Monday, May 23, 2016

Happy 75th Birthday Bob Dylan!

About 15 years ago, I wrote this piece for a now-defunct web site. That was long before critic Josh Kun waxed more-or-less definitively on the topic in the wonderful documentary Hava Nagila (The Movie). For further insights, I also recommend David Kaufman’s take on Dylan's Jewish identity in Jewhooing the Sixties.

Bob Dylan’s Jewish Blues: “Talkin’ Hava Nageilah”

The audience chuckled as Bob Dylan began strumming the guitar for his next song. The year was 1961. Dylan was quickly earning a reputation in the Greenwich Village folk clubs (the so-called ‘basket houses,’ since performers got to keep whatever the audience put into the basket after each set) as a solid blues and folk interpreter, with somewhat of a deadpan (some called it Chaplinesque) comic shtick. He would pretend to fall off his stool as he tuned his guitar, fool around with his harmonica, play with the thrift-shop Huck Finn hat he liked to wear on top of his uncombed hair.

Bob Dylan had been in New York maybe eight, nine months. No one knew where Dylan was from - he was constantly inventing strange tales of running away from home, somewhere in the Midwest (New Mexico? North Dakota?) and running away to join the circus. The New York Greenwich Village audiences laughed at his antics and listened raptly to his traditional song/stories of cowboys and farmers. To them he looked and sounded like a hick kid who seemed somehow to channel the souls of the bluesmen and hard-luck characters he had met on the road.

When he hit New York in January 1961, Dylan never mentioned the fact that he had been born in Hibbing, MN as Robert Allen Zimmerman (his Hebrew name: Shabtai Zissle Ben Avrahom v’Rochel-Riva) and raised in a fairly typical upper middle class Midwestern Jewish home. (It would be almost another year before he would go to a courthouse and legally adopt the soon-to-be-famous name he had chosen when he was still in Minnesota attending college.)

Standing on the tiny stage, Dylan’s rhythmic guitar strumming sounded like any one of the Woody Guthrie ballads he often played. But now there was a comic glint in his eye and a smirk on his face. To punctuate the effect he tilted his head to touch his lips to the ever-present harmonica squeezed into a wire brace around his neck and blew a couple of quick chords. There was a sarcastic tone in his voice when he said “Here’s a foreign song I learned in Utah.” Then without missing a beat he sang: “Hah (guitar strumming) vah, Hah-vah (guitar strumming) nah, Hah-vah-nah (guitar strumming) GEE! Hah-vah-nah-gee (strumming) LAH! Hah-vah-nah-gee-lah!” And he ended the one minute song with a piercing yodel followed by a harmonica flourish which had the largely Jewish audience of college students, drop outs, aging beatniks and uptown liberals whooping in surprise and delight.

I can see the scene in my mind’s eye and I can hear it in my ear, though no video or film exists of Dylan in 1961. If it didn’t happen the way I just described, I’ll bet it was pretty close. But the song in question, “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues” is very real indeed. Dismissed by most Dylan critics as a novelty item, it remains the only recorded example of Dylan singing in Hebrew. (In 1989 he performed a spirited rendition of the actual “Hava Nagilah” with Peter Himmelman and Harry Dean Stanton on a Chabad Telethon, but, alas, he only played the recorder while the others sang.)

It’s a minor miracle we have the song on CD at all. He recorded it in one quick take in April 1962 for his 2nd album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, (the one with “Blowin’ in the Wind”) but the song, along with several other gems, was cut in favor of his more recent songs of social conscience and biting political commentary that Dylan began churning out at a dizzying pace towards the end of that year. It remained in the vaults, unreleased, until 1991, when it appeared on the official Columbia CD box-set, The Bootleg Series (Volume 1).

What was he trying to do in this song? Is it a parody? A shtick? An innocent spoof? “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah” is certainly unique — no other song in Dylan’s repertoire at the time had even the hint of Jewish ethnicity. Indeed, many of Dylan’s early 1960s songs exhibit Christian imagery and themes, as he borrowed heavily from the gospel tradition of the American South, a practice that would continue throughout his career. In that context, “Hava Nagilah” would have stood out as just plain weird if Dylan hadn’t introduced it as “a foreign song I learned in Utah,” setting up the song as a guessing game. A friend of mine who has written two books on Dylan takes that idea a step further, suggesting that the song plays subtly on the similar sounds of “Ha-va Na” and Havana (as in Cuba), since Fidel Castro, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, was a constant thorn in President John F. Kennedy’s side. It’s an interesting thought, but not a road I can walk down.

