While I’m Here
Red House 286
Theo Bikel’s While I’m Here is a magical trip down Memory Lane. If this name rings no bells, your cultural/musical education contains a gap that this double-CD can bridge. Bikel (1924-2015) was a seminal figure in the middle period of the Folk Revival (1947-1965).
Bikel was born in Vienna, fled to Palestine during the Nazi years, moved to London to become an actor, immigrated to the United States in 1954, and became a citizen in 1961. His contributions to the Folk Revival notwithstanding, he was even better known for his acting chops. How many folk singers do you know that have been nominated for Academy Awards and Tony Awards, served as president of Actors’ Equity, and played Worf’s father on Star Trek? His is the record-holder for portraying Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof), and the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music was invented for Bikel to display his vocal prowess. Ever hear the song “Edelweiss?” Of course you have; it was penned by Oscar Hammerstein especially for Bikel
If it strikes you as odd that Bikel also picked up an acoustic guitar and sang at folk clubs, another short history lesson. During the Folk Revival, stories were as important as the songs, and no music devotee dreamt of yelling out, “Shut up and sing!” Who better than an actor to spin good yarns? To mention a few others who went a similar route, Alan Arkin was one-third of The Tarriers, who had several best-selling records; and most of The Clancy Brothers hit the boards before they hit the charts. (Contemporary actors such as Steve Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Creed Bratton, and Kevin Bacon tread in these footsteps in reverse, and tons of actors rock or rap.)
Bikel hit the USA at time during the Folk Revival when Americans were discovering the world: Alan Lomax trotted across the planet to record international folk music, Pete Seeger whistled both traditional and revolutionary Chinese ditties, and country singers discovered that “Appalachian” music had English or Scottish roots. Bikel fit in well—he was the genuine article, a Jew with an inherited trove of Yiddish and Hebrew songs, facility with 21 languages, and a born shanachie. The first CD of While I’m Here is entirely storytelling—most of it autobiographical in content but spellbinding in nature. Imagine a Yiddish Garrison Keillor and you begin to conjure the worlds Bikel recreates. One could teach an awful lot of immigration history through Bikel’s words—especially the lure of America in the post-World War Two years.
Some listeners may find Bikel’s songs too mannered. This too was common during the Folk Revival, with Bikel fitting the mold of other “stagey” singers such as John Jacob Niles. He was not a songwriter; Bikel interpreted the compositions of others, including the album’s title track, penned by Phil Ochs. One of his signature songs, “The Lady isWaiting,” came from Paul Williams, and Bikel wasn’t particular about original sources, as long as he liked the song. Another favorite was “Pourquoi Je Chante,” from Egyptian-French-Italian-Greek composer Giuseppe Mustacchi. Bikel also fashioned sets that contained Yiddish songs, contemporary international folk, and show tunes. He cofounded the Newport Folk Festival (1959) and inspired such next-wave Folk Revivalists as Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, and some guy named Dylan, as well as Jac Holzman, who went on to produce everyone from The Doors to The Stooges.
Bikel belonged to the generation of folkies defiant of the 1950s Red Scare and 1960s reactionaries. He was an unapologetic Zionist and remained an activist even when it passed from fashion (which is more than can be said of Dylan). The second CD opens with “Wasn’t That a Mighty Day?” which Bikel reworked to protest the ill treatment of Hurricane Katrina survivors. Bikel was a lifelong civil rights activist; hence the collection also contains “Oh Freedom.”
In brief, Theo Bikel was an important figure—an icon of artistic achievement, creativity force, and humanitarianism. Bikel passed last year, but continues to inspire folks such as Cathy Fink, who co-produced this retrospective, and Judy Collins, who wrote a loving tribute. If you already know about Bikel, spread the word; if not, time to complete your education, friend.
PS: I’d recommend buying the CD, not a download, because the 24-page liner booklet is an education in its own right.
You can sample some of his Israeli songs here.