Culture

When It Comes to Gay Rights and Klezmer, the Musical Is Also Political

Photo by Angela Jimenez.

At a July 26 concert at 92YTribeca in celebration of New York’s first legal same-sex marriages, the singer-guitarist Nedra Johnson struggled to find the words to describe the relationships between love, politics and the blues. In an age in which sex and marriage are subjects of legislative debate, she reasoned, performing a sultry blues lullaby about her love for another woman — even if she had little but longing in her mind when she wrote it — is always construed as a political act.

What Johnson was grasping for was some 21st-century version of the second-wave feminist creed: “The personal is political.” When Carol Hanisch published her 1969 essay with that title, she meant that issues like reproductive rights and the sharing of childcare responsibilities — then scorned by some activists as “personal” problems not to be discussed in the public sphere — were inextricably linked to the struggle for so-called “political” rights like equal pay in the workplace.

Forty years later, with the battle for legal rights now firmly entrenched in the bedroom, something as intimate as a love song — especially a racy one written by a lesbian — can indeed pack political wallop. With Johnson, a 2006 OUTMUSIC award recipient, opening for Isle of Klezbos, an all-female klezmer band that performs, among other things, tunes from old Yiddish films with queer subtexts, a new equal-rights slogan came to mind: The musical is political, too.

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When It Comes to Gay Rights and Klezmer, the Musical Is Also Political

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