Huddie William Ledbetter, popularly known as folk and blues sensation Lead Belly, was and remains an important influence on contemporary music. His repertoire was diverse. The five hundred songs he composed can’t be pigeonholed into a single category, but touched on many styles and contexts. He was regarded as the master of the twelve-string guitar, but he played several other instruments as well.
As a human role model, he comes up short – perhaps for reasons beyond his control, but that is not the point. He dropped out of school at age fifteen. He served time a on several occassions, for crimes including homicide and attempted homicide. He bragged about so many regular nightly triumphs with the opposite gender, that he becomes serious competition for the title claimed by Wilt Chamberlain.
He is also, it turns out, the probable source of the tune most of us will be singing come Shabbos: Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimcha. (The tune itself is an old slave song, but Lead Belly put it on the performance map.) If one were a musician looking for some material to borrow and translate into a different cultural idiom, Lead Belly’s output represents a treausre trove. If one were looking for more “kosher” performers from whom to borrow a melody and turn it into a frum Jewish song, Ledbetter’s baggage would prevent him from rising to the top of the list.
Someone has turned all of this into a faux-ban against singing Mishenichnas Adar. The document apparently was meant to be a commentary to the recent Lipa brouhaha that led to the cancellation of the big Madison Square Garden event, a reformed Lipa, and the launch of a campaign against all concerts, and all music that borrows from non-Jewish culture. It attempted to poke fun at the notion of cross-cultural borrowing. If you want to purge the frum community of secular influence – particularly in music – be prepared for long interludes of The Sounds of Silence. Rather than tilt at windmills, the document seems to say, we should just concede that it is pointless to try to keep foreign influences out of the music we listen to.
I have rarely been accused of being a spoil-sport, so I will admit that I laughed pretty hard when I read the document and watched the performance. The document, however, misses the crucial point.
I have nothing to say about the Lipa controversy. I don’t have any inside facts. When the dust settles, I hope we will find out what really happened. In the meantime, it has had no impact on my life. My own taste in music doesn’t leave very much room for Lipa, although it might be criticized even more harshly than choosing Lead Belly. (My favorite composer is Gustav Mahler, who was an apostate. An important rov with whom I spoke had a similar reaction, although admitting that his musical icon was Bob Dylan, who, if he ever left, reportedly came back.)
If the worst of the rumors about the production of the the Kol Koreh turn out to be true, I will have learned nothing. I understood quite a while ago that names on a Kol Koreh do not necessarily mean anything. If you want to know what those important talmidei chachamim really believe – and I myself would feel compelled to bend to the wishes of several of the purported signatories (or virtual signatories in this case) – you had better speak to them personally, and out of earshot of the zealots.
With all the bullets whizzing by in both directions through the acrimonious discussion of the Lipa decision, an important question took a direct hit. I have not seen the discussion of just when, if ever, cultural importing becomes problematic. I see no reason to stop singing Mishenichnas Adar, or the Protestant hymn we know as Maoz Tzur. I believe they serve as cultural examples of עמון ומואב שטהרו בסיחון. Their provenance is so thoroughly forgotten, that their pedigree should be irrelevant to most of us. Finding out about their lineage is mildly interesting, but not a cause for alarm or concern. I am not sure about “Yidden” and its far more recent and well known gerus from its pop German beginnings. I am much less sure about very recent music that goes beyond borrowing, and seems (to me) to ape elements of popular culture. It is not the musical line that appeals to the arranger and the audience, it would seem, but the cultural surround to the music. That may cross a line. If that is what the signatories had in mind – no matter what nefarious designs prompted the alleged kanaim – the rest of us should listen hard.
Perhaps a parallel can be drawn from the halachos of non-Jewish dress. Roughly, there are two chief opinions. One of them would demand distinctively Jewish dress; the other permits any dress whose style could just as easily have been invented by Jews for Jews. The fact that the point of initiation is the non-Jewish world does not make a style of dress impermissible, other than its adaptation for the wrong reasons. They would include dressing in order to ape or imitate non-Jewish culture.
A year ago, a group of high school seniors I taught in a centrist school asked about the propriety of wearing clothing that is in tune with the dictates of current fashion, assuming that they conform to the requirements of modesty in other regards. They like to look stylish. Is there anything wrong with that?
I took the question to a few (American) poskim, who said the same thing. To be the first on the block to bow to the dictates of the newest trend should be assur. In a very short while, however, much or most of what appears on the rack will follow the new trend. At that point, the shopper who is buying anyway should not be obligated to buy what is less stylish, even if she indeed feels good about conforming to the styles that are “in.” The difference is running to adopt the latest diktat of the non-Jewish shapers of culture, or simply wearing something that by a later date has become pleasing to the esthetic sense through enough exposure.
The appropriate choice of music, cars or wallpaper may very well be properly informed by similar thinking. My analysis may be faulty, but the question is a good one, and very likely had something to do with the conversations with Lipa.
In any event, setting limits on the amount of cultural borrowing we do is a non-trivial issue, and worthy of attention. (It is at the heart of Maharal’s approach to Bishul Akum. See my Be’er HaGolah (Artscroll), pgs. 7-8.)
We should not become so deadened by the din of the controversy that we fail to hear the music.