“When I was 8 years old, we made our home in Brooklyn. It was there on East 4th street, near the cemetery that I first became aware of folk music lore and song.” So begins a rather extraordinary short essay by Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records in 1948 and, of course, son of acclaimed Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch.
Moses Asch was just one of a number of contributors invited to submit their reflections for Sing Out! magazine’s 1961 symposium, Folk Music Today. Sing Out! had been around for just over a decade. And while its circulation was never huge, its cultural impact was significant. Sing Out! served as one of the key nodes of the American folk music revival, under the guidance of perhaps the most famous American folkie after Woody Guthrie: Pete Seeger.
Guthrie and Seeger epitomized what we might think of as white Americana; Guthrie, the Dust Bowl migrant from Oklahoma to California, and Seeger, the blue-blood Harvard legacy who dropped out to dedicate himself to music and radical politics.
But scratch the surface of the American folk revival, and you will find that as a movement, Brooklyn (and points east) were as much a source of “authenticity” as Oklahoma or the Deep South. Asch’s Folkways brought a global perspective to the movement, something grounded in his own diverse life history. As for his future in folk music, he writes further:
“I had a good background to it. First as an infant in Poland when we spent our summers in the woods living in a log cabin with white caulk, to seal the trunks from the winds, searching for strawberries and mushrooms. This has stood me well these days for I have been able to discuss mushrooms of Poland with ethnomycologists such as Mr. Wasson for whom I issued ‘Ceremonies of a Mushroom Worshipper.’” (Again, you get the impression Asch was way ahead of his time, on multiple fronts.)
Asch goes on to touch on even more colorful details of his life, such as the time he was studying electronics in Germany at the age of 16. There, among a group of international students, he was challenged to sing one of the folk songs of his home country. At a loss, he could only come up with the novelty hit “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” Mushrooms, yes. Bananas, no.
At that moment, he writes, “I learned the meaning of folk song as it expresses a HOME feeling of belonging and association.” It makes sense, given Asch’s peripatetic life up to that moment, that he might not even know where his home was, and what musical vocabulary should express it. (Though he does note that when he was 10, the family moved to Paris where, naturally, he learned Yiddish and his mother sang him Yiddish folk songs such as “Oyfn pripitshek” and “Shlof mayn kind.”) Inspired by the singalongs with his international friends, Asch picks up a copy of Cowboy Ballads (1910) while on a vacation in Paris and has an epitome of sorts. American recorded music would never be the same.
Even though Asch represented a certain extreme in terms of his own rootlessness and relation to the subject of “folk music,” the question of what exactly a folk song was remained an open one in the pages of Sing Out!
The “what is folk music?” discourse is just one of the fascinating threads to follow across Sing Out!’s early archive, now digitized and searchable thanks to the brilliant people at archive.org. In its pages you will find plenty of what you might expect: talking blues, union songs, ballads, spirituals, and a delightful number of newly composed parody songs on various issues of the day.
What surprised me, however, was how prominent a place was held by Yiddish song, right from the magazine’s beginning. This came about, in large part, due to the Herculean efforts of a pioneering folklorist and folk song collector, Ruth Rubin. As Hankus Netsky notes in a 2008 article about her, Rubin was the “first to issue an annotated set of Jewish ethnographic field recordings” and “the first to give Yiddish folksong its place at the table in the American folk music revival.” Sing Out! gave Rubin a forum not only for publishing Yiddish folk songs themselves, but other materials relevant to the subject, such as reviews of Jewish folk song collections. Her review of one of Theo Bikel’s Jewish songbooks is long, detailed, and devastating in its assessment. As a creator, Rubin published her own song translations into and out of Yiddish, including a Yiddish version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
Despite her groundbreaking work (or perhaps due to a misogynist backlash against it), Rubin, Netsky writes, was “never fully welcomed into the Jewish academic world, earning the bulk of her living as a stenographer.” Indeed, as she recalled in a 1993 roundtable interview in Bridges magazine, in the 1940s and ’50s she was touring college Hillels, lecturing on Yiddish folk song. During those lectures, she said, students would hear the magnificent Yiddish recordings she had collected and ask, “Why didn’t our parents tell us about this?” Good question.
