Shake your tokhes
by Sandor Slomovits
It's only in the last twenty-five years that klezmer music has moved into concert halls. Before that it was always dance music, played at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and parties. Occasionally it was the vehicle of Jewish comedy. Mickey Katz was perhaps the greatest proponent of that branch of klezmer: beginning in the 1940s and for the next twenty years, Katz recorded many Yinglish parodies like "Haim afen Range" ("Home on the Range") and "K'nock around the Clock," with a cockamamy mishmash of English and Yiddish words.
Katz was a native of Cleveland, which is home also to his heirs apparent, the klezmer band Yiddishe Cup. Its most recent recording, Meshugeneh Mambo, is, among other things, an homage to Katz, featuring five of his parodies, plus others in that vein. Yiddishe Cup has added many new lyrics that measure up well to Katz's zany concoctions. (Its leader, Bert Stratton, is a 1973 U-M English graduate and two-time Hopwood Award winner.) The sentimental classic "My Yiddishe Mama" now features deep psychological insights like "She's the one who made me what I am today oy vey!"
Like Katz, who was an excellent jazz clarinetist and played with, among others, big-band leader Spike Jones, of "Yes, We Have No Bananas" fame, Yiddishe Cup is not just about shtik. Here there is plenty of technik. These musicians are completely convincing as they romp through a dizzying variety of genres. Their "My Yiddishe Mama" starts with a shouting blues vocal in which they sound like the kind of boys Yiddishe mamas, and all other mamas, warn their daughters about; then it morphs successively into the theme from Goldfinger, the 1950s doo-wop classic "Little Darlin'," and the theme from The Patty Duke Show. They can also play it straight. Their "Second Avenue Square Dance" and "Li'l Gypsy" needn't be ashamed next to any traditional klezmer band's versions.
But they do the shtik particularly well. "I Am a Man of Constant Blessings," their
parody of Ralph Stanley's "Man of Constant Sorrow," from the hit documentary Down from the Mountain (which, if you haven't seen it, is not about Moses and Mount Sinai), substitutes the Hebrew blessings over wine and bread for the original words. The lyric is backed with Jew's harp (nu, what else?), banjo, and fiddle and may be the first example of the next big thing in world music. We've had unlikely hybrids, like AfroCelt. Now, why not Yidlacchian or maybe Appalish?
You want I should give you a piece advice? Go see Yiddishe Cup at the Ark on Saturday, January 22. The Ark is even opening a dance floor for this concert. You can dance a crazy kazatski along with Yiddishe Cup's shtikmeister, Daniel Ducoff. Go ahead, shake your tokhes. It couldn't hurt.
[Originally published in January, 2005.]