Yiddish American Music: ‘Camp’ or For Real?
(an expanded version of the original that appeared in the Spring 2010 issue)
There’s a new Barry Sisters CD out, thrilling news considering they haven’t recorded an album in three decades. The Sisters represent an elusive, but magical moment in American Jewish culture, one they share with other pioneers of Yiddish American music like Moyshe Oysher, Mickey Katz, Dave Tarras, and the Musiker brothers, Sammy (Tarras’ son-in-law) and Ray.
What these performers had in common was their ability to effortlessly assimilate the best of American popular music into a Yiddish aesthetic and create something that was deeply rooted and at the same time new, exciting and American. Perhaps the best example of this cultural moment, Tanz!, the collaboration between Tarras and the Musikers, is described as “a stunningly sophisticated fusion of Yiddish and American music forms” by klezmer historian, and key figure in the American klezmer revival, Henry Sapoznik.
Sadly, the best work of many of these artists was unappreciated or under-appreciated in their own time. Tanz! was a commercial flop when it was released in 1956, despite being recognized today as one of the peak moments in American klezmer history. Katz was unable to move past his reputation as a comedian, even when he recorded an entire album of new Jewish instrumentals. Today, most of Mickey Katz’s recordings are out of print and unavailable on CD. Much of Moyshe Oysher’s catalog is either of out of print or available only in terrible, bargain basement releases.
As for the Barry Sisters, of their work that is in print, most of it has been produced on the cheap, with atrocious sound quality and no booklet to speak of. Given all that, it was with excitement that I noted this ‘new’ Barry Sisters CD in a lavish, no expense spared reissue. Our Way, the Sisters’ last studio album, was recorded in 1973. It contains Yiddish translations of American pop hits of the day. The translations were done by the legendary Yiddish actor Herman (der Payatz) Yablokoff. Barry Sisters+ Herman Yablokoff+new Yiddish songs. How could I not love it?
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