Monday, October 14, 2013

From the Back Wall - Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle

Welcome to another installment of my series on out of print Jewish records. I'm working my way through a gorgeous stack of records gifted to me last summer. As I listen I'm going to share my favorite bits and pieces with you.

Today we have the Jewish Students' Bund Production of Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle*, featuring the Yiddish Youth Ensemble (1971). Though you probably can't find this album (or cassette) today, many of the songs appear on In Love and In Struggle: The Musical Legacy of the Labor Bund. That CD was released in 1999 and features the incandescent vocals of Adrienne Cooper (z"l).

I picked one song to share with you today. It's listed as Vinterlid (Winter Song) on Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle. This track features Susan Finesilver, Judy Gottlieb, Dina Schwartzman and Josh Waletsky.

[WARNING I AM ABOUT TO TALK ABOUT MUSIC THEORY AND I AM BOTH UNLICENSED AND UNQUALIFIED]  I first heard this in my living room with a friend visiting from England. She happens to be both a master klezmer fiddle teacher as well as an early music professional. It was her observation about this particular recording which really struck me. She noted how the spare setting (just voice, no piano) sounded more like early church music than Eastern European Jewish folk music. The whole album, she noted, used diatonic or church modes, as opposed to what we in 2013 think of as Jewish music (freygish) mode.

I should note, though, that this is a product of late 20th century America. And, of course, Jewish music in Eastern Europe reflected both ancient Jewish liturgical traditions as well as shared Western musical traditions. My visiting friend told me of a project right now exploring the connections between Yiddish and German folksong.

Authenicity, you're soaking in it.

In any case, I am in love with this unusual setting of Vinterlid. I hope you enjoy it, too.

(Apologies for the not great photos. If there's something you'd like to see more clearly let me know and I'll try to take a better picture.)

The liner notes for Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle are great because they include the Yiddish lyrics (in Yiddish oysyes and YIVO standard transliteration) as well as English translation. All Yiddish music should come with such beautifully thought out materials.

Vinterlid - Avrom Reisen

hulyet, hulyet beyze vintn
fray bahersht di velt!
brekht di tsvaygn, varft di beymer
tut vos aykh gefelt

traybt di foygl fun di velder
un faryogt zey fort
di vos kenen vayt nisht flien
toyt zey oyfn ort!

Frolic, frolic, you angry winds;
Freely rule the world.
Break the branches, hurl the trees,
Do whatever you please.

Drive the birds from the woods,
And keep on chasing them away;
And those that cannot fly too far-
Kill them on the spot!

There are many, many recorded versions of Vinterlid. Some have recorded it as Beyze Vintn. One of my absolute favorites is this very different interpretation by Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird. It appears on his CD Dos tsebrokhene loshn/The Broken Tongue. (A must-have for any Jewish music collection.)

Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird doing Beyze Vintn.

*Many thanks to Lorin Sklamberg and the Max and Frieda Weinstein Archives of YIVO Sound Recordings for making Yiddish Songs of Work and Struggle available to share.


  1. Hi Rokhl,

    Nice posting!

    I think that it's very risky to try to make conclusions about a melody based on an arrangement. Arrangements carry all kinds of influences brought by the arranger.

    Beyond the issues brought by the arrangement, this melody sounds (in my opinion) very "Jewish," as well as having a strong connection to Ukrainian folk (and Slavic church) music.

    I would also be careful about using the term "freygish" in this way. Freygish is just one of several common modes that sound "Jewish" in 2013, as you've put it.

  2. Another point: My guess is that the non-Jewish musical connections here are probably Eastern European (again, Slavic folk and church music), rather than Western. But I'm open to correction.

  3. I dunno, it's hard to really know what the artistic intentions are. I suppose we're lucky because we could as Josh (or Zalmen) what they were thinking at the time. But the "sacred" allusions within the arrangements here make sense. In 1971, the young people in the Bund chorus would have been approaching this material as 'sacred'. Many of their parents were Holocaust survivors (and Bund members.)

  4. Also, the melody itself is traditional, so I make no judgments about it sounding one way or another, Western or Eastern (whatever those things mean). We're talking strictly about arrangements here.

  5. Why not digitize this record, so that you could share it with the rest of the world. I would love to hear it.

  6. Thanks for posting yes there is a connection between yiddish and german music moaz tzur for instance is a old jewish song that sounds like old german music but there is also old jewish music nusach of rosh hashanah and yom kipper or siliches that is called sinai nuginim meening they can be traced back to the "Maharil" Reb Yaakov ben moshe levi moelin (1360-1427)that wrote books on jewish customs .

  7. I also have a copy of this album on vinyl; it's a remarkable thing. What struck me is surely the influence of trade union choirs and socialist singing generally? Several of the songs sound remarkably similar to various socialist/anarchist anthems from all over the world, and I would be inclined to think that is where the direct influence comes from (these were, after all, mostly songs written for en masse singing, whilst marching).

    Glad to see other people appreciating it!

  8. No doubt you're right about these Yiddish songs existing within a context of general labor choirs and socialist anthems. Any particular examples come to mind?

  9. I have the disk. Can someone make a copy of the text to share with me?