Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Jewish Music in New Orleans
"The Big Easy"-Gemisch
AUFBAU 63:4 Feb. 14, 1997 p15
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Feb. 10, 1997
1788 words

"Greetings from the swamps!" - Loyola University Associate Professor & Music Librarian Laura Dankner positively glowed, as she opened the 66th annual meeting of the MLA - not the Modern Language Association; the Music Library Association [in fact "Those who associate MLA solely with modern languages" were castigated along with "the Philistines of ignorance, the musically illiterate, the bibliographically uncontrolled and censorious censors" in the "Battle Cry of the Administration of the Music Library Association," sung at the convention for the second year in a row] - in New Orleans (a.k.a. "The Big Easy") January 29-February 3, sandwiched in between the Superbowl and Mardi Gras.

Steve Dankner's Grand Entrance

A syncopated Mardi Gras marching rhythm rang out in the Grand Entrance of the Music Librarians into New Orleans: for Brass and Percussion by Laura's husband Stephen Dankner. Of the 9 members of the Louisiana Philharmonic who performed it, only the tuba player had a little difficulty getting the pattern. "He's not from here," explained the composer, a member of Loyola's composition faculty and Music Chair of the high school known as NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts). Stephen and Laura are of course from the South originally - "the South of Brooklyn!" ([i.e.] Crown Heights, to be more precise.) And has Dankner written Jewish music? "I'm just getting to it now: a new setting of Psalm 90" - probably for synagogue rather than university performance.

Not at Jesuit-founded Loyola, but right next door at Tulane University is where most of New Orleans' Jewish students are - 3,000 out of a student body of 10,000. "We call it 'Ju[Jew]lane,' as opposed to 'Goy-ola,'" confided Tulane Music Department Chair John Baron, addressing the fourth annual Jewish Music Round Table of the MLA. He himself modestly attributes the success of the Jewish Music course he has taught there, since 1980, to the emergence of an abundance of excellent new recordings that he (along with the library) has been acquiring and playing in his classes. There is also the much smaller Dillard College up in the African American area called Gentilly, which features a Black-Jewish Week every year.

Before the Civil War, New Orleans had more free black people than any other U.S. city, which may partially explain why a disproportionately large number of the best medium-priced restaurants in New Orleans today (Olivier's, The Praline Connection, and especially Dooky Chase) happen to be black-owned. The great trumpeter Louis Armstrong (whites call him "Louee"; local blacks call him "Lewis"), who has a park named for him bordering the French Quarter, always gave credit to the Carnovsky family, who helped him buy his first trumpet, and introduced him to matzos, which he always kept a supply of at his home! Another great musician named Louis - Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) - who hailed from New Orleans was one of the first important American composer-pianists, claiming both Creole (Afro-Spanish-Caribbean) and Jewish ancestry. My own great-great-grandfather died in New Orleans, but more of that anon.

The New Orleans Klezmer AllStars

A group which frequently performs at the dozens of jazz clubs on and around Bourbon Street (on Friday nights too!) is the New Orleans Klezmer AllStars, founded four years ago by guitarist Jonathan Freilich. The instrumental freylakh dance he wrote that bears his name, which he performed for us with clarinetist Robert Wagner and bassist Alan Cassidy, consciously combines bits of Hava Nagila hora, gisch mode, jazz riffs, blues, fanfares, and rock-influenced Cajun/Zydeco into what might be called a rollicking Big Easy Gemisch.

It's worth noting that virtually every population group in New Orleans has arrived there via the experience of exile. The French-speaking Acadians of Nova Scotia and Choctaw Indians of Alabama both arrived there following the 1755 exodus subsequent to the French & Indian War, combining into the culture known impolitely as "coon-ass" and more respectably as "Cajun." Longfellow's Evangeline has a Cajun setting, and was made into an opera by the late Otto Luening. Other than that the only Cajun opera seems to have been The Night of the Moonspell, a bayou adaptation of A Midsummernight's Dream which was part of a triple-commission by the state of Louisiana in the 1970s from composer Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991), whom they made an honorary colonel, but whose music seems little remembered there now.

The Germans, including Jews, began arriving in the 1850s (my own great-great-grandfather, from Vilna, died there in 1865), building up then-suburban communities like Carrollton that have since become absorbed into the city proper. The four most impressive organs in this largely Catholic city are all in Protestant churches. The fifth, a 1926

Skinner, is at Temple Sinai on scenic St. Charles Avenue, though it would indeed be even more impressive if, as Prof. Baron said, it were tuned more often!

Most of the older church steeples - and organs - were destroyed in the hurricane of 1915. Actually, the whole city would be underwater if it weren't for the levees and canals all around it. New Orleans cemeteries are famous, especially the Catholic ones, for the large number of graves built above ground.

