SULTANS OF SONG
With this final installation of Sultans of Song, we examine three contemporary Jewish songwriters--Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Randy Newman--who have changed the face of popular songwriting in America. Dylan ushered in a new era of poetic songwriting that fostered a more intimate interaction between singer-songwriter and listener. Adopting the Dylan tradition, Simon wrote songs that blended strains of poetry, philosophy, and theology, as well as world music. And Newman, who reframed songwriting with his signature "untrustworthy narrator" technique, did what nationally renowned musicians rarely do--he wrote explicit lyrics about his own Jewishness.
he man who would become Bob Dylan--Robert Allen Zimmerman--was born in Duluth, Minnesota on May 24, 1941 and raised some seventy miles away in the mostly Catholic town of Hibbing. Dylan's mother, Beattie Stone, a native of Hibbing, had married Duluth shop owner Abraham Zimmerman. Abraham's father, who'd immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in the 1920s, had been a peddler and shoemaker. "When I was young, my life was built around the family," Dylan recalls. "We got together all the time. There weren't many Jews around."
Listening avidly to radio while growing up, Zimmerman loved many musical styles, from country to soul to funk (in later years he would merge them). His first musical hero was Hank Williams, whose classic country songs inspired him to write his own tunes. By the age of 12, Dylan knew he would be a musician. "I was never gonna be anything else, never," he told me. "That's all I ever wanted to do--play my guitar."
Like Richard Rodgers and other great Jewish songwriters, Dylan attended a Jewish summer camp (in Dylan's case it was Camp Herzl in Webster, Wisconsin). He also learned Hebrew and studied the Torah privately with a rabbi brought in to tutor him for his bar mitzvah. "[Hibbing] didn't have a rabbi," Dylan recalls. "When it was time for me to be bar mitzvahed [sic], suddenly a rabbi showed up under strange circumstances for only a year. He and his wife got off the bus in the middle of winter. He was an old man from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes. They put him upstairs above the café, which was the local hangout. It was a rock 'n' roll café where I used to hang out, too. I used to go up there every day to learn the stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him an hour or so, I'd come down and boogie."
Inspired by the songs of Woody Guthrie, at age 20 he moved to New York ostensibly to meet the folk music legend, who was being treated in a New Jersey hospital for Huntington's Disease, the illness which eventually took his life. Woody was too ill at the time to voice his feelings about Dylan. Woody's wife (and Arlo's mother) Marjorie Guthrie did form an opinion of Zimmerman--"a nice enough kid, and quite respectful of Woody"--but she didn't like his singing and suggested he try to better enunciate the words to his songs.
Record producer John Hammond had a far more positive assessment of the young singer with the rough, country-tinged voice. After hearing him perform at Gerde's in Greenwich Village, Hammond signed him with Columbia Records. Dylan's debut album, Bob Dylan (1962), contained only two original songs, including his tribute to Guthrie, "Song To Woody." But his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), featured thirteen original songs, including classics such as "Blowing In The Wind," "Masters Of War," and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
It was at this point that the singer-songwriter changed his name to Bob Dylan, in tribute to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, and began to create myths about himself that to this day imbue him with an air of mystery. It is widely believed that the name change to Dylan (he had had other pseudonyms, such as "Elston Gunn") was intended to free himself of any geographical or genealogical place of origin. "The onomastic switch made a point," wrote Brandeis professor Stephen Whitfield. "[Dylan] affirmed his own right to be anyone from anywhere, emerging from a hazy and partly fabricated path to wriggle out of any fixed identity. A fierce refusal to sustain a consistent style has been the most consistent feature of his music...."
Indeed, Dylan refused to be labeled. Though he wrote protest songs in the '60s, he recoiled whenever he was branded a "protest" singer--and for good reason. The mysterious imagery and timeless quality of his work transcended a genre which had characteristically focused on specific events or injustices. The song "With God On Our Side" from The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964), for example, remains every bit as powerful today as it was when it was written in the context of the Vietnam War:
But now we got
While it was not unusual for a Dylan song to include biblical imagery, rarely did he include reference to Jewish rituals. An exception is "Gates Of Eden" from Bringing It All Back Home (1965):
According to Dylan scholar Larry Yudelson, "bread crumb sins" refers to Tashlich--a ceremony at the beginning of the New Year in which Jews throw crumbs into a body of water while reciting biblical verses such as Micah 7:19: "Thou wilt again show us mercy and subdue our iniquities; thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." Even at this early stage of his career, Dylan looked to the Bible as a source of inspiration for his songwriting.
In 1966, Dylan withdrew
from public life after sustaining serious injuries in a motorcycle accident.
He stopped touring around the globe and settled into a routine and sedentary
life in Woodstock, New York with his wife Sara and their children. "You
write the song and then take your kids to school," Dylan told me. "Come
home, have some lunch with the wife, you know, maybe go write another
song...." He also began to explore his Jewish roots, triggered perhaps
by the death of his father. After returning from Hibbing, where he recited
Kaddish, Dylan traveled to Israel and considered settling on a
kibbutz. His next album, John Wesley Harding (1968), had no fewer
than sixty-one biblical references. The song, "All Along The Watchtower"
(which Jimi Hendrix would later make into a rock classic), reflected the
imagery of the Prophet Isaiah (21:5, "Set the table! To let the watchman
All along the
In the late '70s, Dylan found Christianity, and, according to rumor, was baptized in the swimming pool of singer and evangelist Pat Boone. His new religious identity took musical form in his 1979 album Slow Train Coming, which featured evangelistic songs about Christ, such as "When He Returns" and "I Believe In You." His next studio album, Saved (1980), remained in the Christian mode, but with a difference. One of the songs, "Every Grain Of Sand," led some Dylan watchers to speculate that he was returning to the Jewish fold:
Don't have the
inclination to look back on any mistake
Rumors of his return gained credibility in 1982 when Dylan and his son Jakob celebrated the 15-year-old's bar mitzvah in Israel (they were photographed together at the Western Wall). A year later Dylan released the album Infidels, which included on its inside cover a photograph of the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. Although Infidels' lyrics still alluded to the New Testament, Dylan's attention had turned to the historical travails of the Jewish people. "The song 'Neighborhood Bully,'" notes Stephen Whitfield, "is a millennial history of unjust persecution with an unnuanced defense of a beleaguered Israel....":
bully just lives to survive,
Dylan's fascination with "the messianic complex" may explain his attraction to the Lubavitchers--a Hasidic group that actively strives to hasten the coming of the messiah.
According to Sue Fishkoff, author of The Rebbe's Army, in the early 1980s Dylan studied for several years with Lubavitcher rabbi Manis Friedman, who, she writes, "is still referred to as 'Bob Dylan's rabbi.'" Fishkoff notes that Dylan had visited Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson at Lubavitcher headquarters in Brooklyn more than a half dozen times, and made surprise appearances at two Lubavitcher telethons in 1988 and 1989; at one of them he played "Hava Nagilah" on the harmonica with his Orthodox son-in-law, rock musician Peter Himmelman. Almost every year Dylan worships at a different Lubavitcher High Holiday service; in 2001 he turned up in Encino, California, where he was honored with an aliyah on Yom Kippur morning. And Dylan is reported to have recently donated $100,000 to build a Chabad (Lubavitcher center) in Minnesota named after his father.
In 1989 Dylan released his Oh Mercy album, which includes "Ring Them Bells," a song that would resonate with Lubavitchers who have spanned the globe in an attempt to bring all Jews back to Judaism--a necessary condition for the Messiah's arrival:Ring them bells Sweet Martha,
For the poor man's son,
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one.
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep.
In 1991, Dylan won a Grammy for "Lifetime Achievement." Many Dylan scholars have interpreted his enigmatic acceptance speech as a veiled allusion to his Jewish faith. "My daddy," Dylan said, "he didn't leave me much, he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, 'son, you know it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.'" Dylanologist Martin Grossman traced Dylan's remarks to an interpretation of Psalm 27:10 by the nineteenth-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: "Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways."
Like Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern, Bob Dylan's pride and faith lie primarily in the supreme achievement of inspired songwriting. He commingles the linguistic beauty of Shakespeare, Byron, and Dylan Thomas; the expansiveness and beat experimentation of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti; and the folk poetry of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. He constantly reworks the words of his songs, sometimes even after they've been recorded and released. And his music emerges from a personal terrain, allowing him to explore greater poetic and philosophical possibilities and establish a greater sense of intimacy between himself and his audience.
