A Jumpin' Night in the Garden of Eden. 1987. By Michael Goldman. 75 min., 16mm film
When I asked my mother, a retired music teacher, if she remembered anything about klezmer musicians from her childhood, she told me "they weren't really musicians; they couldn't even read music! They'd play at weddings and bar mitzvahs for food. They were beggars . . . like the old blues players." Sound like folk music?
Michael Goldman's A Jumpin' Night in the Garden of Eden. is an entertaining, well-researched overview of the history of klezmer (Eastern-European Jewish folk) music and its contemporary revival. This film features two klezmer groups—Henry Sopoznik's Kapelye and Hankus Netsky's Klezmer Conservatory Band—and focuses on the young musicians' rediscovery and exploration of a dying form. Goldman opens with a caption stating that klezmer music is grandfathers' music and goes on to a street scene somewhere in New York City where we hear and see Henry Sopoznik's five-member group, Kapelye, playing to an interested street crowd. Soon after, we meet the Klezmer Conservatory Band (KCB), made up of classically trained musicians from the New England Conservatory, and its leader, Hankus Netsky. A bigger group than Sopoznik's quintet of banjo player, sax player, fiddler, drummer, and singer, the KCB includes two comets, two violins, a piano, guitar, accordion, trombone, and sax, as well as a black clarinetist and a woman singer. In contrast to Kapelye, the KCB is playing to a concert hall, thus introducing the underlying issue of the film: is klezmer folk music, and does it matter?
Sopoznik didn't get interested in klezmer music until 1976, when he was playing old-time country music. Tommy Jarrell (never identified as anyone other than just another musician), the now-deceased North Carolina fiddle player featured in the film Sprout Wings and Fly, asked Sopoznik why he didn't play his own music, and so the quest began.
Until recently, most American Jews did not consider klezmer music to be a valuable part of their culture; many were not even aware of its existence. Like other second- and third-generation American Jews, Sopoznik did not grow up with klezmer music, a sound associated with the Catskills' "borscht belt" hotels, which many Jewish families patronized from the 1940s through the 1960s. Sopoznik wanted, as he says in the film, "to pass ... to be Beaver Cleaver." Hankus Netsky, who began teaching at the New England Conservatory in 1980, grew up with his parents encouraging him to be a Broadway musician—having a son who played klezmer was certainly not their dream. Even though Netsky's grandfather and uncle, we learn, were both involved with klezmer bands before he was born, the calling remained a dubious one. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's father, a klezmer musician, notes near the end of the film, he wouldn't want his daughter to marry one.
Sopoznik and Netsky, their interest presumably piqued by Jarrell's question, set off for the YIVO (never identified as the Institute for Jewish Research in New York) to find out about Jewish music. Some woman folklorist (never identified) took them to the subbasement of the YIVO. There, they found a cabinet containing a treasure trove 78s, sheet music, and photographs from the 1910s and 1920s. The discovery is used as a lead-in to a brief historical account of klezmer (trans. "instruments of song") music and its players, klezmerim, in Eastern Europe and in the United States.
Until the 20th century, Jews were barred from music conservatories by anti-Semitic laws. Klezmerim did not read music; they learned by ear and passed on this music to the next generation. They also played with non-Jewish musicians for family and local celebrations. A series of rehearsal scenes interspersed with interviews with band members and retired musicians reveals the influence of Rumanian, Hungarian, and Jewish music on American jazz as well as on klezmer. Musical styles from many cultures combined in Eastern Europe, for the musicians were often itinerants. Bands of 10, 12, or more made up of Gypsies, Jews, and others would all play together for peasant celebrations regardless of their ethnicity. For instance, in one scene, Leon Schwartz, a fiddler born in Europe in 1902, plays a tune in a "Gypsy" style, thus illustrating the difference that ethnicity can make in musical style.
The importance of such stylistic differences is underscored throughout the film. Playing a klezmer record at his uncle's house, Netsky explains how difficult it was for him to hear and transcribe music for the different instruments because he wasn't used to that sort of music; the instruments combined in ways not typical of Western music. Thus, when he rehearses his own band, Netsky encourages the members to listen carefully in order to figure out exactly what each instrument does. In contrast to this academic method of pulling a piece of music apart, Leon Schwartz complains: "when you start working with it, you break it up."
Columbia and RCA Records did precisely that when they released recordings of klezmer music on their race record series. According to one of the older musicians interviewed, the tunes played in Europe never had names. In order to fit the music onto 78s, the record companies separated the musical performances into idiosyncratic segments. This effectively removed the music from its Eastern European cultural context. A bit of historical film footage illustrates the degree to which the recording companies were dedicated to maintaining musical segregation: in 1933 they refused to let the Andrews Sisters record the Yiddish song "Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn," later recorded by Ella Fitzgerald under the title, "You're the Fairest in the Land."
