American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

In Kamf

with 6 comments

leninThis is then the story how the Lenin Song was created, out of the song expropriated from the narodniks, with the common effort of composers, authors, text writers, journalists, and the whole society singing it independently of their conviction. Its microhistory also illustrates how each one contributed, in the measure of their forces, to the creation and maintenance of the regime.”

I’m gathering up Yiddish lint, mostly from my father’s library, but here in the meantime is a wonderful example of musical genealogy; it includes a discussion of David Edelstadt‘s “In Kamf” (“In Struggle”), written in 1889, about seven years after Edelstadt came to the U.S. in the wake of the Kiev pogrom. The poem was composed to the tune of an old worker’s song, putting it in a lineage that extends back to the Russian theme of Beethoven’s Razumovsky string quartets, and forward to Ernst Busch, Shostakovich, and the Hungarian “Lenin-Dal” (“Lenin Song”) of Ernő Rossa and Miklós Szabó. The genealogy (traced out by Poemas del río Wang) is illustrated with recordings — “In Kamf” is represented by a Klezmatics recording from 1994 — and a fine assortment of photographs of Lenin and Lenin kitsch. I borrowed the shoeshine photo because of its resonance with Edelstadt’s story: according to the bio note in Jewish-American Literature, he first came into contact with Russian revolutionaries in his brother’s shoe factory in Kiev; it was probably from them that he learned the tune used for “In Kamf.” In the U.S. he became an anarchist; Emma Goldman described him as “a spiritual petrel whose songs of revolt were beloved by every Yiddish-speaking radical,” “In Kamf” being the best known of those songs.


Written by Ben Friedlander

July 24, 2009 at 10:16 am

6 Responses

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  1. Thank you very much for the quotation, Ben!


    July 24, 2009 at 11:35 am

  2. Let me second Tamas’s note of thanks, Ben. And another piece of music that might be worth studying in tandem with the musicology of “In Kamf” might be the Yellow River Concerto, a piece of kitsch that came out of China during the Cultural Revolution. What was revolutionary about the concerto, said the Chinese government at the time, was that its composition was a collective effort, not attributable to any one individual.

    Well, that claim turned out not to be true. But to see what happens when the political collective does exert its will, compare Dziga Vertov’s utterly amazing film _Man with Movie Camera_ (1929) with his sad _Three Songs about Lenin_ (1934, after Vertov had to undergo self-criticism). Executive summary: the last of the _Songs_ is like a 20-minute version of the Kazakh national anthem at the end of _Borat_.

    Jonathan Morse

    July 24, 2009 at 5:04 pm

  3. Tamas: Thanks for the essay!

    Jonathan: What’s especially interesting to me with “In Kamf” is how the thread loops back and forth across the ocean, stitching old and new world together. Makes me think, actually, of Morris Rosenfeld’a poem “On Ocean’s Bosom,” about Jewish immigrants coming back to Russia as refugees from poverty in America.

    Now stand at attention for the Kazakh national anthem…

    Ben Friedlander

    July 25, 2009 at 8:04 am

  4. Crazy wonderful. My grandmother was born in Kiev and my grandfather (from somewhere near Moscow) went back to Russia after the revolution and was lucky to escape with his life.

    Rachel Loden

    July 27, 2009 at 9:40 am

  5. Much safer to send our tunes back as proxies for ourselves! Ah, family history…hope you write about that sometime.

    Ben Friedlander

    July 28, 2009 at 10:26 am

  6. I attended a concert of the fantastic “Carmel” quartet in Jerusalem, where the violist, I believe his name is Bohuslav Greenberg, explained the link between the Russian song and Shostakovich. Highly recommended concert series.


    June 16, 2010 at 3:08 am

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