Jewish Folk Songs from the Baltics: Selections from the Melngailis Collection

By Cohen, Judah M. | Notes, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Jewish Folk Songs from the Baltics: Selections from the Melngailis Collection


Cohen, Judah M., Notes


Jewish Folk Songs from the Baltics: Selections from the Melngailis Collection. Edited by Kevin C. Karnes. (Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music, 11.) Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2014. [Pref., p. xi-xii; introd., p.xiii-xxxi; about the edition, p. xxxii-xxxvi; part 1. Songs from Keidan, 1899, p. 3-13; part 2. Songs from Latvia and Lithuania, 1924-1931, p. 16-29; part 3. Songs of Uncertain or Unknown Provenance, p. 32-109; references, p. 111-16; indices, p. 117-18. ISBN-13 978-0-89579-794-0. $150.]

Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music holds a curious yet crucial place in A-R Editions' catalog. Under Philip Bohlman's editorship since the late 1990s, the series offers a vibrant gloss on orality as a function of societies with long literate traditions: a perspective more intuitive than paradoxical upon reflection. Each volume in the series functions on two levels: as a conventional "documentation" of a specific mode of cultural production, and as a methodological treatise on presenting extra-literate practices in graphic form. Especially this second aspect takes advantage of A-R Editions' expertise in score production, allowing scholars to match the editorial integrity of explanatory texts with meaningful interrogations into notation as a fundamentally human endeavor. Through such scholarly analysis, the series offers a rich discussion about ontologies of intellectualism, shedding light on the layered nature of musical production and preservation along the way.

The volume under review here, Jewish Folk Songs of the Baltics, deepens the series' engagement with Europe and Jews--topics that factor into three and six, respectively, of the series' twelve published volumes--while continuing to interrogate entrenched conventions of folk song scholarship. As editor Kevin C. Karnes implies, the vast and rather fraught literature on folk song collection and publication, especially in the interwar period, reinforced pressures to study both Jews and Latvians as separate national groups. Karnes argues, however, that the urge toward national identity lay in tension with a quieter yet equally important reality: that these so-called national narratives had to be distilled from a rather more heterogeneous population. Consequently, Karnes's focus on a narrow, curious case of crossover--a small collection of songs by Jewish informants gathered by a nonjewish investigator--shines a spotlight onto complicated questions of motivation and expectation in the larger project of folk song collection, potentially subverting assumptions about the nature of collection itself by looking under the hood.

A mystery surrounding prominent Latvian folklorist, composer, and choral conductor Emilis Melngailis (1874-1954) comprises the volume's case study. While recognized for his many published collections of Latvian folk song, Melngailis credited "a chance encounter with Yiddish folksong in 1899" as the event "that sparked his lifelong passion for collecting vernacular musics" (p. xiii). Although he reportedly collected about 120 folk songs from Jewish informants around that time, almost no Jewish material appeared in his publications, eventually leaving the impression that it had been lost. More than a half century after his death, however, increased post-1990 access to Latvian archival collections showed otherwise. After pursuing an initial lead, Karnes, working with the late Israeli musicologist Joachim Braun and others, combed through major collections of Melngailis's papers in Riga's Archive of Latvian Folklore and Museum of Literature and Music. The sixty-four songs reproduced here, painstakingly reassembled and extensively annotated, comprise the fruit of that research.

Karnes takes a classic approach to his material, starting with a well-researched and thoughtful introduction that triangulates Melngailis's life and career with concurrent trends and practices of both Latvian and Jewish folk music collecting. …

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