Looking through the volumes of Bob Dylan commentary in my library, two throw-away quotes from one of his most respected biographers, the late Robert Shelton (in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan) are the only comments on the song to be found. Shelton, then folk music critic for the New York Times, wrote the now legendary review of Dylan’s performance at Gerde’s Folk City on September 26, 1961, in which he predicted success for the then unknown (outside of The Village) singer. Recounting the songs Bob sang that night, Shelton said of the song in question, “[it] burlesques the folk-music craze and the singer himself.”

In the late 1950s, at the start of the “folk-music craze” led by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Theodore Bikel and others, singing folksongs of different ethnic cultures became de rigor for any aspiring folk singer. (This was before the folkies wrote much of their own material — for that we have Dylan to thank.) On any given night, in any cellar along Bleeker and MacDougal large enough to hold a stage and an espresso machine, the mingled sounds (and mangled lyrics) of Russian, Irish, Yiddish, French and Hebrew folk songs could be heard. (The Village’s only Jewish/Israeli coffee house, Cafe Feenjon, was one of Dylan’s hang-outs in those early days.)

Dylan in Jerusalem
In his biography, published 25 years later, Shelton was more specific. He wrote, “Then he did...“Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,” his little jape of international song stylists like Harry Belafonte and Theo Bikel.” So it appears that “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah” was a dig at some of Dylan’s fellow folksingers. Why Shelton fingers Belafonte and Bikel we don’t know, but it’s interesting that both men were well known actors who had considerably broadened their popularity by giving concerts and recording albums of folk-style music, Belafonte bringing Jamaican calypso music to a large audience, and Bikel doing the same with Yiddish and Israeli songs.

Coincidentally, both men were to have important roles in Dylan’s early career. Belafonte hired him to play harmonica on a recording date in late ’61, Dylan’s first professional recording session. Though the session, with its endless retakes, turned out to be a less-than-pleasant experience for Dylan, Belafonte’s version of the bluesy “Midnight Special” will always hold a  special place in Dylan-lore as his first ever appearance on vinyl.

As for Theodore Bikel [who died in 2015 at 91], in addition to having two brilliant careers, as an actor and folksinger, he was a prominent social activist. He admired Dylan’s talent from the start, and was one of those who expanded Dylan’s political contacts by bringing him into the orbit of the Civil Rights movement in 1963. Bikel also served on the board of the Newport Folk Festival, an important venue for Dylan from 1963-1965.

We may not know exactly who Dylan was spoofing in “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah,” but he must have known the original “Hava Nagilah” — if not from his own Bar Mitzvah in 1954 or other family simchas, then from the summers of his youth spent at Camp Herzl in nearby Wisconsin. Perhaps he had heard Belafonte's 1957 recording of “Hava Nagilah,” which would later serve as the inspiration for Allen Sherman’s hilarious parody, “Harvey and Sheila.”

In November 1961, a few weeks after the Belafonte session, Dylan recorded his first album for Columbia records. Consisting primarily of traditional country-blues songs but with only two originals (“Song to Woody” and the Guthrie inspired “Talkin’ New York”), it appears that Dylan selected a set meant to solidify his image as a scuffling, wayfaring kid making his way in the big city, while playing down the Midwest middle-class Jewish family part.

When a Columbia publicist interviewed him for his official bio, Dylan spun a web of made-up stories about his background, meant to amuse and confuse his public. Dylan was constructing a new identity for himself, and the 20 year-old did it as easily as switching Zimmerman for Dylan. During one interview he stated, “[I] have no religion. Tried a bunch of different religions. Churches are divided. Can’t make up their minds, neither can I. Never saw a God; can’t say till I see one...”

Like the master magician he is, he had us all looking at one hand while he did sleight of hand with the other. In the short run it worked — in less that a year the folk music world had a new American icon. In the long run, however, Dylan’s Jewish identity would chase him down like a hound dog chasing a hare. He could outrun it for a time, even hide for awhile, but in the end it would catch up with him. In 1961, maybe “Hava Nagilah” was “a foreign song,” but it wouldn’t be for long.

No comments: