Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Notes from GALA 2008: Kislev Cowboys

July 13, 2008. Knight Concert Hall, Miami.  Captain Smartypants.  I loved their set, and in particular this number!  Behold "Kislev Cowboys," if you didn't catch it at GALA.

One of the many challenges facing the GALA choral movement is ethnic diversity.  

I could see this in quite a few large choruses, from highly diversified regions of the United States, which underrepresented people of color, especially African Americans.  It certainly wasn't for lack of trying, as evident in their programming; these groups routinely and respectfully attempted multicultural material.  But by and large at GALA, it seems the Africans have rhythm and bang on things, the Natives (American Indian, Maori, Polynesian and otherwise) are happy, and the Jews are miserable and sing about peace.  I am reticent to cite musical selections, because doing so would identify the choruses in question.  (Trust me, I have a list.)  These choruses are all fine groups which do not deserve to be raked over the coals for honest attempts at inclusion and musical variety, many of which were effective crowd pleasers.

To be fair, there is a history in the gay community of "Village People" type multiculturalism, celebrating diversity through stereotypes reduced to well-intentioned sexual objectification. Perhaps that's fine, but will it encourage African Americans and people of color to join the chorus?  Now, as far as the Jew material, I feel I am entitled to comment.  Please buckle your seat belt.

I want to address why "Kislev Cowboys" is funny.  Writing about humor is not amusing or witty, so this may sting a little.  "Kislev Cowboys" is not funny because there's no such thing as a Jewish cowboy.  No.  Maybe that's why you laughed.  Fine.  That's not the joke.  That's like laughing at the final verse of "Zip Coon" because obviously a Negro could never run for President.  (apropos, huh?  If you are lost, google "Zip Coon.")

"Kislev Cowboys" is funny because dreidel is a stupid, boring game.  It's on par with Candyland.  No one likes to play dreidel.  The joke is that these fun-loving cowboys would want to play dreidel.  

Let's parse this a bit.  What are the funniest moments of the song?  The best is certainly when the cowboys play dreidel on stage.  Why?  You can see how lame it is.  It is a fitting non-sequitur to both the active life of the macho cowboy and the quiet stillness of the prairie. Why the blazes would cowboys play dreidel? Well, what else is there to do?  The Pony Express must be late with the Netflix again.  Or, maybe it's how cowboys determine who gets to be in the saddle.

The other highlight is any prominent solo line like "I made it out of clay" or "Dreidel I will play" delivered all hammed up with cowboy shtick.  This is because one set of musical conventions has been substituted for another, and it works completely.  To do "Dreidel" as the sing-song childish nursery rhyme it is would be appalling.  To substitute another equally appalling but unexpected cliché is funny.  Get it?  It's not your Bubby's dreidel, but it's still cheesy!  It's all about the cheese!  (Oi that's a milchigte luau!)

Captain Smartypants got it right.  I don't need to be pandered to with some weepy fiddle and shalom this and that.  Give me a break.  Or how about some nice I - N6 - I - N6 - I - N6 - iv - I ?  As Morrissey put so eloquently, "It says nothing to me about my life."  Hey, why don't you buy a copy of Heeb magazine and get a little up to date?

At a bleary 10am on Saturday July 19, Eric Lane Barnes held a master class workshop for small ensembles.  The composer of "Kislev Cowboys" made a salient comment: if you don't have a good Hanukah number, don't insult the Jews by doing a bad one. I applauded.  And I think this applies to all attempts at multicultural programming.


hephaiston said...

I had a friend in college, a nice Jewish girl named Ellen. She told me that so many Jewish kids - especially the ones raised particularly religiously - felt an odd sense of guilt around the December holiday season. 'Hanukkah is so boring!' she said to me. 'Christmas songs are all about snow, and presents, and angels, and candy, and singing, and fun. Hanukkah songs are all in minor keys and if it's not that stupid dreydl song it's a song about how the Maccabees held the temple against their oppressors thousands of years ago. How is any kid supposed to want to celebrate Hanukkah?' I promised her that I would write a fun Hanukkah song. Several years later I did (Boogie Woogie Hanukkah) I was surprised how much people liked this song. Jews, mostly (although there are, at last count, 17 Jews in Seattle) but many non-Jews enjoyed the song as well. 'It's so nice to hear a Hanukkah song that isn't dreary' is what I heard. So, last year when Joe Nadeau of Heartland Men's Chorus (Kansas City) asked if I could do him up a country version of the dreydl song I said sure. I did a bit of research on that old saw 'Dreydl, Dreydl, Dreydl' (or, The Dreydl Song, or I Have a Little Dreydl, or any many variations on how 'dreydl' is spelled. I prefer 'dreydl' because it reminds me of 'dirndl' which is a funny word for an even funnier-looking outfit) I found out that the song was written by one Samuel E. Goldfarb from just over the way from Seattle in Redmond, Washington. I obtained permission from the nice folks at Temple de Hirsch to write the cowboy version of the song. And another fun Hanukkah piece was a-born.
I agree w/ JCD's assessment: dreydls are the most boring thing in the world. Jewish kids don't get all excited to play with dreydls (I asked my partner about this. He said, 'Feh. Dreydls are stupid.') Jewish kids do get excited about lighting the Hanukkah candles (a chance to set something on fire!) But mostly, Hanukkah is about the presents. And there, Jewish kids have us goyishe kids beat: they get 8 days of presents. We get one.

I think anything that juxtaposes the traditionally somber tones of a Hanukkah song with bright cheeriness is going to elicit laughs. Boogie Woogie was a great juxtaposition. A cowboy waxing ecstatic about a dreydl is another. And you gotta admit: that Josh Herrington makes a great cowboy.

I think Captain Smartypants will probably give Hanukkah a rest this year. But come 2009 who knows? We could be lighting a menorah to a salsa beat.

By the way, I happen to be eating latkes and cottage cheese right now. Not in honor of this blog in honor of Kislev Cowboys, but because that's what I had in my fridge. I am SO much more Jewish than my partner it's embarrassing.


karlap said...

The song about Jewish cowboys is not without precedent. Check out "Down The Dustpipe" by Status Quo, the British psychedelic / boogie band. The lyrics contain the lines "There ain't no room for a kosher cowbpy in a town like New Orleans" and "There's a lot of lunatics, crazy ghostmen baby, don't like the shape of my nose." The combined Jewish / cowboy accent is played for laughs. BTW the song was written by an Australian.

Larry-bob said...

I found sheet music for an old tin pan alley jewsploitation song called "Yonkle the Cowboy Jew" which is in more of the "isn't it weird that there would be a Jewish cowboy" vein. http://www.jewish-theatre.com/visitor/article_display.aspx?articleID=2067

F148548 said...

You could come to Tucson and see real Jewish cowboys. Tucson is notable because we had the first Jewish mayor in the Arizona Territory (Charles Strauss, 1882) and still have a very large and active community. Jewish cowboys are quite common both in historic and present day Arizona.

Otherwise, right on about holiday programming. DV is doing a holiday concert for the first time in a few years and we're making schtick out of the semi-obligatory inclusion of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and the rest. It's fertile ground for laughing at ourselves, and laughing at ourselves is always a good idea.


mandr3000 said...

Gee, and I just thought it was funny because of the juxtaposition of incompatible stereotypes. Real Jewish cowboys aren't funny in themselves, but faux Jewish cowboys played for laughs are hilarious.