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Paper 13: Klezmer and Song

Aims and objectives

To explore the complementary worlds of klezmer and song in Europe, North America and beyond from the 19th century to the present day. To consider the klezmer revival in its multiple vocal and instrumental manifestations as both a musical and a socio-cultural phenomenon.

Description of the course

In Yiddish-speaking communities of Eastern Europe the word klezmer — literally, ‘vessels of song’ after the Hebrew klei (vessels) and zemer (song) — came to denote the itinerant folk musicians (s. klezmer, pl. klezmorim) whose main function was to provide instrumental music for Jewish weddings. Klezmorim often teamed up with Roma musicians and performed to Gentile audiences, their repertory developing distinctive stylistic features which drew on regional folk and court traditions as well as synagogue and Hassidic song. With the mass influx of Jews to the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a parallel klezmer world developed reflecting the sounds and styles of American popular music. By the mid-twentieth century, however, Jewish musicians had gradually become absorbed into the American musical mainstream, while World War 2 had resulted in the extinction of Jewish life and culture in the Old World. 


In the wake of the 1960s folk revival, young Jewish musicians from different musical backgrounds (classical, folk, jazz, rock and world) turned to the music of their grandparents’ generation in search of their own musical and cultural roots. In revival terminology, ‘klemzer’ came to denote the musical repertory itself. This in turn provided a platform for a broader revival of Yiddish culture, including Yiddish songs, which routinely feature in concert programmes and albums. As quests for historical ‘authenticity’ gave way to concerns for contemporary relevance and meaning, new klezmer fusions emerged and songs, in both Yiddish and English, provided explicit channels for identity statements, social commentary and radical life-style expressions.

Drawing from a variety of musical and ethnographic sources this course will explore encounters between klezmer and song in Europe and North America from the nineteenth century to the present day. In so doing it will provide a context and springboard for the discussion of key issues in ethnomusicology including ethnicity, identity and concepts of revival, authenticity and heritage. While klezmer will remain the primary focus, the course will also consider Jewish musical revivals from beyond the Yiddish-speaking world.

Lecturer: Ruth Davis

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