Thursday, June 09, 2005

Brother, Can You Spare A Tune?

The Jewish Week has a pair of letters commenting on the Jonathan Mark column we noted last week.
‘Hatikvah’ Origins
“Hatikvah” may have come from Smetana, but I don’t think Smetana got it from a Romanian folk song (Media Watch, June 3). It was a Swedish folk song named “Ack Varmeland Du Skona.”

Fair Lawn, N.J.
Eugene Tarnow

Borrowed Songs
Jonathan Mark is correct in suggesting that other songwriters besides Naomi Shemer borrowed melodies not original with them (Media Watch, June 3). Mark mentions Woody Guthrie (whose “This Lind Is Your Land” used a Carter Family song that was in turn based on a Baptist hymn), but he also could have cited Bob Dylan (who rarely acknowledged the sources of songs he then copyrighted); George Gershwin (who also without acknowledgment borrowed Jewish prayer melodies for a couple of his songs); Israel Nadjara (who “intended” his zemirot, Sabbath table hymns, to be sung to popular and folk melodies of the day); and perhaps even the author of some of the Psalms.

Mark is not quite correct, however, in asserting that “Israel’s national anthem, ‘Hatikvah,’ was admittedly inspired by ‘The Moldau,’ a Czech symphony inspired by a Romanian folk song.” First, Israel has no official national anthem, although “Hatikvah” is its unofficial one. And it is not clear who exactly has done the “admitting.” But in any case, “Hatikvah” was, according to our best available scholarship, set (by one Samuel Cohen) to a melody based on the Moldavian-Romanian folk song “Carul cu Boi” (Cart and Oxen). That “wandering melody,” as folk music historians call it, appears in the music of many other cultures and origins, including Smetana’s “The Moldau,” Sephardic liturgy and even a Mozart sonata.

Borrowing melodies is ubiquitous in folk, popular and religious music, and we Jews have been expert borrowers, intent on elevating and sanctifying whatever appeals to us spiritually in the cultures in which we have lived.

Robert Cohen
Fresh Meadows, N.Y.