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Theo Bikel: Revisiting the American Folk Music Revival

THEODORE BIKEL

While I’m Here

Red House 286

 

imgres-9-59-37-amTheo Bikel’s While I’m Here is a magical trip down Memory Lane. If this name rings no bells, your cultural/musical education contains a gap that this double-CD can bridge. Bikel (1924-2015) was a seminal figure in the middle period of the Folk Revival (1947-1965).

Bikel was born in Vienna, fled to Palestine during the Nazi years, moved to London to become an actor, immigrated to the United States in 1954, and became a citizen in 1961. His contributions to the Folk Revival notwithstanding, he was even better known for his acting chops. How many folk singers do you know that have been nominated for Academy Awards and Tony Awards, served as president of Actors’ Equity, and played Worf’s father on Star Trek? His is the record-holder for portraying Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof), and the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music was invented for Bikel to display his vocal prowess. Ever hear the song “Edelweiss?” Of course you have; it was penned by Oscar Hammerstein especially for Bikel

If it strikes you as odd that Bikel also picked up an acoustic guitar and sang at folk clubs, another short history lesson. During the Folk Revival, stories were as important as the songs, and no music devotee dreamt of yelling out, “Shut up and sing!” Who better than an actor to spin good yarns? To mention a few others who went a similar route, Alan Arkin was one-third of The Tarriers, who had several best-selling records; and most of The Clancy Brothers hit the boards before they hit the charts. (Contemporary actors such as Steve Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Creed Bratton, and Kevin Bacon tread in these footsteps in reverse, and tons of actors rock or rap.)

Bikel hit the USA at time during the Folk Revival when Americans were discovering the world: Alan Lomax trotted across the planet to record international folk music, Pete Seeger whistled both traditional and revolutionary Chinese ditties, and country singers discovered that “Appalachian” music had English or Scottish roots. Bikel fit in well—he was the genuine article, a Jew with an inherited trove of Yiddish and Hebrew songs, facility with 21 languages, and a born shanachie. The first CD of While I’m Here is entirely storytelling—most of it autobiographical in content but spellbinding in nature. Imagine a Yiddish Garrison Keillor and you begin to conjure the worlds Bikel recreates. One could teach an awful lot of immigration history through Bikel’s words—especially the lure of America in the post-World War Two years.

Some listeners may find Bikel’s songs too mannered. This too was common during the Folk Revival, with Bikel fitting the mold of other “stagey” singers such as John Jacob Niles. He was not a songwriter; Bikel interpreted the compositions of others, including the album’s title track, penned by Phil Ochs. One of his signature songs, “The Lady is Waiting,” came from Paul Williams, and Bikel wasn’t particular about original sources, as long as he liked the song. Another favorite was “Pourquoi Je Chante,” from Egyptian-French-Italian-Greek composer Giuseppe Mustacchi. Bikel also fashioned sets that contained Yiddish songs, contemporary international folk, and show tunes. He cofounded the Newport Folk Festival (1959) and inspired such next-wave Folk Revivalists as Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, and some guy named Dylan, as well as Jac Holzman, who went on to produce everyone from The Doors to The Stooges.

Bikel belonged to the generation of folkies defiant of the 1950s Red Scare and 1960s reactionaries. He was an unapologetic Zionist and remained an activist even when it passed from fashion (which is more than can be said of Dylan). The second CD opens with “Wasn’t That a Mighty Day?” which Bikel reworked to protest the ill treatment of Hurricane Katrina survivors. Bikel was a lifelong civil rights activist; hence the collection also contains “Oh Freedom.”

In brief, Theo Bikel was an important figure—an icon of artistic achievement, creativity force, and humanitarianism. Bikel passed last year, but continues to inspire folks such as Cathy Fink, who co-produced this retrospective, and Judy Collins, who wrote a loving tribute. If you already know about Bikel, spread the word; if not, time to complete your education, friend.

Rob Weir

PS: I’d recommend buying the CD, not a download, because the 24-page liner booklet is an education in its own right.

Check Out this CD from One of NEPCA’s Own

Chris Gleason is NEPCA’s area chair for music. This CD shows that he can do a lot more than write and comment upon it! 

SADO-DOMESTICS

Two-Egg Scrambler (2013)

Self produced www.sadodomestics.com

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Sadodomestics c over060The Sado-Domestics titled their debut release Two-Egg Scrambler, but by my reckoning they broke considerably more eggs and raided the nests of a variety of chickens to make this tasty musical dish. The fourteen tracks are cleverly divided into a “Side A” and “Side B” with the recorded drop of an old-style record changer appearing between tracks seven and eight. This is more than a device–the first seven tracks are more acoustic based and the remaining seven edgier and more electric.

The Sado-Domestics are built around the singer/songwriter partnership of Chris Gleason and Lucy Martinez, both of whom also perform as solo acts and with other bands. The ensemble is fleshed out by other veteran Boston musicians, including Bruce Bartone, Shamus Feeney, and Paul Stewart from Gleason’s roots band Los Goutos. “Mule in a Swamp” sets the tone for Side A in that many of the tracks are soaked in a Southern brine that’s part swamp water, part skillet-licking Appalachia, part acoustic country blues, part folk, and part traditional. Martinez has a voice that impresses by both its power and its sweetness. Her “Dragonfly” is bluegrass influenced, but more fragile, and “Weeds” evokes the reflective melancholia of a Mary Chapin-Carpenter offering. Gleason is a more ironic songwriter. If you can imagine a snarkier version of Steve Goodman, Gleason’s “Badly Paid” fits those parameters. “Dahlia,” a musing upon the gruesome 1947 Elizabeth Smart murder, is a dark country blues offering in keeping with Gleason’s tendency to opt for realism over metaphors.

Side B plugs in. Gleason’s “Waiting” reminded me of one of the lush songs Tim Buckley used to write, but with the studio string enhancements stripped out and replaced by Bartone’s crystalline electric guitar atmospherics. Gleason seems to delight in messing with our perceptions. His “January” rocks, but in a nostalgic, bright way that defies the way most of us think about that month. Similarly, “Together in You” is the only time I’ve heard the following mentioned in the same song: Skip James, Kurt Cobain, Emmylou Harris, Husker Du, Tom Verlaine, and Richard Nixon. Speaking of Verlaine (Television), Martinez airs her punk sensibilities on Side B. On “Tainted Windows” she juxtaposes bouncy vocals with crunchy power chords, fuzzy feedback, and energetic percussion. Then she goes new wave Devo-like on us on “Bull in a Cage.” Think you’ve got these guys figured out? Uh huh. Listen to Gleason’s “At Night We Fall” and get back to me. The tune riffs off of The Beatles’ “Let it Be,” but the material is country western confessional, including the line, “the road to redemption/Is paved with the best intentions.” I can’t say whether these folks are as badly housebroken as the band name implies, but I sure can recommend you invite them to your musical table.—Rob Weir

Click here for an acoustic version of “January.”