Within the elite Yiddish literary world, there was strong skepticism toward presenting Yiddish materials in English. In the same Bridges interview, Rubin said that when she was starting out in Yiddish folklore, a “well known editor of a Yiddish literary magazine” reacted to her Yiddish-in-English project with snobbish incredulity. “Vos vestu opshmadn di yidishe kultur?” Quite literally, he said to her, “Why do you want to de-Judaize Yiddish culture?” Nonetheless, Rubin was steadfast in her project. Reflecting back on that time in the 1993 interview, she said, “This treasure belongs to the young generation, whether they understand Yiddish or not.”
In that light, her collaboration with Sing Out! makes even more sense. The magazine’s readership was young, heavily Jewish, and receptive to songs in all languages. By the time she started contributing to Sing Out!, she had already published her first book, A Treasury of Jewish Folksong. Many of the songs featured in that first book would end up in the pages of Sing Out!, such as “Vigndig a fremd kind,” “Shlof mayn kind, shlof keseyder,” and “Tum-balalayka,” which you can see her sing with her friend Pete Seeger here:
Sing Out! wasn’t the only publication forging a path for Yiddish-in-English in the 1950s. At the other end of the political spectrum, literary magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary were publishing new English translations of Yiddish stories, putting names like Chaim Grade and Isaac Bashevis Singer on the American literary map. Commentary even did Rubin the favor of publishing a particularly nasty review of her Treasury of Jewish Folksong in 1951.
In 1954, Partisan Review’s Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg published their landmark anthology of translations, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. Just a few years ago, Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert called it “arguably the most influential” anthology of Yiddish literature to be published for the American market.
In her fascinating 2020 book, Salvage Poetics: Post-Holocaust American Jewish Folk Ethnographies, scholar Sheila Jelen looks at a number of Yiddish-English projects from this period in American Jewish history, including A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. These are hybrid texts, she writes, “that exist on the border between the literary and the ethnographic …” In the case of A Treasury, for example, the primary texts at the center are Yiddish, but translated and, most importantly, framed and mediated by American Jews for American Jews. This is the “folk ethnographic frame,” as Jelen terms it, for a group of texts (including Life Is With People and the photographs of Roman Vishniac) that helped postwar American Jews move beyond their racialized past and invent a new, “ethnic” American identity, as mediated through these primary Yiddish texts.
As Jelen describes it, the selection, arrangement, and new introductory framing material for A Treasury of Yiddish Stories produce the cumulative “montage” effect of an “overly simplistic view of the culture described” in the stories Greenberg and Howe have themselves chosen. In their anthology, an ahistorical, isolated, and unchanging “shtetl” takes on almost anthropomorphic qualities.
She also notes a very curious feature of Greenberg and Howe’s extensive introduction. The authors go to great lengths, and some would say, mental gymnastics, to argue that residents of the “shtetl” are unaware of class difference, nor do they experience class conflict. It’s a very strange argument to make, especially as it is patently contradicted by the stories themselves.
I would suggest, however, that Greenberg and Howe’s argument makes much more sense if we expand Jelen’s conceptual framework of “folk ethnographies” to include songs, and thus Sing Out!. Then, we can read the two contemporary “folk ethnographic” archives as in dialogue (or, rather, competition) with each other. Howe and Greenberg had to go to absurd lengths to support their fantasy of a shtetl without class difference because at that very same moment, a set of competing claims were being made, positing the “shtetl” as a site of heightened class consciousness. Even in her 1993 Bridges interview, Rubin was asserting: “The working people created the folk songs; not the wealthy people; not the merchants. They sing about their lives.”
