December 23, 2010


Songs of Songs: What are the 100 greatest Jewish songs ever? Tablet Magazine’s musicologists rank them all, from sacred to pop to hip-hop, from Rabbi Akiva to Amy Winehouse. (Jody Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman | Dec 21, 2010, Tablet)

What does Jewish music sound like? It’s been a vexing question for millennia—at least since the Israelites wept by the Babylonian riverbanks with harps in hand. A half-century ago, the great German-Jewish musicologist Curt Sachs came up with a litmus test. Jewish music, he wrote, is music created “by Jews, as Jews, for Jews.” You know the stuff: liturgical melodies, Yiddish folk songs, Zionist anthems, your Bubbe’s favorite lullaby.

But think of the music Sachs leaves out. What do we do with George Gershwin and Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, with the songs belted out by Fanny Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies or Lou Reed at Max’s Kansas City—the whole messy sprawl of 20th-century American pop music history, which, fromI Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” toI’ve Gotta Be Me” to “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” has been inflected by the Jewish genius for passing and pastiche? And where, for that matter, does it leave Serge Gainsbourg, Israeli techno, Jonathan Richman, Yo La Tengo, or Ofra Haza? Or ”Hanukkah in Santa Monica”?

Perhaps a better answer to the Jewish musical conundrum is a famous quip. The story goes that the composer Jerome Kern and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II were discussing the possibility of a musical based on the life of Marco Polo. Hammerstein said to Kern, “Here is a story laid in China about an Italian and told by Irishman. What kind of music are you going to write?” Kern replied, “It’ll be good Jewish music.”

Here, then, is our list of the 100 Greatest Jewish Songs. Some were created by Jews, as Jews, for Jews. Some are by Jews pretending to be gentiles—or by gentiles pretending to be Jews. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Jewish music is a dizzyingly broad and fluid category, encompassing an extraordinary range of sounds and styles and ideas and themes, from the sacred to the secular—from the normatively Jewish to the Jew-ish to the seemingly not-at-all-Jewish. Our list includes a bit of everything: sacred songs and synagogue staples and Yiddish ballads and Broadway showstoppers. There’s even some disco and hip-hop. All of them are great songs—and good Jewish music. [...]

3. “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965)

U.S. Highway 61, wrote Bob Dylan in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One, “begins about where I came from,” stretching from southern Minnesota, near Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, to New Orleans. “Highway 61 Revisited” begins a bit further afield. “Oh God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on,’ ” Dylan sings in the opening measures, as the song settles into a bluesy lope.

As always with Dylan, it’s impossible to untangle the strands of autobiography, mythology, and carnival barker gibberish. Many commentators have pointed out that Dylan’s own father was an Abraham—Abe Zimmerman—and that the songwriter’s retelling of the binding of Isaac may have personal resonance. But what is a Dylanologist to make of Georgia Sam, Mack the Finger, Louie the King, and the other cartoon characters that populate the song? And what about the burst of biblical mumbo-jumbo in the song’s fourth verse?:

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you’re right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61

As always with Dylan, the meaning is blowing in the wind. What’s unmistakable in “Highway 61 Revisited” is the tone. Delivering Old Testament imagery and cosmic jokes in his most exaggerated nasal drawl, Dylan is part-prophet, part-provocateur, part-badchen, and full-time blabbermouth. In other words: He’s just so Jewish. (JR) [...]

8. “White Christmas” (1942)

“Not only is it the best song I ever wrote,” said Irving Berlin when he finished writing “White Christmas,” “it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.” There’s certainly a lot in it. Its dreamy scenery belongs to the same tradition as Currier and Ives’ wintry landscapes and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The melodicism is pure Broadway and Hollywood sophistication, but the maudlin sentiments—that vision of snow-blanketed yuletides “just like the ones I used to know”—has deeper, homelier roots, drawing on Stephen Foster’s antebellum nostalgia and Victorian parlor ballads, and ladling some Jewish schmaltz over the top.

“White Christmas” was released in the middle of World War II, in November 1942, the first Christmas season that American troops spent overseas. It stirred such homesickness that it became the definitive pop hit of the war—a “why we fight” song that never mentioned the fight. And that was just the beginning of its success. It’s doubtful any song has generated more total record sales. Bing Crosby’s definitive version stood as the top-selling pop single for more than a half-century.

Tonally “White Christmas” stands apart from the cheeriness of most Christmas songs: It’s as dark and blue as it is “merry and bright.” Some have attributed this plaintive quality to Berlin’s Jewishness—to the seasonal melancholy of a man doomed to view the holiday from a distance. But “White Christmas” is sneakier than that. “God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin … ‘White Christmas,’ ” wrote Philip Roth in Operation Shylock. “If supplanting Jesus Christ with snow can enable my people to cozy up to Christmas, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” (JR) [...]

14. “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976)

Jeffry Ross Hyman—aka Joey Ramone—cobbles together four chords, a cheerleader chant, and a gratuitous reference to the Nazi war machine. Presto: Punk is born. (JR) [...]

21. “Ol’ Man River” (1927)

There had never been a showtune like the centerpiece ballad of Show Boat—a meditation on race, class, the suffering of humanity, and the indifference of nature. Jerome Kern’s melody is indelible. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric is philosophical. And the river in question—the mighty Mississippi—is eternal: It just keeps rolling along. (JR) [...]

25. “Hallelujah” (1981)

David and Bathesheba. Samson and Delilah. Bathing on the rooftop and bondage in the kitchen. Leonard Cohen’s 1981 ballad blends the biblical and erotic to create a Jewish gospel testimonial—a praise song to “the Lord of song” and, as Jeff Buckley once put it, “a hallelujah to the orgasm.” (JR) [...]

35. “Walk This Way” (1986)

It was a hipster Jewish record producer, Rick Rubin, who brought Run-DMC and Aerosmith together—a shotgun marriage of hip-hop and hard rock that transformed popular culture. (JR) [...]

79. “King Without a Crown” (2004)

Whatever you think of Matisyahu’s music—not to mention his Lubavitcher-cum-Deadhead ragamuffin reggae stylings—there’s no denying the powerful novelty of his shtick. As Jewish minstrelsy, it’s eyebrow-raising: In The Jazz Singer the immigrant striver Al Jolson wore blackface to cast off his Jewish patrimony and become American; three generations later, Mastisyahu dons Old World “Jewface” and becomes “black.” And how can you not stand in awe of man who rhymes “Fire blaze” with “Hashem’s rays”—and who put the lyrics “I want Moshiach now” and “Torah food for my brain” on MTV? (JR) [...]

93. “I’ve Gotta Be Me” (1968)

Sammy Davis Jr.’s answer to his Rat Pack confrere Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”: “Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong/ Whether I find a place in this world or never belong/ I gotta be me.” A deliciously bombastic piece of self-mythologizing from pop’s most famous convert to Judaism. (JR) [...]

100. “Loser” (1993)

Technically speaking, Beck Hansen is barely Jewish. (His maternal grandmother was a tribe-member.) His 1993 debut single, though—now that’s Jewish. Often described as a song of Gen X malaise, “Loser” is actually a headier concoction: some folk, some hip-hop, and some Dylanesque doggerel, all mashed-up with the nebbishy neurosis of Alexander Portnoy and Alvy Singer. It’s not a “slacker anthem”; it’s a schlemiel’s lament. (JR)

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2010 5:45 PM
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