Announcing the Philadelphia Sher Project

After a long hiatus while I finished up my semester (my second-last at Penn!) I’m back at eartotheground.

On Sunday, I had the privilege of playing in my synagogue’s klezmer band for the début performance of the Philadelphia sher at our annual Chanukah party.  The sher is a traditional Eastern European/Ashkenazi Jewish social dance in 2/4 time for four couples, with an accompanying set of tunes. Eastern European Jews who came to the United States brought it with them, and by the early twentieth century, Philadelphia had its own characteristic sher medley, as did New York and other major cities.

The sher was hugely popular at weddings and other social events and quickly became beloved by the Philadelphia Jewish community and beyond, eventually becoming the preeminent American sher medley. Unfortunately, widespread performance of the sher died out by the 1960s due to the pressures of Israeli music and dance, assimilation and suburbanization. It is kept alive in klezmer circles at events like KlezKamp, but not often performed at everyday parties and events.

Over the last few months, the Simcha Band, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann and the Religious Life Committee of Kol Tzedek, and I put together a grant application to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Kehillah of Center City to fund an exciting community-based project built around the sher–and we received $2200 from them for this project and a concurrent prayer leader training program!

Sherri Cohen, the Simcha Band’s trombonist, and I have been taking lessons with the eminent klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts, whose family has deep roots in Philadelphia’s Jewish music scene, and learning the sher.  Naomi Segal, a member of Kol Tzedek, re-learned the sher (which she danced as a kid growing up in Philly) and taught it to the congregation on Sunday.  People had a great time dancing it and the band (featuring Susan and her mom, fantastic drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts) certainly had a great time playing it.

Right now we’re recruiting volunteers from Kol Tzedek, the Philly Jewish community, and beyond to help with this project.  Community members can get involved in any number of ways:

  • Coming to Kol Tzedek events where we will be performing the sher (TBA here, or if you get in touch with me)
  • Learning how to perform it with the Simcha Band
  • Volunteering to learn the dance and teach it to others in the area
  • Getting involved in the historical and archival research on the sher and on klezmer in Philly that I’ll be conducting beginning next month
  • Conducting oral interviews about Philly’s Jewish music scene with members of the Philly Jewish community
  • Designing the final web archive, where we will be storing educational materials, video, audio, sheet music and historical and ethnographic information about the sher

By April, we hope to have:

  • Published (online and in hard copy) the sher music, recordings, performance notes, video of events at which it was performed, instructional video, and a history/ethnography of the Philadelphia sher.
  • Performed and taught the Philadelphia sher medley at area Jewish events and simchas, along with a short historical presentation.
  • Established a foothold for the Philly sher as a meaningful, living, breathing part of Philadelphia Jewish life, and self-sustaining methods for its transmission to future generations of musicians, dancers and partygoers.

There might also be a documentary film somewhere in there, depending on how things go.  Stay tuned for the launch of the official Philadelphia Sher Project blog within the next week or so, with photos, video and audio of this year’s Chanukah festivities!  Drop me an email or comment here if you want to get involved with this project at any level.

Deconstructing Joan’s accordion début on Mad Men

I know this is a little late, but bear with me because I think it’s super interesting.

As anyone who watches Mad Men (or reads the entertainment section of most major news outlets) knows, office manager Joan Holloway–with the gorgeous red hair–hosted, along with her surgical-resident husband Greg, a dinner party for Greg’s boss and coworkers in the August 30 episode.  It was quite fraught with tension for a variety of reasons and I won’t go into all the (sexist) drama between Joan and Greg during the majority of the show (it has nothing to do with music and it has been dissected thoroughly all over the internets), though it’s fascinating and you should look it up elsewhere.

Anyway.  After dinner, Greg essentially trotted Joan out like a “dancing bear” (as people have aptly written on other blogs) and had her play accordion (which James Wolcott over at VF amusingly referred to as a strap-on) for the guests.

Another interesting ethnomusicological note: watch for the boss’s wife’s comment that “It’ll be just like the olden days–we used to sit in the parlor after supper and my mother would play the piano while we read.”  Here she marks herself as coming from the late-19th/early-20th-century middle class (who could afford pianos but not hired musicians to play them, and for whom the bourgeois social culture of the parlor was of great importance), for whom this was the primary method of listening to popular music.

