A baby that is also a bird flying away from its nest . . . wet stones in the rain that reflect the pale complexion of a young lover fleeing her oppressive mother . . . a drunkard and the moon going down the road together arm in arm, sharing a bottle of whiskey . . .
Yiddish ballads hold a rich sensorium of melancholy, a language of love that embraces images from fairy tales, morbid ideations, the fancies that strike the eye while walking alone down the street at night. Their lyrics are marked by an erotic melancholy specific to the experiences of youth, and yet are timeless and unbound from any one place or identity, the way great love songs can be. The ballads appear to us from a world of fantasy, memory, and symbol, constituting a Yiddish gothic, a folk expressionism unapologetic in the extremes of its imagery.
This folio—a multimedia album of audio, video, text, and image—is a response to the work of one particular artist, Lifshe Schaechter-Widman (1893–1973). She is perhaps the best-known Yiddish balladeer of the twentieth century, and her family is an illustrious one in the world of Yiddish culture. I am deeply indebted to Schaechter-Widman’s grandson, the folklorist Itzik Gottesman, who has made preserving, explicating, and disseminating his grandmother’s songs a central part of his life work. Schaechter-Widman, like many dominant figures in folk music scenes, had a powerful vocal presence, a brilliant creative facility that blurred the line between “tradition bearer” and composer, and a command of hundreds of old songs that she held in her memory. Her vast repertoire and the specifics of her intonation and phrasing have made Schaechter-Widman an invaluable resource for learning the Yiddish song tradition. The field recordings documenting her work made in 1954 by Leybl Kahn, a folklore collector, inspired three of the songs in this project. Though the album contains two songs from outside Schaechter-Widman’s repertoire, she is its star and its guiding voice.
Itzik Gottesman’s blog, The Yiddish Song of the Week, has been on rotation in my brain for many years now. I feel a kinship with Gottesman’s project; my musical life has also been closely entwined with my family history. My father is a composer, and my grandfather was a cantor. Over the years, I have framed my work as a response to their music, but my conception of the sound of Jewishness is just as much a product of the familial experience shaped by my grandmother, Frumit Gitel “Geta” Konigsberg (1922–2017)—her voice, world view, and the experience of home that she created for me. She was not a singer and did not hold the same kind of dominant role that my grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg (1921–2007), held in the professional musical life of the family. Finding ways to bring her into my music is a part of my motivation for singing Yiddish ballads, a genre commonly associated with the domain of Jewish women’s voices.
I am joined in this endeavor by my friend of many decades, the drummer Ricky Gordon. Ricky and I first met when we were both young accompanists and students to Piedmont blues legend Carolina Slim, aka Elijah Staley (1926–2014). In the years since Staley passed away, Ricky and I have been working together extensively to continue his musical legacy, first in a trio with fellow Carolina Slim alumnus Ernesto Gomez, and in the last two years since pandemic restrictions were relaxed, as a duo we call Gordon Lockwood. While our live shows are focused on the blues, I have been weaving Yiddish into our sets, honing the arrangements gradually over time. The spoken-word section in the song “Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter” is a product of shows at blues clubs and my impulse to bring translation of the Yiddish directly into performance. I am increasingly dissatisfied by walls between the different aspects of my musical life and am working towards a more complete integration.
I started playing these ballads with Jewlia Eisenberg (1970–2021) in our duo Book of J, sometimes performing them in dialogue with new Yiddish songs we had composed based on the poetry of Celia Dropkin. Singing them now extends our work together into the future, but also highlights Jewlia’s painful absence. In two moments on this album, I broke away from the documentarian aesthetic of the project and overdubbed a higher vocal line, Jewlia’s voice. I hear her still.
While the topic of these songs is heartbreak, the intent of the music making is oriented towards pleasure, always towards pleasure. I invite you to enter this space of memory and to populate it with your own familiar spirits and dreams of old lovers. The stories are only half-told until you listen.
Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter: Ballads from the Yiddish Gothic
Performed by Gordon Lockwood
Jeremiah Lockwood, vocals and guitar
Ricky Gordon, drums
Digital liner notes, translations, and adaptations by Jeremiah Lockwood
Standing in a Corner | Itka Factorovich Sol
Once Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter | Lifshe Schaechter-Widman
In My Heart Burns a Fire | Lifshe Schaechter-Widman
When It Rains | Lifshe Schaechter-Widman
Sleep My Little Bird | Traditional
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Please note: links to the original recordings, along with Yiddish texts and scholarly annotations by Itzik Gottesman, are included in the liner notes for each song Jeremiah Lockwood originally learned from the Yiddish Song of the Week blog.
Jeremiah Lockwood is a scholar and musician working in the fields of Jewish studies, performance studies, and ethnomusicology. He is the founder of the band The Sway Machinery and is currently a Yale Institute of Sacred Music Fellow. His work engages with issues arising from peering into the archive and imagining the power of “lost” forms of expression to articulate keenly felt needs in the present.
Ricky Gordon is a drummer, percussionist, composer, actor, and social activist. He has performed and recorded with a host of musicians including Wynton Marsalis, Carolina Slim, Public Enemy, Hubert Sumlin, Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, The Allman Brothers Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and The Fraternal Order of the Society Blues. Some of Gordon’s acting credits include HBO’s Treme and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, and School Daze. He recently worked on the Jon Batiste production American Symphony, which premiered at Carnegie Hall.