Saturday, December 8, 2012


by Alex Abramovich

Friends of mine were marrying shiksas. Kristins, Cristinas, (both with and without the “h”), a Ceridwen in the mix.

Tevya, the milkman, would not have approved.

The milkman had had it tough, raising six Jewish daughters (Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze, Bielke, and Teibelin) in Tsarist/rabidly anti-Semitic Russia.

We first met Tevya in 1894, in a short story by Sholem Aleichem. It was followed by other short stories, a silent film (Aleichem himself wrote the treatment) and various stage adaptations. (Click HERE to see a clip of the Yiddish Art Theater’s 1939 Yiddish-language film, Tevya.) Given the plot, which has to do with Tevya's loss of his daughters, it’s fitting that the story shed a daughter—Teibelin—as the years and productions went by.

"Tradition" mp3
by Topol, 1971.
available on Fiddler on the Roof

Zero Mostel played Tevya in 1964, in a Broadway adaptation that ran for 3,242 performances; Bette Middler and Pia Zadora both took turns as daughters. (Click HERE to see Mostel wave his arms around and sing “If I Were a Rich Man,” and HERE to see him on the Muppet Show.) Chaim Topol, who’d played Tevye in the musical’s West End production, starred in Norman Jewison’s adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof. You might remember it as shtetl schmaltz—a sort of proto-Yentl—but the film played well forty years ago. Pauline Kael admired Topol’s “rough presence" and "burly, raw strength." One man’s meat was another man’s medley.

Given Fiddler’s themes, which have to do with displacement as well as tradition (“as Tevye’s daughters marry and disperse, and the broken family is driven off its land and starts the long trek to American, his story becomes the story of the Jewish people who came to America at the turn of the century,” Kael wrote), it’s fitting that the musical’s songs travelled far from their starting points. Take Cannonball Adderley, who recorded Cannonball Adderley’s Fiddler on the Roof a few weeks after the musical opened:

"Fiddler On The Roof" mp3
by Cannonball Adderly, 1964.
available on Cannonball Adderly's Fiddler on the Roof

For whatever reason, Adderley’s cover of “Tradition” is called “Fiddler on the Roof"; when The Soul Brothers covered Adderley’s cover they retained the title:

"Fiddler On The Roof" mp3
by The Soul Brothers, 1967
available on Hot Shot: Ska Jump Up & Soul Instrumentals
out of print

The Soul Brothers grew out of the Skatalites: Jackie Mittoo, Roland Alphonso, etc. In 1966 they became the Soul Vendors. Recording non-stop, they backed Slim Smith, the Wailers, the Maytals - the full list puts them in Funk Brothers/Wrecking Crew/Booker T. & the MGs territory. Their re-recording of “Fiddler on the Roof” stood at some remove from the source material:

"Swing Easy" mp3
by The Soul Vendors, 1966
available on Downbeat the Ruler: Best of Studio One Vol. 3

The years went by. Louchie Lou & Michie One turned another Fiddler song into a ragga anthem—“Rich Girl”—that Gwen Stefani went on to cover. Years later, I married a nice, Jewish girl from Tucson. To the best of my knowledge, “Matchmaker,” “L’chaim,” and “Sunrise, Sunset” are still up for grabs.


colson7 said...

I love how you tie the story and the music together. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

You might enjoy this jaunty little cover of 'Sunrise, Sunset' by Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes: