Jews in Irish Music ~ Lewis Santer

bw5583Lewis Santer has integrated Irish Music with his Jewish roots more successfully than anyone else I know.

His Klezmer/Irish band, CEILIZEMER, provided music for the films SHALOM IRELAND and BLESSED IS THE MATCH.

The lutherie that bears his name produces fine guitars and bouzoukis specifically designed for playing Irish Music.

All the members of both his energetic, straight-ahead Irish bands, DRIVING WITH FERGUS and THE HUP PUPS have at least one Jewish parent.

This journey was his own, but I believe it shared central circumstances and experiences common to many: disappointment with bland, suburban Jewish life, socialist family members who had a vision of a better one, summer camps and travel to places where folk music was played, and eventually, Ireland.

Lewis calls it “a search for greater authenticity”. He came from a culture that valued high-levels of authenticity, but in it’s American, Conservative/Reform assimilated form, had become very sterile, both musically and spiritually.  Yet, looking at his lefty parents and his courageous grandparents’ generation, he saw some flickering authenticity.

“You’re (metaphorically) watching the Ed Sullivan show and you have slip covers on the furniture (in reality we didn’t watch or have slip covers), but you’re reading, maybe, about Eugene V Debs and the union struggles, and you’re thinking, ‘my people were in the Triangle Fire, they changed us to the eight-hour workday, 5-day work-week’ but now we’re living the life of ‘the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’.  I really want something more.  For me, that made Eastern Spirituality something palatable, more psychologically intuitive. It accorded with Jewish beliefs of god being ineffable.  If it was Hindu, it also had really good drumming and chanting with excellent RUACH, (“spirit” or “wind”).  You say ‘I’ve taken LSD, and I’ve heard Jimmy Hendrix, or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Krishnamurti or someone chanting at Woodstock; that’s pretty hip, I dig that, that touches me on some soulful level.’ ”

Growing up, his family had a fairly typical record collection for those days.  They had some bland Catskill borscht-belt stuff, but there were some high spots like the Yiddish broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, which had a little bit better Klezmer in the background, several albums by Giora Feidman, the great clarinetist, and some great comedy like Nichols and May.

His mother had a strong Socialist streak, so she had Paul Robeson albums, Pete Seeger’s SONGS OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, (They still sing Hans Beimler every year at their family seder) and also the recordings of The Weavers. The Weavers did some Child Ballads and Irish songs from the Clancy Brothers.  Pete also brought Tzena, Tzena in from the Israelis. He went to see Pete live in the early 70s when he toured with Arlo Guthrie and they came to his parent’s college. So folk music was surely going on at home, with John Jacob Niles, Jean Ritchie, spirituals and ballads.

His older sister had Abbey Road and around six or seventh grade Lewis discovered Jimi Hendrix, the Woodstock Album, and lots of other 60s rock and folk, with their acoustic guitars and harmony and folk, but jacked-up a little. Shortly after that his sister brought Steeleye Span into the house, bridging everything. They played Irish tunes on electric guitars, and they’re singing Gaudete.   Later he got the Maddy Prior/Tim Hart duet album. Also, he’s listening for many hours to WXPN, the University of Penn alternative radio station with an amazing mix of Jazz, electronica and all kinds of folk music from around the world.

“I go off to a Socialist, folky, Zionist camp for seven summers in a row; Galil, part of the Habonim (now Habonim-Dror) movement, not the full Communist Hashomer Hatzair just Socialist.  We do huge amounts of singing, every day. And the counselors all play guitar. The hipper ones are singing the gritty, folky stuff. Shlomo Pestcoe was one of my counselors. I’m attracted to the authentic. All the 13 year old girls sing Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and in about three months I’m completely sick of that. I don’t want to hear any more Cat Stevens. But, when some counselor turns her guitar over and just slaps the back & sings Another Man Done Gone like Odetta, all of a sudden I’m paying attention.

