No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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It was just three days after the last election, and I was booked for lunch with my colleague Mary Birnbaum. Our one agenda item was the NYFOS@Juilliard concert in the early spring. Mary showed up looking as if she’d come from a funeral. I’d never seen her in such a state of despair. Her first words to me, after a long silence, were, “What are we gonna do?” and I knew that she wasn’t only referring to the March program. An ardent feminist, passionate about social causes and justice, she seemed to have been kicked in the stomach by recent events.

I wasn’t in much better shape—later that same evening I had a total meltdown on West 67th Street and had to go home and put the lights out early. But I tried to give Mary support and whatever encouragement I could muster, a tactic I learned from my mother. Unfortunately, the program I’d been planning suddenly seemed utterly trivial: 100 Years of Broadway Love, a program of duets. At that moment, it felt as if I were offering “Tea for Two” on the Titanic.

“We have to raise our voices,” she said. And I heard myself answer, “Protest. A program of protest songs.” Within 20 minutes I had sketched out the lion’s share of the playlist, and I knew which students I needed in the cast. It wasn’t a time for open auditions. I all but threw myself at the singers I wanted for the project, and all of them accepted with enthusiasm.

I remember one particular rehearsal in January of 2017. It was the day of the first travel ban, and we were all completely riled up. Amanda Lynn Bottoms (one of the few original cast members whom I had to replace for this outing) showed up in my studio having come from LaGuardia where she’d been in a demonstration. I was not sure she was in any shape to work, so I had the previous student, Jacob Scharfman, stay on and sing his pieces for her. He tore into the “Lavender Song” like a maniac. Up till then, Jacob’s work had been lovely but a bit careful. That day I was blown away by the raw freedom of his performance. I try to teach a simple principle: when you sing, you have to say what you’re saying. Phrased that way, it sounds simple. But bringing a lyric to life takes a huge investment. That day, Jacob bet the farm—and he never looked back.

The fever spread, and the entire process was among the most cathartic I’ve had in recent years. We were able to give two performances at Juilliard, offered only to a smattering of students, faculty, invited guests, and donors. A month later we repeated the show at Henry’s Restaurant as part of NYFOS After Hours. Once again the songs soared and detonated. I resolved that night to bring PROTEST to the NYFOS mainstage so our larger audience could hear it.

Choosing protest songs for a concert is a different matter than choosing protest songs for a rally. For the latter you want simple, direct anthems that invite audience participation—“We Shall Overcome,” “I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More,” “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The recital stage is more like the theater, a place for vivid, multi-textured material and musical complexity. I was suddenly living in an America I did not recognize, and I wanted to sing about those most endangered: African-Americans, Latinos and Latinas, the gay community, Jews and Muslims, and the earth itself. More than anything, I wanted to strike a blow for thoughtfulness, literacy, and truth—what some people might call culture. Like many other Americans, I was startled to see that a common respect for knowledge, contemplation, and beauty—absolute givens in my youth—was in serious danger.

The songs on the program come from a wide spectrum of genres. But I decided to break with NYFOS’ tradition of rarities-only and include a few iconic pieces that everyone would know. I found that hearing famous tunes like “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Political Science,” “Joe Hill,” and “If It’s Magic” in this context gave them a new kind of power, and brought the audience closer to the performers. In the months since we first did PROTEST, these songs have only become more vivid, as the EPA devolves, the embarrassing debate about the relative size of nuclear buttons dribbles on, and the coal controversies continue their foggy course. As to “If It’s Magic”: no, not a protest song in the traditional sense. But it starts the concert with a profound question: if “it” is precious and irreplaceable, why is “it” being treated with cavalier carelessness? And….what is “it”? That is something to discuss over a bottle of wine.

The rest of the playlist hops around the globe—Argentina and Puerto Rico, Palestine, Germany, Italy, plus lots more material from America. Hearing songs from other eras and other countries brings much-needed perspective on our current situation. Resisting oppression is universal; tonight’s wide swath of protest serves as emotional and philosophical ballast, building confidence and chasing paranoia.

The three Argentinean songs cover 40-odd years of South American history, as the country rotated through different variations on fascism. Guastavino’s “Pampamapa,” set to an autobiographical poem by the left-wing poet Hamlet Lima Quintana, is the song of a man being exiled from his own country for political reasons in the 1960s. María Elena Walsh’s 1972 hit, “Como la cigarra,” evokes the quiet strength to survive in the face of ongoing oppression. As her enemies attempt to destroy her, and fail over and over again, the singer survives by going underground—whether metaphorically or actually—“like the cicadas.”  “El cambalache,” a classic tango by Enrique Santos Discépolo from the early 1930s, takes a gimlet-eyed view of a world where values have tumbled into the gutter. The translation we are using is by the composer William Bolcom, who wrote the lyrics for his wife Joan Morris. He updated a few of the references, as you’ll see, but otherwise stayed amazingly close to the original Spanish lyric. The three songs are in very different moods, but they share a depth of defiance, an indomitable life-force. And all of them seem utterly contemporary to me, especially as we watch the Latin victims of oppression we once welcomed hounded into exile or hiding.

“A Julia de Burgos” comes from Leonard Bernstein’s bicentennial cantata Songfest, which we featured in our opening night concert last November. We don’t normally repeat a song in the same season, but we made an exception this time. I know of no greater hymn to the visionary power of women than Julia de Burgos’ manifesto, in which she separates herself from the submissive role she is expected to play in society and creates a version of herself that flies free and unfettered to the heavens. Bernstein matches her passionate lines with a bravura setting, capped by one of the most thrilling climaxes in all of art song. True, the ever-shifting, driving rhythms are perhaps more redolent of Spain than the poet’s native Puerto Rico. Still, it remains one of Bernstein’s greatest vocal works.

