Bar Mitzvah Presentation: Klezmer and Appalachian Music

Klezmer and Appalachian Music

By Marshall  

Hello my name is Marshall. Welcome to my Bar Mitzvah!

I consider myself a secular Jew. This means I celebrate all the Jewish holidays and learn about Jewish history and culture at my Jewish community Sholem.  Most people think that you have to be religious to be Jewish. I don’t believe that to be true. I am not a religious Jew but still I embrace and identify with my Jewish heritage. This is why instead of being at a synagogue listening to me read from the Torah, we are here. My Jewish heritage comes from my mother’s side but I identify just as strongly with the Appalachian heritage from my dad’s side.  Being a member of the Sholem community means that I do not need to pick between my two heritages, and instead I can celebrate both, and embrace both as my identity.

In addition to identifying strongly with both my Jewish and Appalachian heritage, I also identify strongly as a musician. I started playing piano when I was eight, and the violin at the age of ten. I love playing music because even though my family sort of made me start taking piano lessons and I didn’t particularly like it at the beginning, as time progressed I found that music became more and more enjoyable because once I was past the basics—such as learning the notes, learning how to read those notes, learning what keys played what note, and learning basic rhythms and articulations—I realized that playing music could actually be fun. Especially when playing with other people.

I love how because I know how to play music, I have a way to communicate with other musicians. We don’t even need to speak the same language. We could still make music with each other. When I feel angry I’ll play a song intended to be played at piano at full volume. For example, the song Ave Maria, which is supposed to be played softly, beautifully…

(Play Ave Maria properly on piano)

…When I’m feeling very mad, I will play it more like this…

(Play Ave Maria loud, fast, and powerful)

…Which makes me feel much better.

I did a lot of research for this project. This included reading about the histories of Klezmer and Appalachian music and reading books on the roots and different heritages of Klezmer and Appalachian music.

In addition, I watched a famous Polish movie starring Yiddish superstar Molly Picon from 1936 called “Yidl Mitn Fidl,” about a female musician who poses as a boy in order join a wandering Klezmer band.

I also participated in a community Klezmer jam in Santa Monica, and, I found a lot of useful insight in the book Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World by Henry Sapoznik. In addition, I listened to a great variety of Klezmer music from such bands and artists as The Klezmatics, The Strauss/Warschauer Duo, Alicia Svigals, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars, Shtreiml, Fish Tank Ensemble, The Wandering Jews, and David Chevan & Warren Byrd’s “The Afro-Semitic Experience.”

Some of the books I read about Appalachian music included Tennessee Strings by Charles K. Wolfe and Tennessee Music by Peter Coats Zimmerman.  Some of the Appalachian or Appalachian influenced artists I listened to for this project included Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, Leon Russell, Roy Harper, Howlin’ Wolf, Wilson Pickett, The Carter Family, Allison Krauss, Otis Redding, Betsy Smith, The Staples Family, and Gillian Welch.


There are many musical traditions that could be considered Jewish, from the cantorial tradition, to Yiddish, Hebrew , and Ladino folk songs, to songs from the Yiddish theater. Then there’s Klezmer music. The word “Klezmer” is comprised of two different Hebrew words, “kley,” which means vessel, and “zemer,” which means song. The word Klezmer can refer to the musical instruments, the people who play it, and the genre of music itself.  Though any instrument can play Klezmer music, traditional Klezmer instruments include the ones that were easiest to transport from place to place, such as violin and clarinet.

Klezmer music originated in the Eastern European Pale of Settlement in the early 1500s among the Ashkenazic Jewish community. It was influenced by a variety of cultural musical forms including Polish, Gypsy, Bulgarian, German, and Romanian. Throughout the next few centuries, Klezmer spread throughout Europe, appearing in both Jewish and non Jewish weddings parties and celebrations. It came to America when the flood of Jewish immigrants began arriving in the late nineteenth century. For a time, Klezmer music began to emerge as a highly influential style of music in America, but it diminished as a result of World War Two and the Holocaust. Maybe Jews didn’t want to be reminded of the culture that had nearly been exterminated. Or maybe this was just the next step in American Jewish cultural assimilation: that as Jewish Americans moved away from the city and into the suburbs, their children were unable to participate in the cultural Jewish identity that remained in the cities.

In the early 1970s, many young American Jews were becoming interested in traditional folk music. One such person was Henry Sapoznik, then known as “Hank.” While studying Irish music, New England contra dances, and Appalachian old-time string band music, he went to North Carolina to learn from Tommy Jarell, a 73-year-old master of traditional American music who played fiddle and banjo. One day, Jarell asked him, “Hank, don’t your people got none of your own music?” This question led Sapoznik to study Klezmer music, which began the Klezmer revival movement that remains vibrant and evolving to this day.

At Sholem, I am a member of the student Klezmer band. I remember wanting to be a member of the band ever since I found out that anyone with at least a year’s experience on their instrument could join. So, two years ago, after I had been playing the violin for a year, I joined the band. Something I like about playing Klezmer music is that while the songs aren’t extremely hard to play, there’s so much that you can do with the music beyond just playing the notes. For example, there’s the buzz trill, which sounds like the cantor’s trembling vibrato…

(play buzz trill)

…the krekhts, or “cry,” that mimics the voice breaking with emotion…

(play krekhts)

…these are a couple examples of how Klezmer music uses different techniques to make an instrument mimic the human voice.
Now, with the help of some friends, I am going to perform a traditional Klezmer song. The composer and title are both unknown because the tune was passed down generation to generation by ear. Over time, it has been given different names, but many people know it as “Wedding Dance.”

