Wednesday, November 29th, 2017...4:24 pm

Yiddish cowboys: Jews in country songs

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There are a lot of Jews in country music, but not so many in country songs

by MAX SPARBER
Community News Editor

Country music is not the most Jewish of musical genres, but neither is it bereft of Jews. There have been a handful of well-known Jewish performers, including Ray Benson, Kinky Friedman and David Grisman. There have been a larger number of Jewish songwriters, and an even larger number of Jews on the business end of country.

Kinky Friedman, one of the few Jewish country singers who sings about Jewish themes. (Photo: Kinky Friedman Cigars on Facebook)

Still, there are only a handful of country songs that address themselves to Jewish themes, and a vast majority of them are novelty numbers performed by artists who otherwise didn’t work in the country milieu. A vast majority of them start from the presumption that there is something inherently comical about Jews in a country setting, especially if that Jew is a cowboy.

This seems a little unfair, as there were Jewish cowboys, and plenty of them, and there is nothing inherently hilarious about, say, Josephine Marcus, daughter of Prussian Jews, a teen runaway and adventurer in the Old West who wound up as Wyatt Earp’s common-law wife.

Nonetheless, if these songs aren’t fair to history, they do frequently manage to be  hilarious, the crueler edges of its satire dulled by the fact that it is Jews who are playing with the comic possibilities of Jews in the West, or in folk songs, or in rural settings. What follows are some of the better examples.

“I’m a Yiddish Cowboy,” Edward Meeker (1908)

A Tin Pan Alley novelty number, in Jewish dialect, by Edward Meeker, who also introduced the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Here he sings about a Jew out West who falls in love with an Indian woman.

“Duvid Crockett,” Mickey Katz (1955)

A complete reimagining of “The Ballad of Davey Crockett” by the king of Jewish novelty music, Mickey Katz. Here the hero is the king of Delancey Street, rather than the wild frontier. The melody hews pretty close to the original, but for frequent klezmer breakdown.

“The Streets of Miami,” Allan Sherman (1962)

As was his way, parodist Allan Sherman radically rewrites an existing song, in this case “Streets of Laredo.” In Sherman’s hands, it’s about dueling Jewish businessmen arguing about hotel prices.

“Folk Singer’s Blues,” Shel Silverstein (1962)

Children’s author Silverstein wrote a few country classics, including for Johnny Cash, but here seems to address his own experiences. Over a banjo, he discusses being an urban Jew wanting to sing rural folk songs.

“The Ballad of Irving,” Bob Booker (1966)

A gunfighter song, including a swelling cowboy chorus, about a Jewish shooter who is kosher, small, chubby, and the 142nd fastest gun in the West.

“Ride ‘em Jewboy,” Kinky Friedman (1973)

In his career as a country singer, Kinky Friedman has not shied away from notoriety, but this may be the singer’s most notorious song, at once a genuinely lovely cowboy ballad, but with every line paralleling Holocaust imagery. A nearly endlessly troubling piece of music.

“You Are Never Alone,” Socalled and others (2007)

A mixture of spaghetti western theme, Hip Hop, and cantorial music. The song draws close parallels between lonesome cowboys wandering the West and ancient Jews wandering the desert.

(American Jewish World, 12.01.17)

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