We had something called “Revolution” at summer camp. The oldest age group would stage a revolution and throw all the counselors out of camp. They would stay away for 24 hours while the oldest counselors-in-training would run the camp. You planned for it all summer; how to run your 24 hours. One year the counselors took off and when they returned they brought John Roberts & Tony Barrand back with them. They had gone down to Penn’s Landing from our camp up in Buck’s County, seen them sing and said ‘you have to come back and play at our summer camp.’ And they persuaded them to do it! So we had a concert by them. I’m only 14 or 15 and I was completely blown away.

So my initial entry is British singing, like Martin Carthy, and the Silly Sisters; THAT is what I was really attracted to.  I was completely not a tunester. Eventually, when I do get the Planxty albums, I fast-forward over the instrumental pieces, just to get to Johnny Moynihan or Andy Irvine singing and doing amazingly weavey accompaniments.  At that point I had no attraction to deedle-dee-diddily tunes.”

At first, Lewis claims that for him, “there is NO connection between “the longing” in Klezmer and “the longing” in Irish Music.”

“We had some Jewish music in my upbringing sure, but it’s much more Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson than that. I not only got bar mitzvah, I went to Jewish parochial school all the way through high school, I am fluent in Hebrew, I can read the Torah, so I’m TOTALLY Jewish. When I hear nigunim or cantorial singing it certainly strikes a chord, much more than Klezmer. Yossele Rosenblatt, absolutely. Shlomo Carlebach, we had the Village Gate album. We had a good chazan (cantor), Charlie Brown, when I was growing up at my little conservative shul. The cantor had a “folky” voice, with soul, but no opera style, just very good and solid and it gave me my focus, which was and remains vocal.

My Jewish private high school had no music classes, so I petitioned for independent study in music.  I went down to Temple University and took Music Theory classes, piano and guitar with an outside teacher, and to Haverford College for Intro to Music Throughout the Ages, and spent a semester studying Child Ballads. I wrote a big research paper about the Robin Hood ballads.”

After college in Berkeley, Lewis moves to Davis, in the Central Valley. He’s playing open-tuning guitar, John Fahey, Michael Hedges, 20-minute noodling, just by himself in his room. He gets a job at the Davis Science Center, and a co-worker, an old-time fiddler and singer named Kathrine Gardner finds out that he sings and invites him to the Davis Singer’s Circle. There he meets Dick and Carol Holdstock who become life-long friends. When Dick brought him into the house concert scene at Bill Wagman’s, he noticed this scenario, and made these Irish-centric comments about the contrasts between Irish English and Scottish music.

“I’m of course exaggerating and generalizing, but the Englishmen who came through, like Keith KendrickDave Webber, and John Roberts were huge and very ruddy, standing up when they sang, at the top of their lungs. It’s triumphalist, Kipling and Empire-building songs or a romping good fuck of a lady. Sort of Tin Pan Alley, overly chipper and happy, stomping on the natives, completely oblivious and politically-incorrect.  Then the Irishmen come through, and they sit down crunched up on themselves, weigh 98lbs, look down when they sing, mumbling kind-of-apologetically, of their crushed, oppressed blues, but the songs they sing are just unbelievably soulful and deep.  The Voice Squad is the actually greatest thing in the world because they’re using a British musical approach to Irish singing. The Johnstons and Sweeney’s Men also did great harmonies on Irish Songs.”

Eventually he ends up living in a communal house with musicians playing tunes out of tune books assembled by another Davis musician, Richard Darsie. The housemates say “sit with us and play guitar” and then they get a Contradance gig.  Then more. Now he’s playing back-up, in standard tuning, for Irish tunes, with the strong rhythms and chords learned from playing folk music.

Then, he’s invited to a music party and meets the 19-year old Vince Wolfe, who six months earlier had picked up the tin whistle, and would play it while riding his bike no-handed around Davis. Lewis clicks with him musically. So they started playing together, and go to Ireland.  There Lewis takes DADGAD lessons with the guitar player from Danu, Noel Ryan.

