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A Vest Pocket History of Klezmer Music

It’s very likely that if the people here telling the jokes first heard them at a hotel in New York’s Catskills region -- the Borscht Belt as it was lovingly called -- then it’s likely that they also heard the music which opens and closes the segment of the jokes they tell so well.

Klezmer, old time traditional Yiddish dance music was the soundtrack of Ashkenazi Jewry for generations.  Wherever people spoke Yiddish they danced to this music at untold weddings, bar mitzvahs and life cycle events. “A wedding without musicians is like a wedding without a bride.”

Klezmer, (the word comes from the Aramaic  “kley” “zemer” or “musical instruments”) is a musical roadmap telling us where we lived who we played for and what we played on. Fiddles, ‘cellos and hammered dulcimers were the hot instruments of the Middle Ages until replaced by military band instruments in the 19th century, chief among them, the trumpet and clarinet.

Packed alongside prayer shawls, feather beds and family photos albums, klezmer music jumped the Atlantic and became the accompanying music to émigré Jews who made America their home in the decades after the Civil War.  Here, mixed with the exuberant and brassy sound of American ragtime and early jazz, klezmer, now on records, radio and in numerous Yiddish theaters, soon joined the banjo, slide trombone and the sax -- its new American cousins -- alongside the older more venerable instruments of the band.

As the old dances disappeared they were replaced by a snappier and more "with it" sound: in the 1930s klezmer became “Yiddish Swing” while all America danced to “Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn” a Yiddish theater love song.

But American tastes were changing. After World War II, all attention turned to Israel and its attendant new culture and the old melodies from a now-destroyed world seemed quaintly irrelevant.  It was only the uptick of Holocaust survivors who came to America who still cherished that nearly vanquished culture who kept it alive in the 50s and 60s but with whose own passing that world nearly slipped away.

But in the last 30 years a new generation of musicians -- many born after World War Two -- have again taken up the exuberant klezmer music of their ancestors playing it with a self possession and sense of ownership that almost makes it seem like it had never nearly died out.  From Brooklyn to Berlin and beyond, klezmer has transcended its modest roots to become one of the hottest music on the World Music stage.

And what does it prove, but, that like a good old joke, klezmer music can easily transcend the era in which it was created to reach a new and endlessly appreciative audience.

-- Henry Sapoznik

Visiting Scholar on Yiddish and American popular culture,
University of Wisconsin, Madison
producer of "Dave Tarras' B flat Bulgars"
(intro music to Old Jews Telling Jokes)


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I just wanted to drop you a line to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I am always delighted when there is a new installment! I had also been wondering about the music -I knew it was klezmer but today's post has been very informative.
I am an Australian non Jewish girl but your blog brings a smile to my face every time and my kids all now recognise the music and come and stand around and listen to the jokes too - mostly they are a bit young to "get it". Thanks for spreading the joy.

Hey Henry!

yasher koyach°!

'kley zemer' is Hebrew, not Aramaic.

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