This achievement distinguishes Dylan from professional songwriters of the past who spent their careers composing for other singers, always mindful of their voices, personalities, or roles. Bob Dylan freed the contemporary songwriter to speak in a musical language that emerged from within. "All songwriters are links in a chain," says legendary folksinger Pete Seeger, "yet there are few artists in this evolutionary arc whose influence is as profound as that of Bob Dylan."
aul Simon had just returned from a luncheon honoring legendary Jewish American songwriter Irving Berlin when I asked him if he admired Berlin's work. Simon responded with a quizzical stare, as if to say: How could I not?
In the Berlin tradition, Simon writes both lyrics and music, and owns his own music publishing company, which entitles him to all royalties--a rare feat among songwriters and one which has made him among the richest--and most generous--musicians in the world today. Simon has quietly funded numerous charities, such as the Children's Health Fund, which, as a result of his support, now operates a mobile van in Manhattan providing free medical help to the homeless.
Simon shares, as well,
Berlin's passion for writing about America. But unlike the idealism Berlin
brought to patriotic love songs such as "God Bless America," Simon portrays
an America that no longer takes as an article of faith its original open-armed
promise and connection with divinity:
Oh we come on a
ship they call the Mayflower
--from "American Tune," 1973
And Simon puts his own spin on Berlin's immigrant prayer, "God Bless America," transforming it into a hymn to hedonism:
So God bless the
goods we was given
--from "Have A Good Time," 1975Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1941 to a Jewish Hungarian family, Simon began his singing career in 1955, when he teamed up with Art (Artie) Garfunkel. The friends had met backstage in a grammar school production of Alice In Wonderland. Simon was intrigued by the curly-headed kid who could impress the girls with his sweet, smooth vocal interpretations of popular songs. He learned how to sing melody and harmony from Artie, "for whom singing was everything. My voice was the one that went with that voice," Simon says. Garfunkel, the grandson of Romanian Jewish immigrants, had learned to sing in his Queens synagogue--not in the choir but in the congregation's halls, where he experimented with echo.
After a short doo-wop stint with two neighborhood girls, Simon and Garfunkel formed the singing team of Tom (Artie) and Jerry (Paul), adopting the names of the popular cartoon characters. They broke into the world of rock 'n' roll at age 15 with the hit single "Hey Schoolgirl." But their next song flopped, leading to their first of many breakups. Paul entered New York University as an English major, and Artie thought about becoming a teacher.
Bob Dylan's arrival on the New York scene in 1962 turned Simon around. Inspired by the brilliance of Dylan's expansive poetry, Simon rededicated himself to songwriting and renewed his collaboration with Garfunkel. This time the Jewish duo took the unusual step of using their true names, paving the way for others to do the same, including non-Jews, like singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, who had Jewish-sounding names.
In 1964, Simon and Garfunkel released their first album, Wednesday Morning, Three A.M. Despite the high level of the album's music, lyrics, and singing, it flopped and the duo broke up again. Simon moved to England, where he released a solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook (1965), which did little to advance his musical career. Everything changed, however, when an American DJ overdubbed drums and electric guitar to "The Sounds Of Silence." The song became a huge hit. Simon returned to America and to Garfunkel, and in 1966 they recorded their own electric version. A succession of hit albums followed, including Sounds Of Silence (1966); Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (1966); Bookends (1967); and Bridge Over Troubled Waters (1970). With the exception of "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" (which was an adaptation of a folksong with a counter melody written by Garfunkel), all of their songs were written by Simon.
In 1971 they broke up for good. Garfunkel pursued an acting career (he would later appear in the films Carnal Knowledge and Catch-22), and Simon turned to composing, recording, and study. He was intent on increasing his knowledge of songwriting, guitar playing, harmony, and literature--a rare commitment for a musician at Simon's level of success. Thereafter, some of his lyrics took a decidedly more philosophical and religious turn. In "Silent Eyes" from his 1975 Still Crazy album, for example, Simon reflected a distinctly Jewish attitude on the Yom Kippur theme of ethical accountability and heavenly judgment:Silent eyes
In the desert sun
Halfway to Jerusalem
And we will all be called as witnesses
Each and every one
To stand before the eyes of God
And speak what was done.
In "Slip-Slidin' Away" from Greatest Hits, Etc (1977), Simon rejected the idea of providence or that humans can fathom the ways of God:God only knows
God makes his plan
The information's unavailable
To the mortal man
We work at our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we're glidin' down the highway
When in fact we're slip-slidin' away.
