Posted on July 22nd, 2015 by Rachel
Theodore Bikel 1924-2015
Theodore Bikel performing at the St. Louis Jewish Books Festival, November 2, 2014. Photo by Fitzaubrey.
There are many contexts for remembering Theodore Bikel, the multi-talented entertainer and activist who passed away yesterday. Many of the tributes I’ve seen on-line, speak to his many performances on stage and screen in roles as ranging from a regimented Austrian navy officer (in Broadway’s The Sound of Music) to a compassionate rabbi in outer space (on TV’s Babylon 5). But for the last six weeks, the context in which I have been thinking about Theodore Bikel involves Paul Simon – and that requires more than a little explanation.
On October 11th the Jewish Museum of Maryland will be privileged to be the first venue of a traveling biographical exhibit on the life of one of America’s most beloved singer-songwriters, Paul Simon: Words and Music. Developed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the exhibit chronicles the whole career of this musical icon – including his first guitar, clips from his performances on Saturday Night Live, and draft lyrics of songs like Mrs. Robinson – sometimes literally written on the back of an envelope. The show also features a series of narrative interviews drawn from three hours of conversation with Simon created especially for this exhibition.
The exhibit would be worth seeing at any venue, but since it is here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, we decided to add an extra dimension. We are creating a small companion “pop-up” exhibit exploring the role of people of Jewish heritage in the American folk revival and the evolution of folk-rock in the 1950s and 1960s. We began this effort with the observation that a disproportionate number of the great folk singer-songwriters (Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs among others) came from middle-class Jewish homes. But as we researched further we learned that there were so many more links and connections not just with performers but with the forces behind the scenes that propelled this musical genre.
And that’s why I’ve been reading a lot about Theodore Bikel in the last couple of months. Growing up, I thought of Bikel’s folk albums as something belonging to my older sister’s generation – old-timey tunes from around the globe – music that had little to do with the younger performers that I listened to.
In a way, Bikel’s own modesty about the scope of his work reinforced that image. Here is a quote from his autobiography that we’re using in the exhibit:
A folksinger is one whose material is drawn from one idiom based on the roots of his own tribe, his own people, his own heritage. Although I sing in twenty-one languages, I can legitimately call myself a folksinger in just one idiom – the Jewish one… it was something of a tightrope act, being a keeper of Jewish tradition on the one hand and doing the multicultural thing on the other…
From Theo, The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel (Harper Collins, 1994)
But the lives Bikel touched went way beyond his “one idiom”. Let me share just three examples of the way he shaped American folk music: The Byrds, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins.
From an interview with Roger McGuinn:
ROGER: After a while at the Old Town School, I got good enough to get a job playing folk songs at a coffeehouse on Rush Street in Chicago for 10 dollars a night. When I’d finish the evening at the coffeehouse, I’d go down to the place where all the professional folk singers played: The Gate of Horn.
One night there was a jam session going on at The Gate of Horn. There were The Limeliters and Theodore Bikel. They had a lot of guitars going and asked me to play my banjo. At 5 o’clock in the morning, Alex Hassilev of the Limeliters asked me if I wanted a job playing for them. “Yes!” I said, and he gave me an album and told me to learn the songs and meet them at 1 o’clock the next afternoon for an audition.
So I took the album home and stayed up the rest of the night learning the songs. The next day I met them and got through the audition. Alex said, “Great! You got the job. When can you start?”
“I get out of high school in June,” I said sheepishly.
“High school!” Alex asked in disbelief. “Didn’t we meet you in a bar last night?”
I told them how the bartender let me in because I played music and didn’t make any trouble.
In June they sent a plane ticket and I flew to Los Angeles to record Tonight in Person with them for RCA Records.
In 1959 Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival (together with Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, and George Wein). Here is a piece of his interview about the moment when folk went electric:
DAN EPSTEIN: It’s interesting to read your perspective on Bob Dylan’s “electric” performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Your reaction to it was more measured than, say, Pete Seeger’s was, but you were still clearly upset by the incident.
