MOChassid

The rambling thoughts of a Modern Orthodox Chassid (whatever that means). Contact me at emansouth @ aol.com

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

English Lyrics

When I was putting together the songs for the CD, I had very few rules. I trusted the various musicians to pick niggunim that would work in the context of what we were trying to do. About the only rule I had was no English lyrics. With very few exceptions, I detest Jewish music with English lyrics.

Very few Jewish musicians can pull it off. Chaim Dovid has a few songs that work (Seven Shephards, L'ma'an Sh'mo) and a few of his earlier works). Avraham Rosenblum has some good lyrics. Shlomo Katz has one song on his new CD, Gibor, a tribute to his friend who was killed in battle, that works. Don't even get me started about Shiny Shoe (TR) songs that have English lyrics. Is there a term that is the opposite of "guilding the lily"? Feh!

The reason, I suspect, is that very few Jewish musicians are poets, in English or Hebrew. When you think about it, most of their lyrics come from Tehillim or other text-based sources. They are generally not called upon to write poetry. And, when most of them try, the results are mediocre or worse. (Aron Razel is an exception. He has written spectacular poetry that he has put to music (Chagigah and Mincha) and beautiful stand-alone poetry that he has published).

So, the question is, do English lyrics stink because they inherently don't shtim with Jewish music or do they stink because the authors would be better off sticking to musical arrangements rather than writing lyrics? I think it's the latter.

Hat tip to A Simple Jew who suggested this topic.

25 Comments:

  • At 1:10 PM, Blogger joshwaxman said…

    Another point is that in English, people actually understand the lyrics, in which case the poetry can sound stilted or artificial. In Hebrew or Aramaic, often (American) people don't stop and think what the words mean, but rather they are random, Jewish-sounding syllables.

     
  • At 1:29 PM, Blogger PsychoToddler said…

    I agree, I hate English lyrics. They only work when they're funny (like Shlock Rock). I think I've written two songs with English lyrics, both were political (one about Palestinian terror, the other about media bias).

    Anything serious sounds sappy or preachy. It has to be done just right, and very few can pull it off.

     
  • At 2:26 PM, Blogger The Town Crier said…

    On flip side, we have hundreds if not thousands of songs (even from reb shlomo) which are biblical passages, talmudic passages, etc
    which are sung out of context, with no punctuation and with repeated words that make poetic nonsense and if anyone singing them truly understood the words - or attempted to sing it in english, they would understand how rediculous they sound.

    This is my personal biggest peeve about jewish music and it plagues all camps all the way from dancing at at wedding to yaakov wrestling with the devil (vnisgav) all the way to the hislahavus dancing to "buh buh buh" (ben bag bag).

     
  • At 2:31 PM, Blogger The Town Crier said…

    BTW, there are a some in the jewish music scene who have attempted songs with english, hebrew and yiddish lyrics/poetry that are great songs (on a vareity of different levels and tastes).

    Moshe Laufer, Dudu Fisher, Sandy Shmuely, Abie Rotenberg, Gershon Veroba - to name a few.

    As for English songs, it is kind of ironic that the only songs of this kind that have remained popular for decades are Diaspora's "Hofachta", and the MBD/JEP "Someday."

     
  • At 2:34 PM, Blogger The Town Crier said…

    I can go on forver - i agree 110% with josh.

    Hebrew has become a nonsense language - entertainers and the entertainees alioke here words and syllables and often have no clue what they mean. Sure they can read and speak tha language but theres no comprehension.

    IMHO this all comes down to the most basic fundamental failure of our yeshiva system accross the board from the MO, to yeshivish etc. and that is the lack of time, attention and effort spent on teaching Biur Tefilah.

     
  • At 2:59 PM, Blogger Bob Miller said…

    When your lyrics don't fit your tune or meter, what can you do? Repeat a lot of words, stretch a lot of words. But if you actually know what the words mean, the results sound very silly. This is also why the over-repetitive style of some chazzonus sounds so over the top to me.

     
  • At 3:31 PM, Blogger FrumWithQuestions said…

    MO Chassid- I agree with you about the English lyrics. I also understand what you mean about the artists who's english words are able to pull it off. I think that it has to do with intent. The people you listed as being able to pull it off are real musicians and artists. The rest if not most of the Jewish music world are not musicians. They are entertainers who pay someone to write music for them. All they do is perform someone elses music. When you do that you have no connections to the music so it doesn't mean anything to you. If someone writes an English song and gives it to someone else to sing it doesn't work. The secular music industry is the same things. Independent artists change once they are signed to a major record deal. All of the artists you listed as being able to pull it off wrote all of their music themselves.