Very few of them are to be found, however, in the six Jewish cemeteries:

A Cemetery Search

Hebrew Rest #1, 2 & 3, dating from the 1850s, 1896, and the 1970s respectively, are all quite well kept-up. So are the two Canal Street cemeteries, including the Touro Synagogue (Sephardic) one. The Joseph Street cemetery is probably where my great-great-grandfather was buried, a victim of yellow fever, in 1865. Fifty years ago, two of my great-aunts and great-uncles found his grave, though it took them a week: he was not buried under his last name, Wilnefsky, but rather just his first name

and patronymic: Dovid ben Hershel. There is no trace of him in any of the city's present burial records; and the yellow fever victims' section of the Joseph Street cemetery was dug up in the 1960s and '70s to make room for new graves. The old headstones were placed in a row around the edges of the cemetery, but many had crumbled to dust; a dozen or so remain in partially-obliterated fragmentary form. One of these may be his, but none was unfortunately definitely decipherable to the point of definite determination.

Though ceded to the Spanish for a brief period beginning in 1764 (signs all over town give alternate names of streets in Spanish, and a couple of small monuments memorialize those who died protesting the cession), in 1803 New Orleans was taken back by the French and sold a few weeks later to the fledgling American republic, as part of Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the U.S.A. The fiercest battle of the War of 1812, fought at New Orleans, made Andrew Jackson a national hero (his equestrian statue dominates Jackson Square at the heart of the French Quarter) - despite the fact that the war had been over for days before the battle was even fought, communications being as slow as they were then! The one "Jewish" song I ever heard about New Orleans was a parody of a 1957 Jimmy Horton song based on an 1815 fiddle tune commemorating that battle:

        "In 1814 we took a little trip
        Along with Andrew Jackson down the mighty Mississipp'.
        We took a little bacon, and we took a little beans,
        But the bacon wasn't kosher, so we only ate the beans!"

Parody and Translation

There's a thin line, sometimes, between parody and translation. Rabbi Bachman of New Orleans' Congregation Chevra (locally pronounced "chevre," as in goat cheese!) Thilim, plays jazz trumpet in a band, not during regular services, but often at weddings. His temple's Purim celebration is a take-off on Mardi Gras, complete with the throwing and catching of beads. ("No, they don't have anything to do with the rosary," he assured me. "They're just pagan!" Like the dreydl, right?) And he himself wrote and performed a Hebrew version of Guys and Dolls which was performed at Jewish Theological Seminary 12 years ago, with lyrics to "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" derived, for example, from the Book of Jonah(!).

Bachman considers himself part of a noble and undersung tradition; 60 years ago, the first translations of Shakespeare into Hebrew were written... in New Orleans! But he opposes what he calls the "parevization" of publications such as Transcontinental's recent edition of the Shir La-Shalom, the last song sung by Itzak Rabin (the German translation of which first appeared in Aufbau ), turning a militant secularist political song into a pablum

"Let's all pray for peace."

This issue was discussed briefly at the Jewish Music Roundtable. More fully discussed was the issue raised by Tom Tugend's Aufbau article on the unfortunate but apparently unavoidable move of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute from the University of Southern California not to Israel, which cannot and will not pay for it, but to anti-Semitic Vienna, which can and will. Librarians close to the situation seemed to feel relieved that at least the danger that the collection might have been broken up has been averted. At least one aspect of the conflict between USC and the Schoenberg family seems to have been demographic: how can you have evening concerts when "every night South Central L.A. is a fortress!"?

"It's not the easiest thing to be Jewish here, religiously, as opposed to culturally and philanthropically," said Rabbi Bachman. But, thanks to clergymen like Rabbi Robert Loewy of Gates of Prayer and Cantor Michael Shochet of Temple Sinai, over the past three or four years, "the gap between Orthodox and Reform is being bridged."

[Whether you call it cooperation or assimilation, everything about the New Orleans melting pot is truly remarkable. My favorite souvenir is a T-shirt I bought on Decatur Street in English and Hebrew letters saying, "Shalom, y'all!" And as Loyola Music History Professor Mary Sue Morrow pointed out in a delightful talk, followed by a live demonstration of Cajun dancing, in 1890 the New Orleans Opera presented Wagner's Ring, the poster for which showed Brnnhilde and a quartet of alligators in the swamp!

I had hoped to have a copy of that to illustrate this issue, but as one of the convention speakers warned us: "Everything moves much more slowly down here." The New Orleans Historical Association unfortunately sent the wrong picture, and phone calls have not been returned. Maybe for a subsequent issue... (?)

If you go to New Orleans, enjoy yourself, but as Professor Morrow advised: "If you find yourself being serenaded by a quartet of alligators, better ask the bartender to call you a cab!"]

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