Friday, June 21, 2013

Jewish Music In America

In writing about Jewish music one has to remember that Jews have kept a careful balance between the distinctive national (religious) identity of their music and the secular culture around them.  Yet like every other immigrant group, Jewish music has made a place in American culture and society.

The Jewish experience in America begins before the founding of the United States.  The first recorded Jew in America was Joachim Gans of Bohemia in 1584.  Within a few decades there were a couple of hundred Jews in the American colonies (Mostly in Charleston, South Carolina).  And they brought their music and songs.

Knowing this, many musical influences from Jewish culture are found in American music.  Though not at the founding of the nation.  Jewish music was confined to the synagogue and home.  Non-Jews rarely heard the harmonic melodies that was present in the Early Synagogues such as the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island or the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City, New York.  The music was mostly religious and centering on the worship of G-d and biblical themes.  Except for the joyous celebrations of weddings, bar mitzvah, etc...  Then the music was for the enjoyment of the whole community outside the walls of the synagogue.

Before the American Civil War (1860-1865) the majority of Jews in the United States were located in the Southern States and were of either British, French or German origin.  After the war, there was a great influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  And with them came Yiddish and Yiddish culture and theater.  The sounds of Klezmer music permeated the streets of Jewish immigrant neighborhoods.

Klezmer Band circa 1900

Klezmer is a Yiddish combination of two Hebrew words Kley Zemer which means musical instruments.  It is a joyous music played at celebrations such as a wedding, bar mitzvah, etc.  The klezmer sound is similar to a big band sound or jazz. It has a Jewish flavor to it which makes it sounds like Eastern European music and Jazz combined.  Originally Klezmer music had no vocalists.  Women were not welcomed in men's bands and men were not welcomed into women's bands.  In Orthodox Judaism there is prohibition for men and women to dance together or for men to listen to a woman singing.  (Wives, mothers and daughters are exempt if this is in a family setting at home.)  Thus the musicians at the time were mostly men.

It wasn't until Jews fully entered the secular world in the late 19th Century that their musical tones were introduced to the secular world.

In the 20th Century Jewish music exploded upon the music world.  The influences of Klezmerhave given the world delightful and memorable melodies.
Yiddish Musical Theater  gave the US and the world American Musical Theater of today on Broadway.  Jewish composers such as Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland  and many others.

In the world of Jazz, Klezmer melodies and influences were brought by such artists as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.  The influences are still being brought by artists Herb Alpert, Stan Getz, and Kenny G.  All Jewish musicians.

Sammy Davis Jr. gave the world a mixture of Jewish and African-American musics.  Rock and Roll would not have been the same without the music of Gene Simmons of the Rock Band KISS.  Another proud Jewish musician.

Today the early heritage of Jewish Music in America is being brought to the attention of the world by Lowell Milken and the Milken Archive.  I have spent hours listening to the archive and the wondrous music that is there.  I suggest that you enjoy those lovely sounds.


Bigfoot said...

I got to hear some Klezmer in 2000 in the Kazimierz section of Kraków, Poland.

Findalis said...

Did you like it Bigfoot?

Bigfoot said...

Yes, I enjoyed the performance.