Elmore James, who will be singing with two Jewish blondes and another African-American man in the “Soul to Soul” concert this Sunday, grew up in Harlem and made his Broadway debut in the black gospel musical “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.” So it seems only natural that he would fall in love with Yiddish music.
“I first heard Yiddish music sung by Paul Robeson,” James says. “It resonated with me.” The great Robeson — athlete, lawyer, scholar, activist, concert singer and actor (among his landmark performances were the original Joe in Show Boat; Brutus in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones; Othello) – was also a remarkable linguist. He spoke 15 languages, and sang in 25. He is said to have learned Yiddish to help improve his delivery of comic lines by the characters he portrayed. He also added Yiddish songs as part of his increasingly political repertoire. Among his favorite was Zog Nit Keynmol, written by Hirsh Glik, a Jewish resistance fighter during World War II, whose song had been sung by the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Elmore James set out to learn Robeson’s entire Yiddish repertoire. First, he had to find it. He walked into J. Levine Jewish book store on 30th Street, and asked for help with his mission.
“Talk to Theodore Bikel,” the proprietor advised.
So James went to Bikel, who was as startlingly versatile as Paul Robeson: an activist, singer, actor (among his landmark performances were the original Baron von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof)…and a linguist.
Bikel told James: Talk to Zalmen Mlotek
Zalmen Mlotek, who worked frequently with Bikel, was a recognized authority on Yiddish folk and theater music. He is also the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, now celebrating its 101st year. (They are the company that produced The Golden Bride that I loved so much.)
“Elmore came to me, “ Mlotek recalls, “and he sang for me – and I thought ‘oh God, what a voice!’”
It was in that moment that Mlotek was inspired eventually to create the “Soul to Soul” concert, the first of which was some five years ago, the latest of which will be performed this Sunday afternoon, January 17, 2016 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (Details)
The 19 songs include about a third that are English-language, about a third Yiddish (with English and Russian subtitles), and a third that are a sly mix. They sing Louis Armstrong’s “What’s A Wonderful World,” for example, in Yiddish, and perform a medley of Depression-era songs, pairing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” with a similarly-themed Yiddish hit song, “Vu nemt men parnose”
(roughly translated as “How does one make a living?”)
The quartet of singers includes Magda Fishman, an Israeli-born cantor. Unlike the Al Jolson character in “The Jazz Singer,” she didn’t have to choose between a religious vocation and a performing career; she does both. “I live in different times. Women can be cantors.” Her first album, “Magda & Shorashim” is full of Hebrew songs, but in her concerts “I like jazz and I sing musical theater – Yentl, Rodgers and Hammerstein…”
All this mixing and matching provokes some questions. Yes, George Gershwin was famously influenced by the music he heard in Harlem, and wrote for African-American performers, and, yes, Paul Robeson sang Yiddish songs. But how much do Yiddish and African-American music have in common? How much did they influence one another? And (since this is my beat), how much they contributed to American musical theater?
“You hear the plaintiveness, the rhythmic intensity that inspires both music,” Mlotek responds to the first of these questions. “In klezmer music, you hear the joy and you hear the sorrow. It’s the same with the blues.”
But the artistic director makes no claims for their mutual influence. “There was no conscious effort to make this connection. I’m doing this now because it’s an opportunity to bring cultures together.”
As for their contributions to the American musical, the Broadway performer Elmore James has a judicious response: “Every ethnic group has brought a certain vitality to musical theater – Jews, black people, Irish people. He can’t help adding: “Gershwin loved jazz, and Cab Calloway loved klezmer.”
“Soul to Soul” playlist
performed by Tony Perry, Elmore James, Lisa Fishman, and Magda Fishman,
1. A Change is Gonna Come (Tony) / Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around (Elmore) / Chiri Bim (Lisa/Magda)
2. A Niggun (Magda)
3. Change is Gonna Come (Tony)
4. Summertime (Lisa and Magda)
5. I’m on My Way (Elmore)
6. New Colossus/Ellis Island (Tony)
7. Parnose / Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (Elmore, Magda and Lisa)
8. Vi Azoy Trinkt a Keyser Tey? (Elmore)
9. Ot Azoy (Tony)
10. And the Angels Sing (Lisa)
11. Vos iz Gevorn? (Tony)
12. Dona, Dona (Lisa)
13. Es Brent (Elmore)
14. What a Wonderful World (Lisa and Magda)
15. Ale Mentshn Zaynen Brider (Elmore with Magda, Lisa and Tony)
16. Shnirele Perele (Magda)
17. Civil Rights Medley – Follow the Drinking Gourd, Oh Freedom, Woke Up This Morning, This Little Light (Tony, Magda, Elmore and Lisa)
18. Spiritual medley – Wade in the Water, Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? Down by the Riverside, Lo Yiso Goy El Goy Kherev, When the Saints Go Marching In (Tony, Magda, Elmore and Lisa)
19. Ale Brider (Magda, Tony, Elmore and Lisa)