His website says ‘Perhaps only a cat with nine lives has had more than Theodore Abilene has had.’ So, let’s start off with why most of you will recognize that name — yes, he’s Tevye, the singing milkman in The Fiddler on the Roof, a role he’s played more than two thousand times between 1967 and 2010. He was eighty six when he last performed it, and he turned ninety this year!
Younger readers here may know him for playing the adoptive father of Worf on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he had several roles on Babylon 5 including an appearance as a Rabbi. Though I discovered that he had not appeared on The Muppet Show when I was certain he had, that had he been on Sesame Street where he had a lovely conversation with Big Bird.
But most of us are less aware that he is both an accomplished musician and a supporter of folk music, including being the founder of the Newport Folk Festival. And he has recorded twenty record albums, mostly for the Elektra label, in addition to a few releases on other labels. Not surprisingly, he’s also an accomplished translator of song lyrics.
Which brings me to this music, which is obviously something close to his heart. Drawn from three albums that were released by Elektra between 1958 and 1967, they’ve been remastered for this release with some of the best liner notes I’ve ever read including the founder of Elektra Records telling the story of first meeting Bikel in Greenwich Village in the Fifties, and notes by Bikel on the songs themselves that were passed down to him by his father, Joseph Bikel, an active Zionist, in Austria.
I don’t speak Yiddish but then I don’t know Romany or Hungarian either, but I love the music of those cultures as well. If you want to know what the lyrics are about, you could learn Yiddish, or you can just look at the English translations in the liner notes.
I mentioned the Rom and Hungarian languages earlier for a reason, I’ve seen Les Yeux Noirs, a Romany group, and Muzsikas, a Hungarian group, both live. Bikel’s singing and the instrument here remind me strongly of both groups with the obvious difference being that Yiddish, the language originally of the Ashkenazi Jews, uses an extensive German vocabulary.
The songs themselves cover subjects as diverse as bagels, the power of women over men, a wedding dance, a complaint of woes to a Rabbi, and a lament of why the rich have, well, everything.
Having only heard him in brief video excerpts from The Fiddler on the Roof, I was really impressed by how good his voice was here. And though obviously the tracks have been remastered as I noted above, the original must have been spot on!
High recommended for anyone interested in Jewish music and if you know Yiddish, you’ll love this collection!