To inject a new vitality into his lyrics, Simon immersed himself in the poetry of Philip Larkin, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney, among others. And to expand his musical horizons, he began traveling widely, performing with musicians from New Orleans to Soweto. His collaboration with Africans on his 1986 Graceland album boosted American interest in world music. In the title track, which opens as a description of a father and son's pilgrimage to the estate of Elvis Presley, Simon embraced the time-honored Jewish tradition of questioning God. Throughout the song he struggled with the nature of belief, concluding with Graceland as a metaphor for the World to Come:And I may be obliged to defend
Every love and every ending
Or maybe there's no complications now
Maybe I've a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.
Since writing "Slip-Slidin' Away," Simon's theology and personal belief system seemed to have shifted from the conviction that life is an inexorable journey toward nothingness to the notion of potential redemption and an afterlife. I asked him for clarification. "I don't have one attitude," he said, "but many attitudes that incorporate opposites. Now I try to get all the opposites into the same song, if I can. I try to resolve it in some way or the other, but opposites--having two very strong feelings about the same subject--we all have that. So that's a good thing to have in a song."
Simon considers his work to be a unifying force connecting people of different religions, races, and nationalities. And it has been. Graceland, like Bridge Over Troubled Water, was a tremendous success with both white and black audiences. "Bridge" has even become adapted as a Christian spiritual, sung with great passion by many Baptist church choirs. "We're all connected on a very basic, emotional level by music, rhythm, and harmony," Simon says. "And many people can understand you when you're using that vocabulary. But how can people begin to communicate if we don't begin to appropriate a wider vocabulary? If you can't speak in someone else's language, how are they going to hear you?"
In 1993, Simon followed the path of Irving Berlin and other trailblazing Jewish songwriters when he co-wrote a Broadway musical with Derek Walcott, the winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. Based on the true story of Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican gang member convicted in 1959 for the murder of two white teenagers in New York, The Capeman featured an extraordinary, invigorating score, but critics panned it. The show closed after only a few months, leaving Simon and his fellow investors with a record $11 million loss.
The following year, Simon returned to his explorations of theological themes. The album You're The One (2000) featured a song simply titled "Old":The human race walked the Earth for 2.7 million
And we estimate the universe about 13-14 billion
When all these numbers tumble into your imagination
Consider that the Lord was there before creation
God is old
We're not old
God is old
He made the mold....
One of his goals, Simon says, is to repair his relationship with Garfunkel--but he adds, "No rush." As for Garfunkel, he's been quoted as saying: "There a lot of love between Simon and Garfunkel." It's a love that was manifest at their 1982 free outdoor concert in New York's Central Park, which attracted a record-breaking attendance of half a million people, and at the 2003 Grammy Awards, which opened with Simon and Garfunkel singing their first hit, "The Sounds Of Silence," their voices blending like brothers in perfect harmony.
andy Newman's Jewish awakening came rather abruptly. While in high school, he was invited to a country-club cotillion. When the night of the ball arrived, he received a surprise phone call from the girl's father. "I'm sorry, Randy," the father said, "my daughter had no right to invite you, because no Jews are allowed." Newman answered, "That's all right, sir," hung up the phone, and asked his father, "Hey, Dad, what's a Jew?" This early experience with prejudice would later have a profound influence on his music and message.
Newman was born in 1943 to a musical family in Los Angeles. His father Irving, a physician, would write the occasional song, and his two uncles were among Hollywood's leading film composers. Alfred Newman scored Anastasia, Diary Of Anne Frank, The Seven Year Itch, among hundreds of others; and Lionel Newman served as music director for countless films and composed numerous scores, among them Love Me Tender, The Last Wagon, and The Best Things In Life Are Free.
Randy started playing piano at the age of 7. Though he loved classical music, he was entranced by blues and rock 'n' roll songs such as Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and Snookie Lampson's "Shrimp Boats Are Comin'." By age 14 he was writing his own songs, urged on by his friend Lenny Waronker, whose father owned Liberty Records. "But I was timid," Newman recalls. "I was timid about everything. I was never hungry to play music. I went into music because I felt I had some talent for it, and it was in the family. It was the family business."
During those early years, and to this day, Newman's first and only musical idol was a young Jewish girl from Queens. "I loved Carole King," he says. "I was trying to do what she was trying to do at the time; you know, write a Bobby Vee song. And she was doing it better. She's truly one of the great songwriters of the century." He felt incapable of churning out hit-song material the way she could.
Newman waited until completing three years of music studies at UCLA before launching his recording career. In 1971, with Waronker's help, the 28-year-old signed with Reprise Records and went on to record a stunning series of albums, including Sail Away (1972), Little Criminals (1977), and Bad Love (2000). When in 1983 he was commissioned to score the film version of Ragtime, Newman found a new musical niche--one that followed in the tradition of his uncles Alfred and Lionel. He's since become one of Hollywood's most successful film composers, receiving fifteen Oscar nominations for such films as Toy Story I and II, Parenthood, and The Natural--and an Oscar in 2002 for his song "If I Didn't Have You" from the film Monsters, Inc.
Newman's classic songs include "Louisiana" (about the great flood which threatened to wash away the entire state), "Sail Away" (a song sung by a slave-trader to lure potential African slaves), and "Political Science" ("Let's Drop The Big One"), which satirizes the mindset of an American who wants his country to use all its force to take over the world. He is best known, however, for the tongue-firmly-in-cheek "Short People" ("Short people have no reason to live....") "It's a bad break," he says. "It's like being popular for a novelty, like 'Purple People Eater.' And not only that, but it's a song that genuinely offended people."
It was not until his 1996 album Land of Dreams that Newman broke with convention by writing and recording a song in the first person about being a Jew in the Deep South (as a child he'd spent his summers in New Orleans with his mother's family). Rarely have leading American songwriters written about their own Jewishness, preferring practically every other subject. "Dixie Flyer," Newman says, "was about [Jews] trying to be like the gentiles, and making fun of the Jewish idea that gentiles drink":I was born right here, November '43
My dad was a captain in the army
Fighting the Germans in Sicily.My poor little momma
Didn't know a soul in L.A.
So we went down to the Union Station and made our getaway.
Got on the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans...
Back to her friends and her family in the land of dreams.
Her own mother came to meet us at the station,
Her dress as black as a crow in a coal mine
She cried when her little girl got off the train.
Her brothers and her sisters drove down from Jackson, Mississippi
In a great green Hudson driven by a Gentile they knew.
Drinkin' rye whiskey from a flask in the back seat
Tryin' to do like the Gentiles do
Christ, they wanted to be Gentiles, too.
Who wouldn't down there, wouldn't you?...
Newman's early experience with antisemitism also prompted him to employ a signature literary technique in his compositions which he calls "the untrustworthy narrator." When Newman addresses American race-hatred in his song "Rednecks," for example, he does so from the perspective of a redneck. And even when he writes about God, as he did in 1972 with "God's Song [That's Why I Love Mankind]," he takes on the first-person voice of the Creator:The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said "Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please please let us be?"
And the Lord said
And the Lord said
"I burn down your cities--how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind."
Indeed, man's faith in God is a prominent theme of many Newman songs. "I think to have faith is pretty damn nice," says Newman, a self-professed atheist. His 1970 song, "I Think He's Hiding," suggested that God is alive, but hiding from man:Come and look at what we've done
With what you gave us
Now I've heard it said
That our Big Boy's dead
But I think He's hiding
I think He's hiding
I think He's hiding.
Yet in a later song, "He Gives Us All His Love" (1970), Newman would explore the perspective of a believer in God's infinite capacity to give comfort:He knows how hard we're trying
He hears the babies crying
He sees the old folks dying
And he gives us all his love.
If you need someone to talk to
You can always talk to him
And if you need someone to lean on
You can lean on him.
Part of what links Newman with the great Jewish songwriters of the past is the one component which both his--and their--songs share: beautiful, heartfelt melodies. Asked who he considers to be the greatest melodists, he names George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. "I love Berlin," he says. "I love to hear a song with a great, hummable tune. But nobody writes like that anymore. I have done it, but not at that level. I'm not sure we're going to see that again."
From Berlin, Gershwin, and Arlen; to Kern, Rodgers, and Hart; finally to Dylan, Simon, and Newman, Jewish songwriters have been on the cutting edge of popular songwriting for nearly a century. They elevated and pushed the boundaries of songwriting. They wrote and then rewrote the rules of popular songwriting, stretching and enriching the possibilities inherent in the art. They created music that was timely, timeless, and transcendent.
Paul Zollo, a songwriter-singer, is author of Songwriters On Songwriting and Hollywood Remembered (Cooper Square Press)
Copyright © 2003, Union of American Hebrew Congregations