Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 1999 / 21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

From Old World to Our World

Editor's note: In 1982 Henry Sapoznik founded the Archives of Recorded Sound at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. For 12 years he directed the acquisition and dissemination of Yiddish recorded music dating back to the turn of the century. Sapoznik is the leader of the klezmer ensemble Kapelye and has performed on or produced over 25 recordings, a wide ranging mix of historic 78 rpm anthologies, newly recorded Holocaust songs and of klezmer and Yiddish popular music. In 1985 he founded KlezKamp, the annual Yiddish folk arts retreat in the Catskills. In 1994 Sapoznik Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics started Living Traditions, a Manhattan-based non-profit dedicated to Yiddish culture. Sapoznik's newest book is "Klezmer! From Old World to Our World" (Schirmer Books). National Public Radio's Jon Kalish conducted the following interview via email for Jewish World Review.

JWR: Your history of Jewish popular music has been described as "a kind of literary freylekh." What motivated you to write this book?

Sapoznik: The idea actually came from my editor at Schirmer Books, Richard Carlin is an old friend from the music scene. He had been on my case for years to write a book on this subject but I had always put him off, partially because I was busy with my other projects but also because I was really daunted by the prospect of writing a book.

JWR: During the course of researching the history of Jewish music, did you ever wish that, as a musician, you were alive at a different time and living in a different place?


Sapoznik: Sometimes. I certainly would have liked to have been around when the music was finding a new voice in America at the turn-of-the century. I fantasized about going into record stores in Jewish neighborhoods and buying up all the mint condition Yiddish 78's they had for sale. And I certainly would have liked to have interviewed the musicians whom scholars at that time didn't deem worthy enough of documentation.

JWR: But as a musician, when and where would you have liked to be playing?

Sapoznik: The idea of time traveling back to the 1920s to "jam" with Tarras and Brandwein (as if they ever had "jam sessions") is a nice romantic image. A thing I would've really enjoyed would have been playing for a completely culturally literate audience, people for whom this music, the language and the references were understood and who had a first hand access to the common literature. However, I'm afraid that no matter when I lived I'd've probably been some sort of musical orphan, pining away for an older musical genre nearly out of reach of that generation and doing whatever to bring it up-to-date. All in all, I like playing in the here I now. It's probably easier than having to compete with Tarras and Brandwein.

JWR: How was that new voice of Jewish music altered by influences in America?

Sapoznik: The new voice was the mixture of music forms already at work in the U.S.: ragtime, early jazz and early Tin Pan Alley. American popular culture was coming into its own at that time and had a powerful effect on incoming ethnic communities. Traditional Yiddish music and the popular compositions of the theater and recordings felt the effect of American tonalities, instruments and themes. The influence of America was felt far more on the Jewish community than the other way around.

JWR: The Forward recently ran an excerpt from "Klezmer!" that recounted the story of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon." It's kind of a tragic tale.

Sapoznik: Well, the popular history of the song is reasonably well known. With the completed run of the Yiddish theater production of "Mir Ken Lebn Nor Men Lost Nisht" all the songs in the show--including "Bay Mir..." were put out to pasture. The cagey twin Kammen brothers bought the song for $30 to be split between composer and lyricist and sold it to the Warner Brothers music publishing arm Harms music. Within a few months the song was a huge hit by the Andrews Sisters with new lyrics by Sammy Cahn. The rest is history.

JWR: How did popular Jewish music affect swing music here?

Sapoznik: Barely at all. Except for a few songs which crossed over in the wake of Bay Mir, you can't say Jewish music affected swing the same way you point to Latin...

JWR: Did swing music affect Jewish music?

Sapoznik: Swing had a tremendous effect on American Jewish music in the 1930s. The idea of "jazz" meant "arrival" or "normalcy" and was used as an indicator that the Jewish community was indeed part of the surrounding soundscape, thus "home". As I mention in my book, as far back as the late 1910s, there are examples of Jewish composers and performers trying to link their music to jazz all with middling results.

The 1930s saw the rise of a generation of Jewish musicians born here whose musical and language bi-culturality meant that they could finally stylistically straddle the worlds of Yiddish and swing with ease. And they did. Max Epstein. Sam Medoff. Sam and Ray Musiker. The "Yiddish-Swing" fusion produced numerous records, radio shows and, until the 1950s, a large enthusiastic audience.

JWR: You know alot about the music composed for the Yiddish Theater in America. What is the legacy of the composers who worked for Second Avenue productions?

Sapoznik: If you mean the legacy of Yiddish composers on American music, I'd be hard pressed to find any. If you mean the legacy of the composers on American Jewish life, they created a vast corpus of song materials which were an important part of the lives of American Jews. Had there been no klezmer and Yiddish music renewal, this music would have been increasingly only heard in old age homes. The new generation of players are responsible for placing the music back in the concert halls and theaters for which it was designed.

JWR: Talk about the Holocaust's impact on Jewish music.

Sapoznik: With the destruction of European Jewry and the lands where Yiddish and its culture thrived, the Holocaust effectively ended Yiddish culture as it was known. It was the last great outpouring of magnificent Yiddish music, a supernova of Yiddish civilization.

JWR: You were a key player in the American klezmer revival that began in the 1970's. How do you look back on the re-vitalization of klez here?

Sapoznik: It's reassuring to know that some form of this music will be heard into the next century when that wasn't at all assured 20 years ago. Whatever forms it will take--from ultra-traditional to edge-fusion, is less important than the fact that the music is heard at all.


©1999, Jon Kalish