by Stewart Hendrickson

In my first column I said that traditional music is not just old music, but good music that happens to be old and has survived the test of time. While traditional music is conservative in nature, it is not necessarily static, but continues to evolve. In this column I would like to explore the idea of traditional music as a living and evolving art form, and the value in keeping it alive. I would like to illustrate this by telling you about two traditional musician friends of mine.

Last summer at The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on klezmer fiddle led by Cookie Segelstein, a talented musician from Madison, Connecticut. Cookie is a classically-trained musician, principal violist with Orchestra New England and assistant principal violist with the New Haven Symphony, but her passion and main living is now klezmer music. She plays in The Klezical Tradition, and also with klezmer greats Henry Sapoznik, Pete Sokolow, and Margot Leverett. She has taught klezmer fiddling at Yale, and is a sought-after instructor at Klez camps and other workshops such as that at Fiddle Tunes.

Her parents were Jewish immigrants from the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Ukraine. Her father, a tailor, constantly whistled and sang melodies of his homeland, and her mother told many stories of shtetl life. “My folks, both holocaust survivors, would lapse into Hungarian or Yiddish when speaking of events that were too harsh for my young ears.” But Cookie was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in an environment as far from her ethnic heritage as possible. “I had no Jewish friends, dated no Jewish boys, and stopped going to synagogue after my bas mitzvah. I wanted nothing to do with this world of pain. I studied music, received a Master’s in Music from Yale, and became a working classical musician. I eventually married a non-Jewish man.”

Then she had her first child. “All that I had turned away from, the richness of tradition, my father’s history, and especially the music of the Jewish people all of a sudden became the most important thing in my life besides my child. I called my folks daily with questions. What were the names of all who perished? What was the klezmer band like in their towns? How do you make cholent?” She realized that she was a critical link in this tradition and wanted to pass it on to her own children. She became more active as a klezmer violinist to the point of it taking over her classical career, and is now most comfortable expressing herself in her own ethnic culture.

At Fiddle Tunes she not only excelled as a teacher of klezmer fiddle, but told wonderful stories of how this music evolved and was played in the shtetl. Klezmer music was essentially dance music played at weddings, week-long events in rural Eastern European Jewish communities. It has its roots in the musical traditions of the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and the Romanian gypsies. Wherever the Jews lived they appropriated bits of the local music.

Eastern European Jews carried the klezmer tradition to America where it continued to evolve, mixing with and picking up elements of American popular and jazz music in the early 20th century. But by mid century it was considered “old-fashioned” by the second generation Jewish children who wanted nothing to do with it. It almost died out, but was rediscovered in the 1970’s, and has now undergone a tremendous revival. It continues to evolve and fuse with other musical traditions. Our current music is much richer because of it.

A good introduction to this music is the CD, Family Portrait ( by Cookie Segelstein and fellow klezmer musicians (The Klezical Tradition). It contains not only some very good traditional klezmer music, but also pictures from old albums and reminiscences by family members of the musicians.

Another friend of mine is Paddy Graber, from Vancouver, B.C. Paddy is a 78-year-old traditional singer and story-teller who was born in southwestern Ireland. He grew up in a rich musical family. His mother was a Sephardic Jewess, whose lineage can be traced back to the Spanish Inquisition. Her ancestors came to Ireland about ten generations earlier. She was also a well-known traditional singer in Counties Limerick and Tipperary. His father, first-generation Irish born, was a political/labor activist. As a youth, Paddy also lived in China and England before coming to America many years ago (but that is another story!).

I met Paddy about five years ago through the Seattle Song Circle at Rainy Camp, a weekend singing retreat outside of Seattle. He is also a frequent performer at Northwest Folklife and other traditional Irish venues. With little formal schooling, Paddy is an expert on Irish history, folklore, and music. He has a phenomenal memory, and probably knows most Irish folk songs and stories sung or told. Much of his musical repertoire comes from his family in Ireland and often includes local variants of traditional Irish songs.

Paddy has suffered some small strokes in recent years and uses a cane, but mostly as a backup for balance if needed. I have seen him break into a jig on stage after throwing his cane aside (gasps from the audience!), or he will use the cane as a prop in his story telling. He complains, when asked about his stroke, that sometimes he knows what he wants to say but can't find the right word; but even now, he rarely misses a word in a song (or even in ordinary conversation), so it is not apparent that his mind is at all affected.

As Paddy grows older and is subject to more strokes, we are all-too aware of the treasure contained in his mind. Paddy says these songs and stories “stand a real chance of being lost forever, much like when the sea washes over a beach, then recedes, washing all that was left on the beach away.” My treasure is a 90-minute tape recording he gave me after spending a NW Folklife weekend as my house guest. It contains over two-dozen songs along with stories about the songs. I am beginning to transcribe these songs and search for more background information.

It is important that we preserve these traditions from people like Paddy who have experienced much of it themselves, otherwise they will be lost forever. It is also important that people like Cookie continue these traditions and make them part of a living art form.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus  University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; Reprinted from The Victory Review, May, 2002.