I asked Lewis how he got the gigs providing music for the films he’s done.  His answer is quite pithy :

“Vince and I returned to Davis and wanted to start a band.


We went shopping for people. I met a fiddler at the session at The Fox & Goose in Sacramento named David Kidd, a laid-back dude from New Zealand, who’d been in one of the seminal bush-bands”  of Australia.  It was a sort of Country & Western Celtic music, very popular down there in the late 60s and ’70s. He’d gotten out of that, and moved to Ireland, toured with bands, and was very, very good, authentic. Plenty of hanging out with Tommy Peoples and real players all through the Planxty era.

He really knew how to play, and as it turns out, was alway a spiritual seeker, and in the last 5 years had converted to Judaism. Just some Catholic New Zealander !  He changed his name to Kidron, from Kidd, joined an Orthodox Jewish community in Sacramento, living near enough to the shul to walk, and had gotten very involved with Klezmer music.  He was also in a Klezmer band called The Freilachmakers.  So David joined our band and taught us a lot.  Eventually he met a woman at a Klez Camp and moved out of town .  At some point the film maker of Shalom Ireland, Valerie Lapin Ganley, found the Freilachmakers.  She was doing fund raising for rough, early cuts of her film and hired 2 of the band members to play at the fundraiser.  At this point the film is just rough-cut, and she has just dropped in cuts from CDs as musical placeholders, but she doesn’t have rights to them. She asks them “do you know an Irish band?” and Dave is in both bands; he is the glue. So Dave says ‘I can bring in two guys from Driving with Fergus’,  so he brings me & Vince to play with Andy from the Freilachmakers.  I’d never played with him before.  After the fundraising dinner, she said  ‘that was SO GREAT, why don’t I just pay you guys to do the music for the film ?’

Yeah ~!  Especially because she had connections to Skywalker.   So wow, “mix at the best facility anywhere” ? She said ‘I have $1000 for you to record it, and I’ll also get you a full day of mixing at Skywalker’.  Then, two of the tracks get bought for a docu-drama about Hannah Senech, the patron saint of the Kibbutz movement in Israel.  She was a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Holocaust to Israel and pioneered a Kibbutz there, but her parents were still trapped in a concentration camp.  She parachuted in with the pre-Israeli-state warriors behind enemy lines in Hungary to free them, but gets caught, is imprisoned with her mother, and is put before a firing squad.  Before that, in prison, she wrote a lot of moving poetry, which was smuggled out. Her poems are like the Neruda of Israel; every school child can recite to you a Hannah Senech poem. They are very stirring and bitter-sweet, as she was about to die. So they make a movie about her with re-enacted scenes, called BLESSED IS THE MATCH, which was a line from one of her more famous poems. The film-maker found my version of Hatikvah, the Jewish national anthem and another track and bought each of them for $1100 just to use them.”

“I haven’t even started talking about the elephant in the room, which is Planxty. The greatest group, EVER.  I really worship Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine. Between “Sabra Girl”, the Andy Irvine song about falling in love with an Israeli girl, and Johnny Moynihan’s haunting voice, the weaving vocal and counterpoint grips me more than anything.  Planxty took the old Ceili music, and made something a lot more palatable to my assimilated, funky, rock ’n roll ears, bringing me to a place where I’m really captivated.  Andy Irvine’s quest to the Balkans resonates and adds to it all because of that special timing/rhythmic swing.”

THEN, Lewis closes his story, with THIS :

“The oppressed, soulful, beautiful, haunting and bitter-sweet sadness part of Ireland always catches me.  It’s like the krekhts in Klezmer; the wailing, crying ornament on the clarinet or fiddle.”

Sounds like there IS “a connection between “the longing” in Klezmer and “the longing” in Irish Music.” to ME ~!

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