A Super Music Sunday

Jill Fisher

Bill Hindin (Photo by Jill Fisher)

Sunday, Oct. 15 was a perfect fall day – temps in the low 60s, blue sky, sunshine spotlighting leaf colors at their peak. So what did I do? Attended an afternoon concert, of course. The friends I invited to accompany me all declined so as not to miss one minute of sunlight before cold temperatures set in. So I went solo to join an audience of about 70 people.  

The program was at Temple Israel where the pianist, Wisconsin native and New Yorker Bill Hindin performed and presented “The Great Jewish American Songbook.” This is a show he’s presented numerous times around the U.S. and in the UK. In this case it was brought to us by the Mordechai Kaplan Fund, RBC Wealth Management and North Shore Band. For anyone interested in the cultural evolution of music, it was a fascinating delve into how traditional Jewish melodies worked their way into America’s popular music culture.  

When one brings up “the great American Songbook” it immediately brings to my mind what Dylan’s exploration of that genre was labeled when he came out with his triumvirate of albums, Shadows in the Night (2015—ten songs made famous by Frank Sinatra), Fallen Angels (2016) and Triplicate (2017). Since Dylan is a Jew, I expected he would be featured in some way during this presentation. However, Hindin was to take us on a trip further back in time, to the waning days of Vaudeville and the time of mass Jewish immigration (1890-1920).  

A 1924 recording of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra set the stage for a deep dive into Hindin’s subject. He explained up front that the period from 1915 to 1955 was a time when popular music was piano-oriented; pianos being the instrument of home entertainment before the era of radios and TVs. (In 1955 popular music changed with the advent of rock-and-roll to being guitar-oriented.) Jewish settlement in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, numbering 1.5 million in 1920, supported the development of the Yiddish Theater there. The names Molly Picon and Fanny Brice are associated with this time period.  

One Jewish immigrant by the name of Israel Beiline, who would Americanize his name to Irving Berlin, was born in Belarus. He was a self-taught pianist who had an unexpected hit in 1911 with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” recorded by Emma Carus.  He was only 20 at the time. The more theatrical “Yiddle On Your Fiddle, Play Me Some Ragtime,” from the same period was demonstrated by Hindin on the piano to have a melodical association with the song, “Hatikvah,” Yiddish for “Hope.” Another correlation Hindin highlighted was how a very old folk song, the basis for Israel’s National Anthem, was referenced in Berlin’s “God Bless America” made famous by Kate Smith’s 1938 recording. Further, Hindin played an ascending pattern of notes that he asserted is typical of Jewish liturgical music.  

It was the musical West Side Story with its score by the masterful Leonard (Louis) Bernstein (1817-1990) that provided the most direct evidence of the immense influence of Jewish culture on what we think of as a quintessentially American theatrical production. Jerome Robbins, originally Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz (1818-1998), was responsible for the musical’s concept; its story or “book” was by Arthur Laurents (1917-2011), the lyrics composed by Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021). Here we heard how the long call to Jewish worship on a “Shofar”—an ancient musical horn typically made of a ram's horn, that is played like a modern bugle—defined the opening notes of West Side Story. Beyond this, Hindin played what is known as “the Devil’s Interval” or tritone diabolus (a dependent chord that sounds unresolved) and examples of its repeated use throughout the musical’s score. Whether the individual notes are in ascending order or otherwise in a mixed sequence, the result is one of musical tension, which was perfectly suited to the age-old story embodied in this rendition of conflicting cultures.  

With a fast forward in time, our entertaining instructor discussed the background of “Fiddler On the Roof,” the Broadway show that opened in 1964 and was made into a movie that was released in 1971. Based on a series of stories by Sholem Aleichem written in Yiddish between 1894 and 1914 about Jewish life in a village. As such, it was the first full story of the Jewish experience of life back in the Eastern European Shtetel and as such introduced Americans to traditional Jewish sounds. The overture and opening song, “Tradition” was based on the Jewish folk song “Di Ban” (The Train) recorded by Vienna-born sing/actor Theodore Meir Bikel (1924-2015). (Just a sidebar here: Bikel was one of the founders of the Newport Folk Festival, where he became acquainted with Dylan and, in 1962, Bikel became the first singer besides Dylan to perform "Blowin' in the Wind" in public!)  