(Play Wedding Dance: approx. 5 min)

Unlike Henry Sapoznik, in addition to Klezmer music, my cultural heritage extends to the Appalachian musical tradition. Like Klezmer, Appalachian music grew out of the influence of the ancestral musical traditions of the people who settled in the region. The Appalachian sound comes from a mixture of African and European music. It originated in Eastern Tennessee and spread throughout the Appalachian mountain range. Its distinctive sound has grown and evolved into a diversity of musical styles including country, gospel, blues and bluegrass, and its influence remains strong in the popular music of today. There are certain trademarks of the Appalachian musical sound, including a sound that occurs when a player deliberately starts the note a half step down so he can slide up to the actual note. Like so…

(play gliss)

Unlike Klezmer music, Appalachian music incorporates a great diversity of musical traditions. Many people such as the recently deceased Levon Helm of the legendary group The Band, note that the Appalachian region, particularly the great musical hubs of Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, has such a rich musical tradition because geographically it is right in the middle of the continental United States, and thus is a place where many cultural influences from all parts of the country are able to reach.

Traditional Appalachian instruments include banjo, fiddle, bass, and guitar. Many of the most well-known and influential musical artists of the 20th century come out of the Appalachian musical tradition, including many of the artists I mentioned earlier.

Unlike Klezmer music, Appalachian music was never in need of a revival.  This consistently evolving art form has been growing strong for centuries.

Although my dad was born in Maryland, he moved to Oliver Springs, Tennessee at the age of six weeks old. For those of you who knew my father, you would probably agree that he lived a very colorful life. And even though he lived all over the country and all over the world, his roots stayed strong in Tennessee no matter where he went. And in fact, for the next song, a Shackelford straight out of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, my brother Bryan and I will be performing a song made famous by the band Alabama, called “Dixieland Delight,” which was written by Ronny Rodgers.

Before we play the song, I would like to talk a little about how it reminds me of my Appalachian roots and my experiences visiting my family in Tennessee. The first line of the song goes “Rollin’ down a backwoods, Tennessee byway, one arm on the wheel.” That image is incredibly evocative of my experiences in rural Tennessee where everyone drives a truck, all-American of course, and I can see the byways in my mind, because there are all these side roads that stretch so far into the distance that they eventually disappear with the curve of the Earth. You just don’t get that here in L.A.

I will be playing the bass part on the piano. It requires me to play large intervals very quickly, giving the bass line a real bouncy, energetic, upbeat, country feel. Kind of like we’re rolling down that endless, unpaved Tennessee byway in our beat up Chevy pick-up.

But the most important thing about this song is that I’m here playing it with my brother, surrounded by family and friends…

(play “Dixieland Delight”: approx. 5 min)

I want to go back to that Klezmer jam I participated in, because it was a real eye-opener for me. There were people from Japan, Argentina, and from all parts of the US, all coming together to play the same kind of music. I was the youngest person there, but there were others who were just out of college and then just about every age group from thirteen to eighty. Even the people that weren’t playing instruments participated in the music by dancing or clapping rhythms. That experience, that community feeling, is what I love most about making music.

Because of my work preparing, writing, and rehearsing for this presentation, I will never think of music the same way. Whether it’s a piece of sheet music for me to play, or a song I hear, I know the roots of all music go deep into the history of a people, a culture, and a shared cultural identity that can bring people together. And, to me, bringing people together and making music like we have done today is pretty much the best thing in the world.

There are so many people I would like to thank.  Here are just a few:

First, I would like to thank Hershl Hartman for all his help and guidance, for his informative Bar Mitsve class, and for giving me such constructive criticism on my presentation.  I would also like to thank Laurie Braude for all his hard work and support in putting together this event.

I want to thank Ross Helford for providing guidance and organizational help in writing this presentation, while making sure it remained in my own words.

I want to thank Rebekka Helford for performing all the songs and organizing the klezmer band, and for being so knowledgeable about everything, especially in my klezmer research.

I want to thank my friends Kelsey and Jacob for lending their musicianship to the klezmer song.

I want to thank Ella for helping me with my PowerPoint presentation, and for running the slide show.

I want to thank my brother Bryan for coming all the way from Tennessee and organizing and performing “Dixieland Delight.”  He was so committed to being a part of my Bar Mitsve, and it makes me feel lucky to have a great brother that is really on top of things and enthusiastic to play with me.

I also want to thank my brother Truman for being a good brother, for always being there for me, and for driving me places when I needed to work on my Bar Mitsve.

I want to thank my Grandma Sheila for organizing pretty much my entire Bar Mitsve, and for always keeping me on track, from the very beginning.  She’s always been an amazing, caring, and involved grandma, and it makes me feel good to have a grandma that’s so supportive and involved in my life.

I want to thank my mom for being very supportive and involved, who’s been the main person who always read over my work, made good suggestions, and had a lot of great ideas, worked tirelessly in organizing, driving me places, always being so encouraging and loving.

And finally, I want to thank my dad, who is here with me in so many ways, and will always be.

Thank you for being here to share this special day with me.


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