Our program includes two iconic songs from Germany: Mischa Spoliansky’s “The Lavender Song” and Hersch Glick’s “Zog nit keynmol.” The Spoliansky piece is the first known gay anthem, sung in Berlin Kabaretts in 1920. I’ve been fascinated to see the original German text (now clickable online), since I’ve always presented this song in the very fine translation by Jeremy Lawrence (which we’ll be offering tonight). There is feeling of confrontation and outrage in the Berlin original—you can tell that the lyricist Kurt Schwabach is courageously bringing a taboo subject into the open for the first time. But compared to the adaptation it seems just a bit square and intellectual, with just a whiff of a Kinsey Report studiousness. (Kinsey’s book, of course, was still 28 years in the future). Jeremy Lawrence has streamlined the lyric to give us a cri de coeur for our era. We may live in more liberated times, but alas, homophobia seems alive and well in some quarters.

“Zog nit keyn mol” occupies a special place in the hearts of many Jewish people. This stirring song of resistance became an anthem during World War II. Set to a Russian folk melody, its message of hope and defiance gave courage to a generation facing the horrors of the Third Reich. “People sang it in attics, in cellars, and in underground hideouts. They hummed its tune in the presence of German guards, during their slave labor work. The song spread from Vilna to other ghettos, and then to concentration camps,” writes Shoshana Kalish in her songbook Yes, We Sang! The music is a Russian folk tune. But the lyric was the work of a gifted young man named Hirsch Glick (1920-1944) who had begun writing poetry in his early teens. Most of his poems were lost during the war, but a few were smuggled to safety by friends, and another stash of Glick’s writing was later found buried underground in the Vilna ghetto. At age 24 he managed to escape from his fifth concentration camp, only to be killed by Nazi patrols waiting in the forest.

While it seems more impossible than ever to bring the Jews and the Palestinians together, we can at least seat them at the same table in our concert. Our Palestinian ambassador is one of the region’s greatest poets, Fadwa Tuqan. Her verses are memorized by schoolchildren throughout the Arab world. She was able to write eloquently about dispossession and loss, sometimes with dark bitterness, sometimes with transparent simplicity. In 2001, Tuqan showed her Prayer to the New Year to composer Mohammed Fairouz, and it made a deep impression on him: “A Prayer to the New Year expresses hope and aspiration with the same defiance and passion as her darkest poems,” wrote Fairouz. He set it to music for NYFOS in 2012. Momo (as he is known) lived on five continents before settling in New York City. His music reflects his first-hand experience of the world’s cultures and conflicts. When studying this work—NYFOS’ first foray into Arabic—the haunting score reminded me of the Israeli music I’d played and heard. The composer was moved by that thought, and responded, “I’m constantly finding musical proof of our common blood.”

Since this started as a school project, I was glad to share some of my musical passions with my student cast. I fell in love with Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock when I stumbled on the LPs in the New York Public Library during my teen years. Its pro-union, agitprop satire on wealth and power is as timely today as its compassionate portraits of workers struggling to make ends meet in small-town America. It was also a pleasure to reacquaint myself with “Big Brother,” a startlingly up-to-date tune by Stevie Wonder written forty-odd years ago. The singers also heard Fats Waller’s 1929 hit “Black and Blue” for the first time. (The musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ is apparently not on their radar.) It is a song with a fascinating provenance. The notorious New York mobster “Dutch” Schultz decided to back a Broadway revue, and asked lyricist Andy Razaf—at gunpoint—to write a “funny song about how tough it is to be a little colored girl.” Razaf and his musical collaborator Waller came up with what is thought to be one of the first racial protest songs, a subversive, multi-layered lament. When the audience applauded it vociferously on opening night, Schultz tersely nodded his approval at Razaf, who finally knew that he was safe from the mob.

In return the cast also brought me songs they thought I should know. Andrew Munn lobbied successfully for “Bella ciao,” the anthem of the Italian anti-fascists during World War II. The poet is anonymous, the tune is traditional, but the message is eternal: we shall overcome. Once again, our translation brings the song firmly into the modern era. The original text is—unsurprisingly—very Italian in its operatic emotionality, its idealistic embrace of death for a cause, and of course its extravagant “addio” to the singer’s beloved.

It was Dimitri Katotakis who told me about Woody Guthrie’s “Old Man Trump,” an unpublished song that is getting some air play these days. In the early 1950s, Fred Trump (Donald’s father) was Guthrie’s landlord in a Brooklyn apartment complex. Guthrie soon discovered that Trump Sr. intended to bar African-Americans from the neighborhood, and as a longtime defender of America’s endangered citizens he reacted with fury. Three years after Guthrie’s death in 1967, the Justice Department sued the Trumps for discrimination. They eventually reached a settlement—but in typical style, Trump Management went on the record saying that their agreement was not an actual admission of guilt.

A friend of mine recently lamented that today’s resistance movement “doesn’t have any songs, not like we did in the sixties.” Those songs, I suggested, came from a simpler musical era when one human being could speak truth to power backed up by just an acoustic guitar. Popular music these days is too electronically layered, auto-tuned, and processed to expose the human soul in the same way. Hearing music and poetry from all over the world, reaching back almost 100 years, gives me a connection to humanity and to history, assuaging my feelings of rage and helplessness. Generations of right-thinking people stand behind us, and their greatest writers lend us the strength and clarity to fight back. If it’s magic, we deserve nothing less.

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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