Friday, June 03, 2005

Freedom Songs and Convoluted Connections: Part I

A few months ago, I found myself watching public television and crying. This is not really out of the ordinary for me—I like public TV, and I am easily moved. For example, I can be counted on to weep whenever I hear the song “Rainbow Connection” from the Muppet Movie (no, I am *not * joking, but I’ll write about the Gospel According to Kermit later).

This particular lachrymal flood was brought on by A Chanukah Mitzvah, a children’s show about Chanukah. At the end of the show, a choir sang some beautiful songs with themes and musical patterns that reminded me of praise choruses. I was reminded of the Jewish roots of my faith and had a desire to learn more about Judaism.

I’ve also wanted to learn more about Judaism because I’ve always been deeply impressed by the Jewish tradition of social justice and tikkun olam. My understanding is that these traditions are what motivated many Jewish brothers and sisters (including Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were martyred with James Cheney) to work alongside African Americans during the Civil Rights movement. I’ve continued this learning journey by reading Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. & The Jewish Community by Rabbi Marc Schneier.

Many of the spirituals reference the Exodus story: “Go Down, Moses” and “I’m On My Way (to Canaan Land)” are a couple of these. I think it’s safe to observe that black and Jewish people have occupied similar social positions at different times in history. (Others have noted the contributions of Jewish musicians to jazz music, and I’ve occasionally heard references to similar elements of self-deprecation within African-American and Jewish approaches to humor.)

Given all of this, I started to wonder if there might be connections between our musics in some ways. Are there similarities? Is there something like the spiritual in Jewish music? Every now and then, when I’m interviewing someone who might know, I slip in a question along those lines. I’ll let you know if I ever get enough for a full post. I’m still searching.

Anyway, I was absolutely delighted to discover Let My People Go! A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom. The album was recorded by Kim and Reggie Harris and Rabbi Jonathan Kligler. It’s dedicated to the memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

From the liner notes:

“Jews and African Americans both draw abiding inspiration from the Exodus, the Biblical account of oppression, slavery, and the possibility of liberation. For Jews, this is the story of how they became a people, a story which they retell each year at the Passover Seder. For African Americans, this is a central story that animated their struggle for liberation from slavery and gave them strength and hope. For many Jewish and African Americans, the modern Civil Rights movement is the liberation struggle of our time and calls up the ancient images of Moses and Pharaoh and the Creator of the Universe, who insists that all God’s children be free.”

Here’s The Seder (The Order). You can see how traditional Jewish songs and songs from the Passover Haggadah meet spirituals and freedom songs. Ha Lachma Anya blends lyrics from the Haggadah with handclapping rhythms that originated in enslaved black communities. (The song “I Have a Million Nightingales” is a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, set to music by Jewish songwriter and cantor Linda Hirschhorn.)

Bchol Dor Va’Dor (In Every Generation)/I’m On My Way
Ha Lachma Anya (This is the Bread of Opression)
Avodim Hayinu (Slaves Were We)
In the Mississippi River
Remembering Phil Ochs
What’s That I Hear
The New Colossus/Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor/Motherless Child
Democratic National Convention 1964
Mah Lecha Ha’Yam (Sea, Why Do You Flee?)
Man Come Into Egypt
Ilu Finu (Were Our Mouths Oceans of Song)
Let My People Go: Story of an Activist’s Life
Freedom Road
I Have a Million Nightingales
Venomar Lefanav (Let Us Sing a New Song)
We Shall Overcome: Evolution of a Song
Ani Ma’Amin (I Believe)/ We Shall Overcome
I Won’t Turn Back

Let My People Go! is available from Appleseed Recordings. It’s a beautiful album with informative liner notes. Parts of it left me, well, crying. A great project.

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