others. A native Yiddish speaker, multi-instrumentalist, scholar and educator, Alpert is a foremost traditional Yiddish singer and composer of new Yiddish songs and a leading researcher and teacher of Yiddish dance. An important link to Old World Jewish musicians, he has played a key role in the transmission of Yiddish culture to new generations. His ethnomusicological fieldwork archive resides at the US Library of Congress, and he is translator and co-editor (with Mark Slobin) of Jewish Instrumental Folk Music, the pioneering 1948 work on klezmer music by Soviet Jewish ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski. Alpert is affiliated with NYC’s Center for Traditional Music and Dance and has taught at Oxford, Columbia, and Indiana Universities. Hailing from California and New England, he lives on the folksong-rich coast of Scotland with literary scholar Emily Finer and two mist-shrouded cats.