THEODORE BIKEL: Yeah, I was upset. But I also knew that this music had somewhere to go — it just wasn’t right for Newport, and for the folk festival that we were running. I also didn’t like the idea that Bob Dylan, who was idealized by so many of the people in the audience, would be booed offstage. Nobody likes to hear that sound! I mean, when he came offstage, he was white in the face and trembling. And I said to him, “Bobby, if a person rides on a horse and gets thrown from the horse, unless he gets back on the horse he’ll never ride again. So I suggest you get out there with an acoustic guitar, and give them the Bob Dylan they came to hear.” And he did that. Of course, he was in the mode of a declaration of independence; what he sang with the electronic band was, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” which is a declaration of independence. And then, when he went out there with his acoustic guitar, he sang, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which is just as much of a declaration of independence.
Finally, I turn to Jac Holzman’s company bio – Following the Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture. Holzman, who created his record label while in still in college (using his bar mitzvah money) gives credit to Bikel’s popular albums for keeping the company afloat during lean years from 1956 to 1961. In this way, all the great artists on Elektra – all the way up to The Doors, owe a piece of their success to Theodore Bikel. But the book relates one particular story:
THEODORE BIKEL: Jac said, “You have a Carnegie Hall concert coming up. Why don’t you introduce Judy?” I listened to her at the Bitter End and she was lovely with a gorgeous voice. So I said, “Sure.”
JUDY COLLINS: Theo gave me a big break, because that was an important concert. He was very sweet to me always. He’s a very good man.
There are many reasons to appreciate Theodore Bikel – not just what he accomplished, but what he enabled others to accomplish.
Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger, and Theodore Bikel photographed on July 26, 1963, by John Byrne Cooke at the Newport Folk Festival, singing “We Shall Overcome” with a standing audience of 13,000 joining in.
Posted on June 22nd, 2015 by Rachel
Last weekend I gave one final tour of the Mendes Cohen exhibit and the finish to our story is as bizarre and awesome as the life of Mendes himself.
Some very special visitors to The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen.
In our penultimate Mendes Cohen program we invited Dick Goldman, co-chair of the Jewish Genealogical Society to speak about the Cohen family tree. Dick looked at our statement that “Israel Cohen has no known living descendants” as a challenge rather than a fact. Using somewhat unorthodox methods he was able to uncover the fact that Alan Mordecai Cohen III was not the end of his family tree! It seems that Mr. Cohen married a member of Hungarian royalty (surname: Buda) and in compliance with her wishes converted to Catholicism and changed his family name to Clarke.
The newly-named Clarkes raised a son and a daughter, both of whom went on to have children of their own. Alan’s daughter Bertha is still very much alive today, enjoying her eighth decade. The man in the photo above is Bertha’s son, Ronald A. Brown. When Dick contacted Ronald last Wednesday, he discovered that Ronald was in the process of moving from Baltimore to Gettysburg. Dick told him that the exhibit was closing on Sunday – what a piece of timing! So it turns out that the very last visitor to the exhibit was a direct descendant of Israel Cohen, Mendes’ father.
But that isn’t the most incredible part. The most incredible part is that Ronald’s cousin Richard Clarke and his uncle Alan Clarke formed a business called Marcor Remediation here in Baltimore in about 1980. Here is a description of Marcor from the Baltimore Sun in 2006. I have highlighted the part that floored me in red.
Marcor’s primary business is garden-variety asbestos removal and demolition. But in recent years, the company has been the Forrest Gump of environmental cleanup, stumbling into some of the biggest headline-grabbing disasters in recent memory.
Some people make history, and others are witness to it.
Marcor is its janitor.
The company was tearing down walls and removing asbestos in the basement of the Pentagon when terrorists struck with an airliner on Sept. 11, 2001. Days later, its crews were first on the scene at the Fresh Kills landfill in New York’s Staten Island, where hundreds of workers labored for 10 months to sift through every scrap of rubble from the World Trade Center.
During that period, they assisted contractors decontaminating the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington after a second anthrax attack forced lawmakers and staff from their offices. And with about 700 employees spread nationwide, Marcor has been on the scene after just about every major hurricane of the past two years, from Ivan and Charlie to Katrina and Rita.
It’s all in a day’s work for a company that got its first job – removing asbestos from a Baltimore County elementary school – on the day Mount St. Helens exploded in Washington state in 1980.
“It’s almost like, `What is it that needs doing that nobody else is doing?'” said Richard Clarke, who founded the company with his father, Alan Clarke. “And that’s where we want to be.”
