Michael Regenstreif on Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II, and new CDs by Nefesh Mountain, David Kaufman, Ron Weiss, and Linda Saslove.
The Lost Songs of World War II
During the Second World War, ethnomusicologists at the Kiev Cabinet for Jewish Culture set out to preserve the new Yiddish songs documenting the experiences of Jews fighting the Nazis in the Red Army, as well as those working on the home fronts, and songs reporting on such atrocities as the massacre at Babi Yar. Following Stalin’s post-war anti-Semitic purge, these songs were thought lost. However, the lyrics of many of the songs were rediscovered in the 1990s in unmarked boxes found in the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II is an extraordinary album – featuring five singers and a group of superb instrumentalists – recorded in Toronto, that documents some of those songs.
Among these fascinating songs are “Shpatsir in Vald (A Walk in the Forest),” sung by Sophie Millman, in which a young woman and a young soldier about to go off to fight Hitler’s army say their farewells; “A Shturemvint (A Storm Wind),” sung by Psoy Korolenko, a lyric that promises to keep fighting until fascism and Hitler are defeated; and “Babi Yar,” also sung by Korolenko, based on witness accounts of the 1941 massacre of more than 33,000 Jews.
An extensive booklet includes an essay about the project, notes on all of the songs and the lyrics in Yiddish with English translations. Yiddish Glory is certainly one of the most powerful albums of Jewish music released in recent years.
Beneath the Open Sky
Although there are a significant number of virtuoso Jewish bluegrass musicians, the genre itself has rarely been a vehicle for specifically Jewish-themed music. Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys was a great band that combined klezmer and bluegrass traditions but Nefesh Mountain – the husband and wife duo of multi-instrumentalist Eric Lindberg and singer Doni Zasloff – are making Jewish music within a traditional bluegrass framework.
Songs like “Halleluyah,” which I suspect will eventually become a staple in non-Orthodox musical prayer services, and “On and On (L’Dor Vador),” about the continuity of generations, easily flow back and forth from English to Hebrew lyrics, while the traditional bluegrass gospel standard, “Bound for the Promised Land,” is stripped of its Christian references and rewritten by Nefesh Mountain as wishful expression for peace in the Holy Land. One of the most joyous songs is their bluegrass setting of “Oseh Shalom,” and after an intense collection of full band bluegrass tunes, they end the CD quietly with a lovely version of Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.”
Joining Lindberg and Zasloff on these songs are several A-list bluegrass musicians including banjo maestro Tony Trischka, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, mandolinist Sam Bush and guitarist David Grier.
Arrow & Heart
He’s best known in Ottawa as a vasectomy doctor, but Ron Weiss’ profile as a musician and singer-songwriter took a giant step forward this year with the release of Arrow & Heart, a fully realized collection of 10 original songs blending diverse musical styles, including pop, rhythm-and-blues and folk.
The album opens strongly with “Armageddon” and “You Gotta Hold,” up-tempo pop tunes driven by polished horn arrangements, before slowing down with “I Just Wanted You to Know,” a pretty love ballad.
Other highlights include “You Mean Everything,” another very pretty love ballad, and “Be a Child,” a nostalgic series of childhood memories.
Arrow & Heart is enhanced by 14 other Ottawa-based musicians and singers – among them drummer Jeff Asselin, vocalists Rebecca Noelle and Jeff Rogers, and saxophonist Brian Asselin – who help Weiss bring these songs to life.
In the 1960s, David Kaufman was a young singer and songwriter performing on the Montreal folk scene. In the ‘70s, he began a long career as a Toronto-based documentary filmmaker and photographer. Much of his work has been on Jewish themes – including several films about the Holocaust – and he was recently in Ottawa giving a talk at the Soloway JCC on his photography of Jewish historical sites in western Ukraine. Now, at age 70, Kaufman has recorded Second Promise, a CD of 13 of his songs from about a half-century ago. He describes the album as “a gift to my younger self.”
Like many of the songs of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen – the pre-eminent Jewish singer-songwriters of the period – Kaufman’s work is melodic, poetic and often open to the listener’s interpretation as to meaning. There are Jewish motifs to several of Kaufman’s songs, including “Ruth’s Song,” based on the biblical Book of Ruth, and “So Many Davids,” which seems like it was inspired by King David.
Kaufman’s voice remains strong after all these years and he receives excellent support from stellar Toronto musicians and singers, including guitarist Jason Fowler, who produced the album, and harmony singer Aviva Chernick, a well-known cantorial soloist and lead singer of the Jewish world music band Jaffa Road.
Although she’s a veteran performer on the Toronto music scene, singer-songwriter Linda Saslove grew up in Ottawa and gave some of her early performances at Le Hibou, a legendary Ottawa music venue of the 1960s and ’70s. With Everything, Saslove offers 10 well-crafted and well-produced songs in an acoustic folk-pop vein and mostly dealing with various themes of love or lost love.
Saslove establishes the themes for the album on the first two tracks: “My True Love,” a love song expressing commitment, and a breakup song, “The Last Goodbye,” that details the conflicting emotions one goes through as a relationship comes apart.
Perhaps the most interesting song is the finale, “Different from You,” a song that seeks to bridge the differences that keep people apart. While most of the other songs are specifically about romantic love, “Different From You” is open to interpretation and could be about any kind of differences keeping people from understanding each other.