The selection of Yiddish songs for Sing Out! in the 1950s, whether made by Ruth Rubin or by other contributors, was done by cultural-political actors working within their own ideological framework, often communist or communist-adjacent. Many of the songs have explanatory text, for example, describing how the song expresses the plight of the Jewish worker, as well as the intracommunal shtetl dynamic of haves and have-nots. Some of these songs are the big, well-known cries against industrial capitalism, such as those produced by the sweatshop poets. But others are quieter, reflecting the domestic sphere. One of my favorite discoveries in the Sing Out! archive was the song “Vigndig a fremd kind,” that is, rocking a stranger’s baby. It’s the lament of a girl watching another, wealthier woman’s child for pay. The fancy lady is off to market while the girl is left to wash dirty diapers. Contra Greenberg and Howe, this was in no way a milieu lacking in class consciousness.
Within the pages of Sing Out!, Ruth Rubin writes a fair bit about Sholem Aleichem and his collaborator, the lawyer turned prolific Yiddish songwriter Mark Warshawsky. Warshawsky (and Sholem Aleichem for that matter) did indeed experience times of financial precarity. But I would say she definitely stretches in order to portray the two as existing so close to the working masses for whom they wrote. The two men were both well-educated, Russian-identified professionals—hardly toilers at capitalism’s engines.
We must also take note of what is missing from Sing Out!’s folk ethnographic archive of the 1950s. The magazine published quite a few songs of resistance from WWII, such as “Shtil di nakht.” But it did not publish songs expressing fear or hostility toward their average, non-Jewish neighbors, songs describing, for example, pogroms. I dare say, such sentiments would have been at odds with the ethos of “brotherhood among nations” very carefully cultivated by the magazine. Also missing are Yiddish songs of religious praise and worship, again, possibly because such earnest, religious particularity might have struck a false note, as it were, among the readership.
Though Ruth Rubin was no doubt sympathetic to the politics of the Sing Out! milieu, ultimately, she kept her eyes on her own project, making Yiddish song accessible to future generations, something she worked at tirelessly for her entire life. Paging through her songbooks today, I’m struck by how many of the songs in them have been adapted by bands and artists I love. For many people, myself included, hearing a Yiddish song in an English-language setting was the first step to learning the language itself. For the snobby, literary gatekeepers of yesteryear, and today, it’s a happy ending not to be ignored.
EXPLORE: Sing Out! magazine ceased publication in 2014, but the magazine’s website is still alive and hosts a ton of archival treasures. Find it here. For further explorations in Yiddish song, the new Yosl and Chana Mlotek Yiddish Song Collection at the Workers Circle is an extraordinary treasure. All five of the Mlotek songbooks are available and searchable at the website, as well as thoughtfully curated music and video annotations for each song … YIVO’s Ruth Rubin Legacy Archive of Yiddish Folksongs features recordings of over 2,000 songs collected by Rubin between 1946 and the 1970s.
ALSO: On Sunday, July 23, friends and students of Chava Lapin, z”l, will come together on the occasion of her shloyshim (30 days after her passing). In her honor, we will make a siyum mishnayes, Mishna Ta’anit, using the well-known Yiddish translation by her uncle Symcha Petrushka. The program will be conducted by the writer and researcher Michael Wex. Please register here … On Aug. 10, we will observe the annual Night of the Murdered Poets, remembering the Soviet Yiddish writers, artists, journalists, and scientists murdered by Stalin. Acclaimed Yiddish performing artist Yelena Shmulenson will present a new theater piece examining the Soviet government’s repression of Yiddish culture. This event will be live, in person, at Wild Project Theater, 195 East 3rd St. Tickets here … OK, it’s not in Yiddish, but by me, anything with Jackie Hoffman is always at least Yiddish-adjacent. Hoffman has a new, one-woman show coming up at Joe’s Pub called Jackie Hoffman: It’s Over. Who Has Weed? Aug. 8 and 15. Tickets here.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.