     
  • At 3:31 PM, Blogger FrumWithQuestions said…

    MO Chassid- I agree with you about the English lyrics. I also understand what you mean about the artists who's english words are able to pull it off. I think that it has to do with intent. The people you listed as being able to pull it off are real musicians and artists. The rest if not most of the Jewish music world are not musicians. They are entertainers who pay someone to write music for them. All they do is perform someone elses music. When you do that you have no connections to the music so it doesn't mean anything to you. If someone writes an English song and gives it to someone else to sing it doesn't work. The secular music industry is the same things. Independent artists change once they are signed to a major record deal. All of the artists you listed as being able to pull it off wrote all of their music themselves.

     
  • At 5:57 PM, Blogger nircgrad said…

    Where do you classify Abie Rottenberg, is he considered shiny shoe?

     
  • At 7:57 PM, Blogger kishke said…

    Abie Rotenberg has lots of songs with good lyrics, and some with excellent lyrics.

    And have you ever heard Julia Blum's stuff? Her lyrics are terrific. But maybe you meant male singers only.

     
  • At 9:32 PM, Blogger Shira Salamone said…

    Mark/PT, as far as I can figure out, you've written 4 1/2 English songs: "The Situation" ("about Palestinian terror"); "Just How Long"; the two that I call your "Mussar songs," "Someone Else's Place" and "Don't Talk Loshon Hara;" and that neat half-English-half-Hebrew reggae song, "L'Chaim in Yerushalayim." (I don't remember one about media bias.)

    Town Crier, I love "Hafachtaā€¯! I also like an old Shlock Rock song by V. Shine called "Minyan Man." (One of these days, I'm going to find a good excuse to use this line as a blog-post title: "How Shabbos was carried on a song.") The Moshav Band's "Come Back" and "Stop" are good English-language songs, as well.

    Frumwithquestions, while it's certainly more meaningful for a person to sing what he himself or she herself has written, that does prove problematic for a songwriter not blessed with a singer's voice. I've always thought that Robert Zimmerman's/Bob Dylan's songs sound better when someone else sings them. That's not his fault, mind you--it's just the way his vocal cords are constructed.

    Town Crier and Bob Miller, you might find this post interesting, as it deals with what happens to words when they become lyrics.

     
  • At 9:38 PM, Blogger The Town Crier said…

    Yes, how could i forget minyan man.
    A universal pre shabbos NCSY ritual.

     
  • At 11:42 PM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said…

    MoC, I'm not sure I agree with you completely. There are many jewish englush songs that totally work. They may not always fit into the context of simchadik music, but they certainly have an impact.

    Destiny, for instance, especially the very first is wall to wall good english songs. MBD, as washed up as he is today was certainly able to pull it off. Someday is already mentioned, but 'Just one shabbos', 'Yerushalayim is not for sale' and 'Let my people go' are all classics to the nth degree. So is "we are ready' by Avraham Fried. Mind you, I am, far from a shiny shoe fan. Most of these guys just make me wanna puke. But even shwekey's "Shma Yisroel" is powerful and effective.

    From there, you go to Lenny Solomon and Gershon Veroba. These guys aren't all spoof-music. They've written very good english songs. Lenny had a few good opnes on Jewish pride, and a few dogs. Now that I think about it, Minyan man was mentioned and the rest of Gershon Veroba's english hits are escaping me.

    I may get voted down by MoC, who I;m sure is not a fan, but Blue Fringe wrote "City of Gold' which is beutiful, Jewish, and a definite classic. and even if Flippin' out offended 2/3 of the frum world, it is still good English Jewish music. While n the topic of contemporary Jewish music, Beyond Eden (where'd they go?) has a number of truely fantastic songs with English / hebrew words. Maybe not classics, but defnitely not groaners.

    Even miami boys choir, who are OK, but YB has got to go, cranked out some fantastic English songs over the years. Siyata d'shmaya? Bad English music? Give me a break.The last one I liked was "Don't talk, just daven," so they've slid quite far over the years.

    Without question, anything Diaspora and now Avrohom Rosenblum records is gadluss, and that especially goes for their english songs. Marvin Feingold, anyone?

    About the English music that doesn't work. Yes, there are too many of the gratuitous, obligatory "dopey love songs to god" that you'll find on shiny shoe records. Mendy Wald comes to mind, as do others. The put-ion sincerity is a bit much. Typically, these are laughable, predictable, and vapidly transparent in both content and execution.

