Some folks may remember that I posted on social media that I wanted to hear from my Jewish friends. Strangely, very few checked in, but those who did were folks mostly who were self-identified Landsmen. Proud Jews in other words. To those who responded (some of you in fact) I sent out the following email. Not an appeal to purchase anything. But to get a perspective from my extended family about how I could best get out into the country and share my stories and POV with an audience, somewhere. Anywhere ;-) Here its is.
"If I can bend your ear for a moment? I have a little conundrum and I don’t know to best get around it. My knowledge base seems stuck in another time so I need some help.
Just recently I finished a recording project called “Songs for the Hangman’s Daughter.” It’s my very first release of just my original verse set to music, I think they call it “singer-songwriter” music, but whatever. The fact is that my material and POV comes from a very narrow band of experience, namely carrying the brand of “Jewish” in a small Oklahoma town and trying to live through all that with some kind of healthy perspective.
As I gleaned attending the annual Folk Alliance conference this year, the whole music industry from top to bottom is just spinning it’s wheels, waiting for the next disruption to degrade it once again and no one has any good idea what to do about it.
What I did see at this costly event were mostly the offspring of the very well to do; almost entirely White Europeans speaking to a similarly privileged community about literally nothing more than the travails of interpersonal relationships and how generally wonderful life is. Gevault. Even in “folk” music today the pitiful few actual “folks” are hard come by, as they don’t have access to the capital required to even get there to showcase. What I encountered was a very unified and quite troubling narrative that I don’t recognize frankly. I also saw that my voice and the voices of others in the margins of our society had literally no chance of distributing our message of challenge and dissent in this new environment. And not a single Jewish identified artist to be found.
So, I have this recording of my broadsides set to music. Even though I was given very reduced rates by everyone involved, the costs incurred in its production have yet to be recouped and sit on my credit card (just like every artist you know, BTW.) Not only am I unable to press it, promote it or even cover expenses involved in touring behind it, no one I have encountered in the profession even recommends I bother in the environment today.
But how can I hope to create interest at all in a world flooded by well funded projects from every quarter on one hand and in the simple terror of current events? What good are my topical stories if there’s no one to tell them to? Every one counsels to not release anything until I have already created a market for it by touring, which is nearly impossible if not supported somehow. Trusted friends who did hear the release said plainly however that it was “personal and deeply brutal, but a real hard sell in the best of times.” “However,” they added, ‘it really needs to be heard and now.” I’ve been stumped. What to do?
So, fellow Diaspora Jews, ultimately you are my target audience so I reach out to you individually. I think I have a voice that is not being heard in today’s discussions and I have an inkling that I speak not only for myself, but for a community I am sure exists. I speak of experiencing institutionalized Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia from the first day I had to ask my father why my teacher called him a “Kike.” Of traveling across the sea to see for myself the destruction of European Jewry while at the same time being lauded as a bearer of those very traditions, making parnossa teaching the Hangman’s Daughter. And the personal devastation of returning home again and again to a Jewish community that actively refuses to support those traditions, much less the Yiddish culture I feel sometimes they are secretly ashamed of. Of the twin marginalization of being a christ-killer to my country neighbors and then feeling the deep sting of being a “dumb hick” to my supposed Jewish community in the big city, a place we drove 100 miles for Sunday School at Beth Emanuel in OKC just to be treated that way.
(Yes, I just called Oklahoma City the "big city." Such was my upbringing. Why not Tulsa, so much closer to Stillwater? Dad said that was the schul we don't set foot in.)
But my Jewish identity also comes from our deeply ingrained and abiding tradition of working for social justice as a duty, That we use our privileges as light skinned and English speaking to turn against hatred and speak for those who are systematically allowed no voice in our society. And further if I may, unlike any voice in the music community that I have encountered I wish to speak for many in the American Diaspora who hold complex and nuanced opinions about Middle East affairs. (See, even coded language engaged to even my friends, identifying the 3rd rail of modern Jewish thought.)
Some say (like every Rabbi I talk to thus far) that that’s a real bad idea. But I’m 50 now. In our tradition, as I am childless and unmarried it’s my responsibility to make use of myself and now to do what those settled married folks with children cannot do. (I'm not learned enough to study Kabbalah and there's little culture left that even remembers to support it anyway. There's another song.. )
In the tradition of the Hassidic parables, let me tell you a story that illustrates my intentions:
Many years ago, not fully realizing what I was doing with myself I found myself sitting on a bed in a hotel room in the Catskills. Across from me on his bed sat a elderly man, who was to pass away just months later. He pulled out his old mandolin and taught me a song. He played me his songs and showed me how he was taught to play as a child in Poland. He told me of happy times in school and how this little kid shockingly whipped all the goyim at a major Mandolin contest, winning an instrument he could scarce afford. Then, after a pause, he told me about the day his family was relocated into the ghetto in Lodz. How he left his family behind and escaped crawling through sewers and drain pipes only big enough for child to pass through, his prize mandolin in a sack on his back at all times. Of his days in the forests, hiding more often from brutally anti-Semitic nationalist Polish militias than of the frequent Nazi patrols. Of the fiddler from his partizaner group who blew up the Gestapo Headquarters with a bomb packed in his case. Of hiding from the Russians as well, who if they came across would take all their weapons, saying Jews were no good to fight, even though they had survived 4 years combat in their dugouts and trenches. Of finding the mass graves filled with bodies, left out the elements. He said to me “You know, maybe I shouldn’t tell the children about these horrors. They grow up so happy and removed from fear, I don’t know if I should burden them so.” But he bowed his head for a moment, then he looked me right in the eyes. He said mournfully, “But if I don’t share these stories, then why did I survive? Why am I even here?”
Strangely years later, my pal and mentor Don Walser said nearly the same thing to me from his deathbed. He said ‘You gotta keep telling the good old stories. You can’t let them go away, you tell them and then you tell your own too.” From my twin Yiddishe and Cowboy upbringings, the marching orders are precisely the same. I even yodel on a tune because Don said not to let that go away either.
So I send you this note mostly to speak directly with my target audience, us. And this is it. This is all I’m doing from here out. I will go anywhere and play any place as long as I can cover expenses to do so, house concert, coffee house, progressive synagogue social hall, whatever, I’m down. I really look forward to traveling and telling the stories, which I have a feeling will resonate with lots of folks, not just mishpuka. If funds are available I even have a fine band to back me as well.
If you got this far, you deserve a reward:
Attached are links to just few numbers I hope you will like. It represents the show I plan on touring. Let me know what you think. Here's the whole release with text of the lyrics:
And the song I learned from the old Lodz Partizaner is "Vi iz dus Gesele," a hit song from the Ukrainian theatre before the war. The original was about the existential nature about how you "couldn't go home anymore," For the Jews in the dugouts, it was painfully literal. The schul I refer to is the great White Synagogue in the main square of Trencin Slovakia where I played almost a decade ago and have yet to process the experience.
If for some reason you are inclined and have the means, donations to the recording fund can be made here:
(Bless you here for having doing so!)
Live and be well,