The last song in Fiddler, “Anatevka” was based on the folk song “Mayn Shtelele Belz” about memories of an old-world rural hamlet populated by Jews. This work led to a discussion of the “Freygish Mode” or modified scale frequently used in Jewish music. According to Hindin, this scale was derived from the music of the Romani people (commonly known as Gypsies). He further commented that the history of the Jews and their music traditions required “adoption, adaptation and acculturation” as later songs evinced.  

One of the most interesting speculations by Hindin was his connecting the 1938 “Over the Rainbow,” which was written right after the horrifying “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) in Nazi Germany, with Anne Frank’s diary. He explained that in her diary Frank described the only connection she and the Jews she hid out with had with the outside world was through a skylight in the attic of their hideaway, where all they could see was the sky. He felt the words to that song expressed the longing they must have felt.  

The Andrews Sisters were also cited  as epitomizing the impact of Yiddish music when their English version of the popular Yiddish song “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” became a worldwide hit in 1937. It was written five years earlier by lyricist Jacob Jacobs and composer Sholom Secunda for a Yiddish language comedy musical (English title: “I Would If I Could”).  

The final portion of this enlightening presentation focused on the music of George and Ira Gershwin (birth names recorded Jacob Gershwine and Israel Gershovitz, respectively). “Swanee” was the first hit song composed by George, with lyrics by Irving Caesar (born Isidor Keiser), in 1919. Al Jolson recorded it in 1920 where it charted at the No. 1 position for nine weeks.  

Gershwin’s masterful English language Opera, Porgy and Bess, controversial at the time, was first performed in Boston in 1935 as a prelude to its opening on Broadway. In it Gershwin combined blues, jazz and folk genres in his original compositions; Hindin noted that “Summertime,” from that work, was influenced by the traditional African American spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” while “It Ain’t Necessarily So” reflects the prayer that is intoned before reading the Tora, where the admonition was not to take the sacred text literally.  

Another of the Gershwins’ tunes, “They All Laughed,” with the line, “Who’s got the last laugh now?” was written for the 1937 film Shall We Dance with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The last song to be composed by the Gershwins before George’s death at age 38 was “Love Is Here To Stay.” Although written for the 1938 movie, The Goldwyn Follies, Hindin said it was a musical valentine about the connection between these two brothers. Hindin wrapped up his piano performance with a medley of those gorgeous Gershwin tunes—“Fascinating Rhythm,” “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”  

When the program ended after only an hour and a half, I felt like I had been traveling light years into musical history, bringing home the realization that music can take us beyond ourselves into times, places and cultures we don’t always understand. Like a dream, I walked out into a sunny afternoon with a far greater appreciation for the wonderful tunes swirling though my head.  

Stop Making Sense

If that wasn’t enough musical ecstasy for one day, that same Sunday evening the Curmudgeon and I went to Zeitgeist Zinema to see Stop Making Sense, the remastered movie of the Talking Heads band in concert. According to Wikipedia it “…is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest concert films of all time, and a cult classic. The film is a pioneering example of the use of early digital audio techniques. In 2021, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.'"  

Filmed in 1983 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Stop Making Sense was first released in 1984 to promote the band’s album Speaking In Tongues. At that time I was in grad school and wasn’t really much into music. It was when I was living in Woodstock, New York, that I first saw it (together with a filmed interview of David Byrne) at the 30th-year anniversary of its initial release. Needless to say it was an eye- and ear-opener and I became an instant Talking Heads and Byrne fan. So its re-release this year was more than welcome. It is rife with the band’s biggest hits such as my favorite, “Life During Wartime” (which I always request Big Wave Dave and the Ripples to play, since they do it justice). And then there are the comedic elements—the “Big Suit,” Byrne’s onstage antics (drunken walks, racing around the stage set, fooling with a floor lamp). I tell ya, I thought I’d died and gone to music heaven!   It looks like its last showing at Zinema is at 7:30 pm, Thursday, Oct. 26. So if you are reading this before then and haven’t gotten out to see it, I would strongly recommend you try to work it into your entertainment schedule!