Despite the negative influence the recording industry had on klezmer music, it served to disseminate the tunes among immigrants lonely for the old country and to preserve the music for their children and grandchildren. As Netsky perceptively points out in a rehearsal session, learning music from the records is clearly a form of revivalism, but it is also rather like a game of telephone: each player gets further from the source. What the young musicians really need to do, according to Netsky, is to work with the second generation of American klezmer musicians, the ones like Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's father who never stopped playing the music and so never had to revive it.
Although the older, European-born musicians interviewed are disinclined to analyze their musicianship, the film makes it clear that understanding their motives for playing klezmer music is important to members of the KCB and Kapelye. Appreciation for the ironic humor that is characteristic of Jewish culture prevents such self-analysis from becoming too heavy-handed. As drummer Charlie Berg, who used to play in a salsa group, explains, the basis for both klezmer and salsa music is the underlying rhythm: in salsa, it is called clave, in klezmer, oy veh. Such wordplay indicates the cultural basis of klezmer music, for it is more than a musical style. Don Byron, the African-American clarinetist in the KCB, notes that being a klezmer musician is only one, aspect of his musical identity. As he puts it, "I'm aware that I'm visiting."
Like Henry Sopoznik and Hankus Netsky, the Jewish band members are doing more than taking a journey into the world of their grandfathers; they are also reinventing their own sense of what it is to be American Jewish musicians. For example, Judy Bressler, the lead singer in the KCB, relates that she learned Yiddish to improve her musical interpretation of the songs she sings.
Such ethnic revivalism can take a bizarre turn. During a discussion with the whole band, we learn that one of the songs which is about a poor peasant woman whose son has been drafted into the Czar's army was written by a group member. The talk focuses on how to provide an effective musical interpretation of the woman's complaint about an unfair class system ("If I were rich my son would be free"). This and other song texts could spark an exploration of the role of Jewish women in various cultural settings, but other uses come more rapidly to mind. The irony of thirty-something, American-born, middle-class, conservatory musicians' attempting to articulate an authentic cultural statement about early 20th-century Russian peasant life provides a not-to-be-missed opportunity to point out the differences between revival and folk music.
Of course, such anachronisms abound in the modem American folk music scene and are probably jarring only to those of us who (foolishly?) continue to play the definition game. Comments comparing the transmission process to the game of telephone do soften such moments and enable the more purist among us to realize that the revival-folk dichotomy is not as simple as the authenticity police would like. The jarring syncretism characteristic of the folk music revival in general is only natural. As Hankus Netsky explains, the musicians, like their forebears, are only drawing upon their own cultural background to interpret their musical heritage.
Throughout its length, the film follows the pattern of moving from private to increasingly public performance situations—from the streets of New York City, to Jewish community celebrations, to more formal concert performances in Boston and elsewhere. A Jumpin' Night in the Garden of Eden. closes with the Klezmer Conservatory Band's appearance on "A Prairie Home Companion." The difference between this music and the folkie style typical of "A Prairie Home Companion" is made rapidly apparent and is reinforced by Keillor's comment that in Minnesota you'd hear such music only after dark and only in certain parts of town. According to Hankus Netsky, klezmer music screams out its roots, but it consists of sounds that Jewish musicians were told for years not to make. As Netsky says, it's nice to be able to make those sounds, a point that dissipates the desire to laugh at the incongruity of sedate midwesterners dancing to the seductive sounds of the Klezmerim in the aisles of the Orpheum Theatre in downtown St. Paul.
A Jumpin' Night in the Garden of Eden. is a well-paced and interesting film that smoothly intersperses interviews with old-time and contemporary musicians, historical segues, and concert dips to contextualize the place of klezmer music in Jewish culture and today's music scene. Being Jewish certainly helped to appreciate this film, but I suspect that an ethnomusicological background might do just as much. The only drawbacks are the filmmakers' annoying refusal to identify professionally people well known to folklorists (and probably not to others), and the usual lack of accompanying explanatory notes and/or glossary of in-group terms. The film gives a good introduction to klezmer music and incidentally to secular Jewish ethnic culture. Because it touches on issues of folk revivalism, ethnic identity, the reinvention of traditions, and musical syncretism, Michael Goldman's production would be a welcome addition to any number of folklore classes, undergraduate and graduate. It also could be integrated easily into a course on American folk music and culture with films such as Sprout Wings and Fly, Spend It All, and Say Amen, Somebody.