All about the gonifs CD: In droysn iz finster

This song comes from a Ruth Rubin recording, which I first heard at the Jewish Community Library.

The old Jewish Community Library of San Francisco was near Golden Gate Park in a big Victorian house (not big enough for all the books & records that filled it from attic to cellar). It was a good bike ride from the Mission District, through the ardent green of the park, into the foggy Sunset district where the Jewish books lived. Even better was riding back with a pack full of Yiddish songbooks & records.

The library had listening booths, & for a while
the booths were set up so that you could record their LPs onto your own cassette. I still have the tape I made there of “Jewish Life in the Old Country,” Ruth Rubin’s album of field recordings made with Yiddish refugees after World War II, singing songs they remembered from Europe. This song is from that recording.

When I first started transcribing Yiddish folksongs, I went crazy trying to follow the flexible time of the singers. Most Western music comes packaged in neat little bars of four beats, or three, or six , repeated over & over til the end of the song. At home in the little storefront where I was living, with a hotplate for a kitchen & a shower for a dishwasher, I listened to this song over & over, trying to make it fit some repeating rhythmic pattern. I wrote down one bar of three beats, followed by one bar of five, & kept counting threes & fives & sometimes fours to the end of the song, trying to make it all come out even.

(Like Sun Ra says: “Spacefire, sometimes it’s music, strange mathematics, rhythmic equations.”)

The song begins, “Outside it’s dark.; outside it’s dark, it’s late at night,” & ends, “Come outside, I want to be with you.” I rewound the tape & listened & wrote & rewound again so many times that by the time I got even one verse written down it really was dark out. I would ride my bike to the local dumpsters for dinner, & then detour to the shelter where my latest crush was staying. I dawdled on the sidewalk under the streetlight, hoping for the glimpse of a shadow against a lit window shade. I wanted to know, was I loved? Or was there somebody else? Or what? I was filled with longing, but I knew I couldn’t express it without freaking someone out. So I stood in the shadows wishing, waiting, hoping. Like the song says, “I stand & wait in the street, I myself don’t even know what for.”

I was so lonely – I’d moved out of the commune, & felt like a dropout from saint school. Meanwhile all my friends had moved on to marriage, or rehab, or touring with their rock bands. Out of sheer desperation for something to do, I was playing the accordion every day, & after a while I noticed that I was getting better. I started to play on the street, & sometimes people gave me money, & sometimes I took some music lessons. I fell out of love with one windowshade shadow, & in love with another; I tried to love myself, & hated myself without trying, but meanwhile my relationship with the music kept getting better & better.

Finally someone – I think it was Ben Goldberg – explained to me the Jewish music game of stretching a beat as long as you could, letting the note fade into silence, letting the listener wonder if you were ever going to play another note, before you did. Or conversely, crowding as many notes as you could into one beat, more notes than it could ever hold, so that half of them spilled out as ornaments. The way Ben explained it, you borrowed time from one bar to prolong a note, then hurried the next notes together to catch up. And this push-me-pull-you slither of the flexible spine of time makes Yiddish music’s characteristic gait.

It’s like swing music, in a way – if you tried to write out the swinging rhythm of Ella Fitzgerald’s singing you’d go crazy. So mostly people write it straight, & learn by listening how to make it swing. That’s why jazz, & klezmer too, are all about the oral—aural!—tradition.

The Jewish Library has moved into a building with security guards, & buzzer doors, & elevators. The listening booths are gone. I’ve moved into an apartment with a real kitchen, & a shower, & even a bathtub. I teach sometimes, if anybody wants to learn; & I love sometimes. And though I don’t haunt the twilit sidewalks anymore, I still feel that mixed-up longing for something beyond the foursquare beat of the day-to-day.

I’ve come to realize this: in the music I love there will always be pauses, silences, caesuras. There will be times when it seems that the music has stopped altogether, & I look around, confused to find myself alone on the dance floor. Then the rhythm starts again, & a rush of notes tumbles around me, & I see my friend smile around the mouthpiece of the clarinet as we both play the same spontaneous ornament at the exact same time. The tune rushes on, & the recording is over, & it didn’t come out at all the way we planned it. But we hope that someday somebody will want to listen anyway, & maybe even exchange a few words.

the gonifs: in droysn iz finster