When I think back to my earliest Jewish experiences, it’s hard not to think about music. Passover was the euphoria of “Dayenu”, Yom Kippur the devastating elegance of “Avinu Malkeinu”. I remember birthdays and bar mitzvahs and weddings–lots and lots of weddings– dancing the hora, Havenu Shalom, L’chaim, Tumbalalaika; a medley of languages, identities, and collective longings swirling before my eyes.
These first Jewish memories– what stick in my mind as my earliest recollections of spiritual and religious fullness–were also my first memories of song. From the beginning, music has been my gateway to the divine.
Welcome to the American-Jewish Songbook, a new feature in Ha’Am Newsmagazine. Each week we’ll pick a relevant theme and explore it through the prism of popular music. The songs explored are not explicitly Jewish; on the contrary, they are deeply rooted in the American experience and consciousness. Some of the songs we’ll cover were written or performed by Jewish artists, others explore Jewish themes, while some simply tell a story of the Jewish meeting with pop culture in this country.
This is not a laudatory column devoted to the achievements of famous Jews in the music industry. Rather, it is an attempt to understand the evolving story of Judaism in America through song. It is a story that demands to be heard.
In this week’s edition, in recognition of Black History Month, we look at the music of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit”, begins Billie Holiday’s tale of Southern lynching, and from there, perhaps the first great American protest song was born. To listen to her anguish is to hear history moving through music. It is to be transported to the bottom of that very tree. Nina Simone would later declare it, “about the ugliest song I have ever heard.”
“Strange Fruit” was written in the 30’s by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish English teacher from New York. He came across a photograph of a lynching, and in a disturbed frenzy wrote a poem titled “Strange Fruit”. He set the poem to music and played it to a New York music club owner who would eventually give it to Holiday. In the 40’s, the government called Meeropol before a committee investigating Communism in public schools to address the blatantly false claim that he had accepted payment from the Communist Party to write the song.
“Erets Zavat Chalav”
Biblical renditions of the Ancient Israelites yearning for Zion flow through the African-American spiritual tradition. It is within that context that Nina Simone covered popular Hebrew folk song “Land of Milk and Honey”. Few renditions better capture the longing of a people for freedom and their distant memories of home.
Before Simone came to be known as the High Priestess of Soul, she became friends with Jewish folk singer Shlomo Carlebach who most likely introduced her to the tune. In 1963, Nina performed the song live in concert at Carnegie Hall. Simone told the audience “since we don’t know how to pronounce its name, we will call it a tune in 5-4 rhythm”.
In spring of 1964, Harlem police officers attempted to beat a confession out of two black teenagers for a crime they did not commit. The two teenagers, Daniel Hamm and Wallace Baker were repeatedly struck with clubs while in custody, sustaining horrible injuries. In an interview a few days after the events, Hamm recalled being beaten in shifts by 6 to 12 officers. But because Hamm was not visibly bleeding, the cops were not required to admit Hamm for treatment. Thinking quick, Hamm tore into his skin and opened one of the bruises he sustained on his legs. He told the interviewer: “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” Daniel Hamm would unjustly remain in prison for ten years.
Those few words would become the foundation for one of the most haunting compositions of the 20th century: “Come Out” by Steve Reich. Reich was a Jewish avant-garde composer trained in forms of cantillation (chanting) of Hebrew scripture. He applied that technique to “Come Out”, a composition entirely consisting of the looped recording of Daniel Hamm’s interview.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
In the winter of 1963, William Zantzinger walked into a Baltimore hotel bar with a toy cane and a drunken swagger reserved for only the wealthiest of the Southern gentry. When the all-black hotel waitstaff was slow to serve him another round, he directed racial epithets towards them. Zantzinger then struck Hattie Carroll, a black waitress and a 51 year old mother of 5 children with his cane. She had a stroke and died. Zantzinger only served 6 months in jail. News of his sentence was reported on the very day that Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Dylan, then just a 22 year old artist who had recently left his small Midwestern Jewish community for the New York folk scene, read about the incident on his way back from the March. The song is hard-hitting, but it is not so much an indictment of Zantzinger than it is an ode to the soft barbarism of an apathetic, white, liberal America that averts its eyes away from the deaths of so many Hattie Carrolls.
“With God on Our Side”
In 1989, the Neville Brothers, a New Orleans R&B/soul group, came out with their own rendition of Bob Dylan’s classic “With God on Our Side”. To Dylan at least, their version was the definitive one. Dylan once called Aaron Neville “the most soulful of singers, maybe in all of recorded history.” “If angels sing”, he proceeded, “they must sing in that voice”.
The song, written against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, draws its title from Psalms 181: “With God on our side we will win; he will defeat our enemies”. It is a sarcastic elegy to an America quick to invoke God as a source of justification and as a tool for the erasure of the brutalities of its history. Oh the Spanish-American/ War had its day/ And the Civil War too/ Was soon laid away/ And the names of the heroes/ I’s made to memorize/ With guns in their hands/ And God on their side.
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