The Celtic Jewish Connection


By Gwen Orel

Published August 05, 2009, issue of August 14, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

You can love Irish songs, and you can love Yiddish songs. Irish chanteuse Susan McKeown and Klezmatics bandleader Lorin Sklamberg encourage you to love them both — at once. Why choose? On their CD “Saints & Tzadiks,” (World Village), out August 11, they sing Yiddish, Irish, and blends of Yiddish and Irish — highlighting the traditions’ similarities as well as the different ways each tradition tells a musical tale.

McKeown and McSklamberg: Lyrics and music merged beyond expectations.
McKeown and McSklamberg: Lyrics and music merged beyond expectations.

New York encourages such cultural fusions — Tin Pan Alley famously had Irish/Jewish songwriting teams (look for Mick Moloney’s CD “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews,” and its launch concert at Symphony Space in October). At the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where Sklamberg works as the sound archivist when not on the road, the duo explained that they had talked about doing this project for years, ever since McKeown first got a call to appear with the Klezmatics back in the ’90s. “It’s a peculiar New York thing to have a band like the Klezmatics and have two musicians in it I know from Irish sessions,” she said.

The 2006 Grammy award-winning Klezmatics CD “Wonder Wheel,” the band’s first English-language CD, put melodies to rediscovered lyrics by Woody Guthrie — and featured vocal arrangements as well as the lively instrumentals for which the band is known. McKeown sang on the CD, and it was during its production that she and Sklamberg discovered how well their voices blend together. They knew they wanted to find another project that deliberately would combine klezmer and Irish styles.

Previous attempts to marry the traditions have focused on instrumental arrangements, Sklamberg explains, like the collaboration between klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman and the Irish band De Dannan. McKeown has sung in Yiddish before, but it’s the first time that Sklamberg has attempted to sing in Irish — a difficult language. “It’s not close to anything!” he said, laughing. As Sklamberg mispronounced the same word again and again (he grumbled, “nisht ahin, nisht aher,” Yiddish for “neither here, nor there”), McKeown coached him phonetically from the booth.

On “Saints & Tzadiks,” Sklamberg’s light-bodied, Yiddish inflection adds pathos to “Oakum,” a song McKeown says she got “from Seán Garvey, who got it from the sean nós (a capella) singer Seán Ac Dhonncha.” On the Yiddish song “Fin Mayn Mamelyu Hot Men Mikh Aroysgenimen” (“They Took Me Out of My Mother’s House”), McKeown’s slightly jazzy, restrained vocals allow the emotion of the song about a girl resisting the temptation of a prostitute’s life in Argentina. And who knew there were Yiddish songs about Polish girls being lured into a life of sin?

Most of the songs on “Saints & Tzadiks” have never been commercially recorded. Sklamberg turned to the book “Yiddish Folk Songs From the Ruth Rubin Archive,” based on the researcher’s field recordings held at YIVO, to discover songs that were “not about life in the shtetl. They were about things that were gritty. It seemed to jibe with what I know about the range of Irish songs.”

Particularly striking are the songs that blend the two languages. For example, “Heart’s Blood” combines “Fort a fidele, fort aroys” and “The Cruel Brother.” McKeown and Sklamberg take lyrics from an 18th-century Child Ballad (one of the songs in the collection of traditional ballads made by 19th-century researcher Francis James Child) and a recording made of a Mrs. Efron in the Queens neighborhood Long Island City in 1953. A note on that recording says it was based on a 200-year-old German ballad. The Yiddish version is harsher: The girl is murdered in an awful way. In the English version, she has the opportunity to make a will first. “The Rattlin’ Bog” is a cumulative song about a tree in a bog (and the bird in the tree, and the feather on the bird), sung in Yiddish and Irish. “It’s the same song,” McKeown said. In the Yiddish version, the tree might suggest a kabbalistic symbol; in the Irish version, the tree may be a symbol of Ireland. The alternating lyrics and melodies create a mysterious, mystical mood — enhanced on occasion by Latin, the language of Catholicism, which is deeply ingrained in Irish culture. A haunting track titled “Prayer for the Dead” blends a Ukrainian World War I lament with the Irish 19th-century anti-war song “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” — followed by a sonorous Latin hymn with some lines in Irish that McKeown learned in school.

Still, the musical fusion displayed on the CD does not assign styles by heritage — deliberately. “Don’t try to sound like an Irish person,” McKeown remembered telling fiddler Jake Shulman-Ment. “People think the rhythm of Irish and klezmer are opposites, but really, both are exuberant.” In agreement, Sklamberg said: “Both have intense amounts of pride. Sometimes people think a slow or melancholy song is nostalgic, but the impulse is a fierce belief in the rightness of who you are.”

The traditions survive in different ways. In Ireland, traditional musicians often run in families, McKeown says, and they are seen as the keepers of the flame. Irish is taught in schools, but McKeown says she came out of school knowing more French than Irish. She herself is not from a traditional musical family. Of Yiddish music, Sklamberg insisted, “It’s alive!” But it was hard to ignore the fact that the interview took place in an archive.

“One of the great tragedies of Jewish history is that there hasn’t been a continuous singing tradition,” Sklamberg said, with a sigh. “When I was growing up, everybody was listening to songs from Israel.” He learned Yiddish as an adult. McKeown does not come from an Irish-speaking family. She and Sklamberg share a bit of the viewpoint of the outsider. “Both languages are not lost yet, but they’re both languages that certain members of the community are trying to hold on to and keep alive,” McKeown said. She also concedes that the histories of the Jews and the Irish have certain similarities.

“It’s the humanity of the music that comes through,” Sklamberg said, thinking about the impact the 1960s folk revival had on Jews. “You look in any suburban Jewish record collection, and you’ll find Belafonte and the Clancy Brothers,” he said. “Everybody had Theodore Bikel records, and he did some Irish songs in an Irish accent.”

“We’re one of the lost tribes,” McKeown said jokingly. “We have to do the DNA on that. It works well, the Irish and the Jewish music. It’s a good match.”

Listen to the Saints & Tzadiks song ‘Heart’s Blood’:

Gwen Orel is a freelance writer on theater, music and film. She has a doctorate in theater arts from the University of Pittsburgh.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.