New album features Asheville’s own Jewish folk music

OLD FAITH, NEW SONGS: Local members of the Jewish community contributed tracks to a unique collection of Jewish folk songs. “I was like, ‘We have such incredible Jewish musicians here in Asheville, why don't we make our own music?’” says Asheville JCC music specialist Penny White. Pictured, Lael Gray, left, and Danielle Dror record at Echo Mountain. Photo by Belle Crawford

The Asheville Jewish Folk Music Collection, as the title implies, is a compilation of original and public domain folk songs performed by local Jewish musicians. The first of its kind, this album will be released Sunday, May 21, at New Mountain.

The idea for this project came to Asheville Jewish Community Center music specialist Penny White when she learned of a Making Music Happen grant being awarded by the national JCC association. “A lot of communities were going to use the grant to bring in famous Jewish musicians from the outside,” White explains. “I was like, ‘We have such incredible Jewish musicians here in Asheville. Why don’t we make our own music?’” The Asheville JCC ended up being awarded the grant, and White began to produce the recording last fall.

First, she determined criteria for the music. “There are a lot of musicians in Asheville who are Jewish,” she says. “That doesn’t necessarily correlate with Jewish musicians doing Jewish music. What I wanted to do was showcase the diversity of Jewish musicians doing Jewish music in Asheville and also the diversity of the music itself. I wanted it to be fresh and new and not like, ‘Can you play “Hava Nagila”?’”

With that vision in mind, “I started with people who I know are doing Jewish music, folks at Beth HaTephila, folks at Beth Israel, people at that J[CC],” says White. She also received suggestions for people who, at first listen, did not seem to be doing Jewish music. Further exploration led her to decide otherwise: “Like Ben Phan, for example. He contributed a song called ‘Worse Than This,’ and the lyrics are basically, ‘We’re OK, we’ve been through worse than this,’ and I thought, ‘Is there a more Jewish theme in the universe than that?’”

The collection has 16 tracks, about half recorded with Josh Blake at Echo Mountain Recording Studio, the other half donated by the artists. One of the donated tracks came from fiddler Natalya Weinstein of Zoe & Clyde. “Sheyn Vi Di Levone” is a tune she learned from the writings of her grandfather, who was a Jewish musician in Eastern Europe.

Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Billy Jonas contributed “Modeh Ani,” his musical take on a traditional Jewish prayer. Chuck Brodsky’s “Gerta” tells the story of a Holocaust survivor. In addition to engineering the album, Blake performs a version of “Rivers of Babylon.”

Other tracks come from Bandana Klezmer, Seth and Jana Kellam, Cantor Debra Winston, The Goldstein Family Band, and White herself. The first song on the record is called “Ki Va Moed,” which means “the time is now.” Recorded over the course of a day, numerous musicians (playfully credited as The Whole Mishpacha) added their voices and/or instruments. Almost all of the musicians who are on the album will be performing at the release party.

“Asheville is unique in many ways, and the way that Asheville does Jewish music is unique, too,” says White. “When you listen to the CD, you can hear the Appalachian influences. … There are people now who are doing ‘Jewish bluegrass music,’ and they’re from Detroit or New York City, and I’m like, ‘We’ve been doing that for a long time now, we just didn’t think to call it anything.’”

White notes that a benefit of this project is historic preservation. Not only does it document the music, it also includes local Jewish history. Attorney Bob Deutsch’s song, “They Call It the J,” tells of the original JCC building, which was built in 1940. “How delightful to be able to tell that story in a song and have it alongside all of these up-and-coming Jewish musicians who are going to carry us into the next phase of our history. To have everybody, side by side, telling their part of the story and being able to archive that,” says White. “I am honestly more excited about that than anything.”

When asked the goal of the Asheville Jewish Folk Song Collection, White says, “I hope that everyone, whether they are Jewish or not Jewish, practicing or not practicing, will feel like the tent just got a little bit bigger and that everyone is welcome to celebrate under the big tent of Judaism, because it is a big tent.”

WHAT: Asheville Jewish Folk Song Collection release party
WHERE: New Mountain, 38 N. French Broad Ave.,
WHEN: Sunday, May 21, 3 p.m. Free


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About Ami Worthen
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