It is the ultimate a-mazing finish to the story. Mendes was sent into the powder magazine at Fort McHenry when America is under attack in 1814 to secure the facility from harm. His familial descendant Richard Clarke went into the World Trade Center 187 years later to remediate the explosion when America is attacked again. I thought that this type of coincidence only happened in the movies.
I also learned from Ronald Brown that his grandfather Alan Mordecai Cohen was 6’5” – suggesting he was a beneficiary of the same gene that produced Mendes’ impressive height. Ronald also said that his son possessed a documented history of the Cohens that his uncle created in the 1980s. We’re hoping to get a copy for our collection.
We hope everyone has enjoyed following along with The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and his continuing adventures as much as we have – he is certainly going to be missed here at the Museum.
A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.
Posted on June 15th, 2015 by Rachel
I know that everyone has today marked on their calendars as a birthday – probably not your birthday – but the birthday of Magna Carta. It turns 800 years old today. Now the reason it’s on my calendar is that for 11 years I was the steward of the only extant copy of Magna Carta in North America – the copy on display at the National Archives.
Magna Carta, 1297. On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.
Next Sunday I will be offering a free tour of the National Archives at 2pm as part of our Schnapps with Pops program. We are headed to the “Spirited Republic” exhibit – the latest changing exhibit at the National Archives and the inspiration for our JMM program. But given this important birthday, we’ll also be taking a side trip to see Magna Carta.
On view at the National Archives
Magna Carta on display at the National Archives is in fact just 718 years old. It was not signed or sealed by King John but rather by his grandson King Edward I. So what makes it special? Well, Magna Carta (Archives trivia – never supposed to write “the” Magna Carta, because it is a Latin name and bears no article) was not a singular act. John put his seal on Magna Carta under threat at Runnymede and from the time the ink dried, John and his successors looked for ways to annul, rescind and evade it. In this long series of royal pledges and revocations – the 1297 Magna Carta stands out because Edward agreed to an additional clause that enrolled Magna Carta in the statutes of England, settling the question of whether this was the permanent law of the land.
And the Jewish connection? Ask yourself “why did the kings keep issuing Magna Carta if they had little interest in conceding absolute royal power?” The fundamental answer is that they needed money and agreeing to a power-sharing formula with the barons was a way to stimulate their assent to new taxes. The original strategy of the Norman kings to finance their rule of their new Anglo-Saxon domain was to bring over Jewish merchants. In addition to developing the English economy, Jews were trusted agents of the monarchy – since their very presence in the country was at the sufferance of the king, the Norman rulers could count on their loyalty.
This helps explain Clause 10 in the 1215 Magna Carta. It is a clause which relieves the baronial families of having to pay interest to Jews after the death of a baron. Limiting the financial dealings of England’s Jews was seen as part of curbing the powers of the king.
When we put Magna Carta back on display in 2011, several reporters asked me if the absence of Clause 10 in the 1297 Magna Carta was indicative of a change in attitude towards Jews. The answer was unfortunately, “no”, the clause is missing from this Magna Carta, because Edward saw fit to expel all Jews from the country in 1290 and therefore could not agree to regulate a trade that – at least on paper – had ceased to exist.
“Famous whiskey insurrection in Pennsylvania”, an illustration from Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country by R. M. Devens (Springfield, Mass, 1882). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library via Wikipedia.org.
And what about the whiskey connection? Well, “Spirited Republic” is dedicated to the story of the federal government and alcohol, and most of that story is about how the federal government would support itself. The very first American insurrection, more than 60 years before the Civil War, is the Whiskey Rebellion – a pitched battle over the tax on alcohol. In the post-Civil War era, as much as 40% of the federal government’s income rested on liquor excise taxes. This is why the advocates of prohibition helped push through the 16th amendment establishing an income tax before advancing the 18th amendment banning the sale of alcohol. The exhibit contains several documents from Jewish distillers before, during and after prohibition.
So I could frame the connections between Magna Carta, whiskey and Jewish history as being all about the struggle for human liberty… or we could agree that it is all about one of life’s two certainties – taxes.
See you on Sunday!
If you are interested in taking Sunday’s tour, it is free but you must RSVP to Trillion (firstname.lastname@example.org) by Wednesday so that we can give the National Archives a final count on attendance.
A blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.