Courtesy of Daniel Kahn
We all know people who seem to have been born in the wrong decade — or even in the wrong century. Only very few of them, however, attempting to connect their society with that of another world, stretch across eras, and become giants — artists and thinkers like Sun Ra, Walter Benjamin and Henri Matisse. Whether Daniel Kahn is merely an eccentric born in the wrong century, or is indeed a growing giant, is the question I kept returning to while listening to “Lost Causes,” Kahn’s third album with his band, The Painted Bird.
Although the material on the album is diverse, its backbone is Yiddish protest songs. These are century (or more) old Yiddish poems by writers such as Mordechai Gebirtig, David Edelstadt, and Mark Warshavsky, to which Kahn adds verses of his own English translation. The common thread running through the poems is class struggle, workers’ rights and demands of equality. Unlike the sardonic title of the album, the words are earnest. And music is simply fantastic. Klezmer tunes turn in the blink of an eye turn into New Orleans style marches, or Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan-esque ballads. It’s folk — that is, people’s music — and it works so well in no small part thanks to the band, which stars such young klezmer greats as clarinetist Michael Winograd, trombonist Dan Blacksberg and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment.