Saturday Singles Nos. 209 & 210

We belonged to two record clubs in my youth: The first was the Musical Heritage Society, which released albums of classical works in mostly plain white jackets, with the occasional change-up of an album with a color picture on the front. My sister and I were about fourteen and eleven, respectively, when the records began coming to the house once a month – typical titles were Great Pages From French Organ Music or Trios for Flute, Piano and Cello – and we were, at best, skeptical.

“Just wait,” our dad would say as he’d slide that month’s arrival onto the bookshelves where the others gathered. “There will come a day when you’re glad you have these.” And he was right. For as infrequently as I listen to Music of the Hunt and the others, I am glad the records have made their ways from his shelves to mine. They sit there partly as a reminder of my dad and partly as a library of fine classical music should I be in that mood (and I am there on occasion).

The other record club was more mainstream. I think it was the Record Club of America, whose initials hint to me that it was corporately tied to RCA. (Not so, as it happens; see the comment from reader Yah Shure below.) For several years, my sister and I were each allowed to select a record from the catalog every other month.

It must have been in 1964 when we joined the club, as I recall that my first selection was the soundtrack to the James Bond film Goldfinger, which I owned before I had seen the film or read any of Ian Fleming’s novels. My sister’s selections were generally more pop-oriented, except she baffled me – and likely my parents – when she ordered one month a record called Traditional Jewish Memories, an orchestral/vocal collection of melodies that I found exotic and compelling.

I’ve written a few times over the past three years about my sister’s record collection, about her taking her records with her when she moved away from Kilian Boulevard, and about my efforts over the years to replace those records of hers that I had come to love. Eventually, and without working very hard at it, I gathered copies of almost all of the records I had liked among my sister’s collection.

Three were challenges: Two by Leo Kottke – Circle ’Round the Sun and Mudlark – and Traditional Jewish Memories. In the 1990s, as I was doing the heavy lifting on creating a vinyl archive and was looking more closely than ever for my sister’s records, I could not find any of those three. As to the third, I didn’t even recall the name of the artist or artists who recorded it. I recalled the cover: mostly white, with a yellowish photo of an older Orthodox Jewish man flanked by burning candles. But it was an album I loved, maybe more than I liked the Kottkes and the rest of my sister’s records, filled as it was with dramatic, poignant and exuberant melodies that obviously came from a far different culture than mine.

One day, I did find a copy of Traditional Jewish Memories at Cheapo’s, marked as being in “Good” condition and performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of Benedict Silberman. I took it home, of course, and was reminded once again that visual inspection of records does not always provide an accurate check of quality. The music was as moving as I remembered, what I could hear of it: The record played hissy at too many points to be easily listenable. It wasn’t the fault of the folks at Cheapo’s. They had so many records come in the doors each week that there was no way to listen to them all; they did their visual grading in good faith, and there had been times I’d brought back to their store records that had a hidden defect. This one, even though it was essentially unplayable, I kept, hoping to someday replace it with a better-sounding copy.

And all through the record digging of the 1990s, I looked.  The two Kottkes came home eventually after I hooked up to the world in 2000 and then found the world of music blogs a few years later. I found mp3s of Circle ’Round the Sun and Mudlark at blogs or boards, and not long after that, two friends I’ve met through blogging each sent me one of the Kottkes on vinyl, in very good condition.

That left Traditional Jewish Memories. While I was constructing my vast LP database in 2001 and 2002, I found several listings for the album in libraries – most notably in the on-line files of Dartmouth University’s Jewish Sound Archive – and some digging through the Warner Bros. listings at the Both Sides Now discography site gave me a release date of 1964. But nowhere could I find a listing for a CD release, nor could I at that time find a listing offering a better quality copy of the record I had or any mp3 rips of the album.

Until a few weeks ago.

Over the past eight years, I’d occasionally gone looking, checking blogs and boards and at Amazon and other online retailers, as I’ve done for other elusive albums over the years. I wrote not long ago about doing the same with Cover Me, the Springsteen tribute. And, as happened with Cover Me, it was like a switch flipped somewhere. Suddenly, there were vinyl copies of the record offered for sale – one at Amazon this morning is going for $42 – and I found some listings for CDs. The CDs, however, had differing titles, though all were credited to Silberman – about whom I know nothing, really – and listed some of the same tracks as on the vinyl I have.

So I invested a couple bucks in a CD, but when it came, I found that it wasn’t quite complete. It was missing two of the fourteen tracks on the LP. Disappointed, I set it aside unopened and went back online, this time heading for a different retailer. And I found the album.

Now titled Hava Nagila & Other Jewish Memories, the CD has the same recordings in the same order as the LP my sister ordered from our record club so long ago. The notes in the CD package (augmented by one bit of information from the back of the LP jacket) tell me that twelve of the fourteen tracks are drawn from Jewish music prevalent in Eastern Europe as far back as the Sixteenth Century and are part of the Jewish tradition that resulted in, among other things, the musical style called Klezmer. (Silberman wrote one of the tracks himself, basing it on traditional themes, and the fourteenth track is “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” a Yiddish song written in the 1930s that was a hit for the Andrews Sisters in the late 1930s.)

In other words, the music on the CD – and on the vinyl that preceded it – is in large part the music of a Pre-Holocaust culture that no longer exists. It’s true that that the professionalism of Silberman’s orchestra and chorus smooths out the rougher and more exuberant edges the more celebratory songs would have had in the Klezmer tradition, and the instrumentation is no doubt different, but still the songs remain.

I’ve never known why my sister ordered Traditional Jewish Memories from the record club, and I never knew when I played the record in the late 1960s and early 1970s why those melodies from so long ago and so far away moved me so greatly. Knowing now quite a bit more of the tragic history surrounding nearly all of the songs on the album – and feeling more and more the weight of the Star of David I’ve worn around my neck for years as a memorial to the Six Million – I know now what it was I heard along with the music in the basement at Kilian Boulevard.

I was hearing ghosts of a culture and a people diminished and nearly destroyed.

Here are two of those tunes with ghosts, “Rosalie” and “Mitzva Dances,” today’s Saturday Singles:

Both tracks are from Traditional Jewish Memories by the Orchestra and Chorus of Benedict Silberman, 1964. (Reissued on CD in 1994 as Hava Nagila & Other Jewish Memories.)

Edited slightly.


4 Responses to “Saturday Singles Nos. 209 & 210”

  1. jb says:

    Apart from the related fact that you like beer and you’re a hell of a good guy, this sort of entry is why I read you. Not because I am interested in klezmer music, but because this is so well-written that I didn’t have to be interested in klezmer music to be fascinated by it.

    Now if only we could do something about our football differences . . .

  2. Yah Shure says:

    whiteray, please thank your sister for me for having taken a chance on this release. I’d put money on the probability that the record was never stocked by any St. Cloud record dealer, and that’s a real shame. Thanks for sharing it.

    BTW, Record Club Of America was an independent operation, and not affiliated with RCA or any other label.

  3. […] might be seen as a world music phase. My late-night listening has included many plays of the CD Hava Nagila & Other Jewish Memories since it arrived in the mail about a month ago. I’ve also spent time with the music of Brulé and […]

  4. […] somewhere – school, a friend’s house – and selected as one of her regular choices from our record club the group’s 1964 album The Swingle Singers Go Baroque. I have no idea how often she listened to […]

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