    Abie Rotenberg is a genius and has full control with this genre, even if you don't know what to do with half the songs he writes. He's the Billy Joel of Jewish music. Brilliant, classic, memorable, but unclassifiable.

    To PT, with all due respect, sir, the first time the expression 'dopey love songs to god" popped into my head while listening to "The Struggle" on Kaballah. Even if I can listen to it now -- the nostalgia factor can make anything sound good, provided that i first heard it in the 80s -- it still was a bit lame.

    MoC, do you agree? It ain't all bad. It;'s just the musicians that can't pull it off who ruin it for those who can.

     
  • At 7:15 AM, Blogger MoChassid said…

    Unfortunately, I'm in the airport with little time to reflect on these excellent comments.

    Josh and TTC; I agree with you completely about the misuse of Hebrew but that is a different thread.


    FWQ: I also agree with you.

    SW: You are voted off the island. I don't even know 90% of the songs you are referring to. I also don't think much of Blue Fringe.

    While I respect Abie Rotenberg's talent, I am not a fan so I can't really comment.

     
  • At 7:26 AM, Blogger Shira Salamone said…

    Still Wonderin', re Kabbalah's "The Struggle," every band is entitled to a clunker or two. I notice that that song is nowhere to be found on www.mosheskier.com. Presumably, the good Dr. PT concluded that some surgery was needed on the band's song collection.

    Speaking of Blue Fringe, they didn't write the music, but I enjoy their parody "Shidduch Song." And, speaking of parodies written to other people's music, I think Shlock Rock is the English-language parody king.

     
  • At 9:04 AM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said…

    MoC, if you don't know the songs I'm talking about then why be so confident about dismissing all English lyric Jewish music? Some of it is really good, a fact that shouldn't be dismissed just because so much more is really bad.

    BTW, nice article in The Jewish Star.

     
  • At 9:39 AM, Blogger yitz said…

    Mention should be made of Reb Michel Twerski's "Tree Song" [Eitz Chayim Hi] which is perhaps the most moving English niggun ever made. He has at least one other English niggun, the name of which escapes me at the moment.
    R. Shlomo Carlebach often sang some of his niggunim with English words: Esa Einai became "I lift up mine eyes, unto the mountains," V'Hashev Kohanim became "Return Again" [words actually written by one Rafael Kahn]; and L'maan Achai was transformed into "Because of my Brothers and Friends."
    And of course, who can forget "Sing a Song of Shabbos," and "Pray for the Whole World, on the great, great Shabbos." [Two different niggunim, see if you know what the original Hebrew was].

     
  • At 10:35 AM, Blogger kishke said…

    R' Michel's other English song is The Forest; it's also quite good. He styles the two songs as ballads.

     
  • At 5:43 PM, Blogger MoChassid said…

    SW

    I can do whatever I want; it's my blog. It doesn't mean I'm right.

    Haven't seen the article yet. I wrote it on my blackberry on my way to Israel. (Hope the editor actually read it).

     
  • At 6:31 PM, Blogger DovBear said…

    They stink becuase they are written by functional illiterates.

     
  • At 7:02 PM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said…

    Well, take a look at Mr. Sunshine here...

     
  • At 8:40 PM, Blogger MoChassid said…

    DB

    I think you and I said more or less the same thing...I just said it in a kinder way it being erev erev Rosh Hashanah and all.

    SW

    Just saw the article. I'm disappointed in myself (and in the lack of editing; anything sent from a blackberry really needs to be reviewed with a fine tooth comb). I never should have sent it without reviewing it a few more times. Not nearly as tight as I would have liked. My bad.

     
  • At 7:00 AM, Blogger Lamdan said…

    Has anyone ever heard of Ken Burgess? Personally, I call his stuff quality songwriting - intelligent lyrics, great arranging, nice melodies & grooves. He doesn't sing them all himself - MBD & Yeedle both make appearances - but they only improve things.

     
  • At 7:32 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    Even when I can understand the Hebrew, they sound better in Hebrew.

    I have a mental block against lyrics in English about things divine or spiritual.

    Not too hep on even poetry in English either - the only ones who seem to have a gift for it are the Irish (yes, I know, gross and horrid generalization).

    Poetry in Dutch, however, sings. Though it can be translated not often, nor well.

     
  • At 12:19 AM, Blogger MC Aryeh said…

    Have to agree with you 100%. I have almost given up on liking Jewish music in the first place - Aaron Razel and Yosef Karduner have restored my faith. But the overwhelming majority of the English language Jewish songs are simply painful and amateurish. Why? Because most Jewish musicians are musicians and not artists or poets. Good call.

     

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