Now, back in the 1960s accordion was quite a bit more popular in the urban northern U.S.–i.e. in an area like the New York City region where Joan and Greg live and work–than it is now due to the greater prominence of Euro-ethnic folk music (I’m purposely ignoring the current minor fad for it among hipsters, btw).  But it had certain implications: that anyone playing it or listening to it was not “fully assimilated” into American whiteness; that anyone playing/listening to it was likely from a working-class Eastern European, Irish, or Italian background; etc.  Given that Joan was playing a big piano accordion (as opposed to something smaller, or a button accordion or concertina) I’m betting on Eastern European of some kind.

Greg is trying desperately to climb up the social ladder, which is exquisitely highlighted at this dinner party, where he’s even willing to break accepted etiquette and seat his boss, one of the top-ranking surgeons at the hospital, at the head of the table (normally where the host should sit, according to Emily Post) in order to kiss ass as vigorously as possible.

Therefore, even if he has an accordion-playing wife from a less-than-suitable background vis-à-vis the occasion, and is willing to force her to perform to cut the awkwardness in the air, it would have been wholly unacceptable for her to play anything as déclassé and ethnically-obvious as a polka (this is one of my favorites, by the way; polka at the ballpark’s seventh-inning stretch was one of the greatest musical aspects of growing up in Milwaukee):

So, Joan plays a French café song–at the height of the vogue for all things French given Jackie Kennedy’s heritage and cultural preferences.  She masks the fact that her background puts her at risk of some level of bigotry by using the skills it has taught her to perform something fashionable and prestigious.  But, as is highlighted in the kitchen conversation amongst Joan, another resident’s wife, and the boss’s wife, though it’s recognized that Joan has many talents and works hard, it’s never quite enough to completely hide the truth of her situation (in this case, the fact that they must still be “poor” because Joan still “has” to keep her office job despite the fact that she’s married).

Joan may hide her less-than-fashionable ethnicity (and I admit, I’m only presuming her ethnicity) by performing a more-prestigious one, but the fact that she, in 1963, is a competent accordionist at all shows quite a lot about her background given that it was only in certain ethnoeconomic settings that people still learned it.

And for the closer, a supreme irony: Donna Trussell (and friends) over at WomanUp on Politics Daily does a good job of pointing out the other ways race and ethnicity are worked through in this episode (I didn’t even touch Roger Sterling’s blackface performance!), but misses the boat on the accordion:

Darling Joan aside, Episode 3 was also noteworthy for addressing ethnicity, as my colleague Mary Curtis discussed in Carla, Roger, and Racial Stirrings on ‘Mad Men.’ And gender, as my colleague Bonnie Goldstein pointed out in Peggy Olson: ‘My Name Is On the Door.’

“Darling Joan” is precisely at the intersection of both of those with her “strap-on” (sorry, it’s too amusing).  Her husband forces her, in a shockingly (at least, to our contemporary sensibilities) nonchalantly sexist move to manipulate her ethnic presentation in the service of his socioeconomic climbing.  Mad Men always astounds me with how deep–and how subtly deployed–its historical knowledge is across such a broad range of disciplines.

Quick hit: Musical architecture

Those are two words you don’t see together very often (except in the case of Lady Gaga’s avant-garde fashion creations…).  Today, Apartment Therapy highlighted the work of a Georgia architect-turned-luthier who got inspired to start building wooden instruments (including some old-school ones like the cittern) via his architectural work with wood and veneers.  The instruments are gorgeous–take a look!

NYTpalooza

The New York Times ran a few music-oriented articles over the past several days that I think are worth highlighting:

  • Carleen Hutchins, a fantastic violin maker (and a violist!) passed away recently after a long and innovative life.  String players–especially violists like myself–know that the instrument designs we’ve been handed down through the centuries are acoustically imperfect.  (This is why violists are always looking for the biggest instrument we can physically handle.  The viola would technically need to be much bigger in order for its acoustics to be ideal, and we wouldn’t be able to play it under the chin then, so we try to get as close as possible.)  Hutchins pioneered research into the minutiae of string acoustics and reimagined the string family–something that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years, essentially since Stradivari.  Now I want to play some of her creations!
  • Will the baby boomers get over Woodstock already?!  Let’s hope we’re not rhapsodizing over Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo like this in 40 years.  Yes, Woodstock was important, but the overly romantic way in which writers of that generation treat it is just absurd and typical boomer narcissism.  I’m happy that at least some of the Room for Debate bloggers acknowledge this.
  • It makes me cry a little inside every time I hear about an instrument mistreated like this.  The story of how this Irish harp, made by the influential Dublin craftsman John Egan, ended up in a dumpster but was rescued and is now being restored, is inspirational in the cheesiest sense, but I love it.

Blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.