We Interrupt This Blog…

We interrupt this blog for a special announcement brought to you from the Bronx:

Yep, I’m here at the end of the 4 subway line (“Ladies and gentlemen, the next and last stop is Woodlawn Cemetery”). I’m staying in a cabin in the backyard of the 91-year-old Yiddish singer-songwriter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, whose windows look out on a wild garden (my favorite kind) overgrown with roses, flax, lilac & lilies. The cabin shelters under a giant maple tree, which Beyle says she started as a twig from the Bronx Botanic Garden.

I’ve come out here from California to help digitize the Ruth Rubin tapes at  YIVO.

Ruth Rubin

Basically, Ruth Rubin was the Alan Lomax of Yiddish folk culture. She spent her life collecting old Yiddish folksongs from old Yiddish folksingers. Starting in 1947, when she was 41, she recorded thousands of songs, stories, children’s rhymes, curses, prayers, streetsellers’ cries, jokes, riddles, rants & reminiscences. Ruth shlepped her reel-to-reel tape recorder to old folks’ homes, Greenwich Village parties, summer camps, public libraries, the Jewish Guild for the Blind, and her friend’s kitchens – anywhere she thought there might be a chance to save some scrap of Jewish culture.

Rejected by the straight, male-dominated academic world (all she had was a B.A. in folklore), she herself mocked scholars who pontificated about Jewish culture but never listened to a Yiddish folksong. The professors said romantic love didn’t exist in nineteenth-century Jewish culture; Ruth recorded hundreds of love songs that her informants learned from their mothers & grandmothers. The professors had secretaries and research assistants & faculty wives & university funding & salaries; Ruth made her living as a stenographer, typed her own tape logs, & created a meticulous, hand-bound, typewritten catalog to go with her excellent-quality field recordings. The professors published in academic journals which nobody ever read; Ruth Rubin wrote a book called “Voices of a People” (still in print!),  published numerous popular songbooks, & released one of the most important Yiddish records ever made, as an LP on Folkways Records.

Ruth spent twenty years preparing a book manuscript based on the recordings, but could never find an interested publisher. In the end, the book was published after her death. The book includes her music transcriptions, transliterated Yiddish lyrics, and translations, edited by Mark Slobin & Khane Mlotek. The book doesn’t include any additional source recordings, but it does come with a CD of the original LP.

That LP represents just a tiny fraction of the unheard material in the Ruth Rubin collection at YIVO, which has 130 reel-to-reel tapes, along with tape logs, catalogs, papers, & music manuscripts.  I’m so thankful to YIVO, to the An-Ski Institute, to the Center for Traditional Music & Dance, to the commune where I first learned Yiddish, & to all the people who worked together to bring me to NY to to hear these songs, & help turn them into digital files so other folks can hear them too.

YIVO sound archivist Lorin Sklamberg gave me a quick lesson in digitizing sound files before he left to tour Europe with the Klezmatics. Lorin’s colleague Motl Temkin followed up with long-distance tech advice while on vacation at the Arbeter Ring summer camp. Since then I spent 12 hours a day, six days a week, in the YIVO music archives. Every day I threaded the tape onto the reel-to-reel machine; set the sound levels on the computer; created the digital files; entered the song information in a searchable database; & listened to the songs over & over again to be sure I got everything right.  Then I rode the sweltering 4 train from Union Square to 247th St. & fell into bed, to khapn a dreml & do it all over again next day. The only reason I even took time off to post this blog entry is that the YIVO building is closed on Saturday.

Every Yiddish singer & scholar in town will soon be panting down YIVO’s neck, waiting for them to go public with the material. Ethel Raim & Itzik Gottesman, who helped Pete Rushefsky bring me out here through CTMD’s An-Sky Institute for Yiddish Culture, will teach some Ruth Rubin material at Yiddish Summer Weimar.  Lorin Sklamberg will teach some songs at KlezKanada in August.  But until YIVO works out the details of copyright law, I might be the only person, besides Ruth Rubin herself, to hear all 863 Yiddish songs on these tapes.

YIVO is dipping its toes into the waters of free internet sharing, with the online YIVO Encyclopedia, & more websites in the works.  I suspect the wave of interest in Ruth Rubin’s work will keep swelling & swelling until it breaks in a foaming rush of music & song. Let’s hope that YIVO will be there, surfing the crest alongside the Yiddish Book Center, which has already put most of its holdings online.

I must say I myself am dying to share the songs, to sing them out loud, to play them for everybody I know, just to let folks know what a very beautiful gift Ruth Rubin left: not just to me, or you, or YIVO, or CTMD, but to the world.

Maybe someday there will be a Ruth Rubin website like the one where 17,000 Alan Lomax recordings are available online, for free.