Theodore Bikel - guitar, vocals
Theodore Bikel, along with his business partner Herb Cohen, opened the Unicorn coffeehouse in 1957, the first Los Angeles folk music venue. This endeavor would help spark the folk music revival and proved so popular that a second more traditional club setting, Cosmo Alley, would soon follow. At Cosmo Alley, Bikel presented an eclectic mix of traditional folk musicians, as well as non-musician groundbreakers like poet Maya Angelou and comedian Lenny Bruce. Bikel, now more known for his many acting roles, including his unforgettable portrayal of Tevye in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, became an important force in both the folk music world and as a prominent civil rights activist. Along with Pete Seeger and George Wein, Bikel also became one of the co-founders of the Newport Folk Festival. Signed to Elektra Records in the mid-1950s, Bikel's recordings were often multicultural, and his live repertoire was equally eclectic, including traditional songs from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Israel. Although Bikel recorded many albums in many languages, his three Yiddish recordings, Theodore Bikel Sings Yiddish Theatre & Folk Songs, Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folk Songs, and More Jewish Folk Songs, have remained three of his most popular and are still celebrated throughout the world.
Bikel had been a staple of the Newport Folk Festival from the start and, being a champion of traditional folk music throughout the world, was largely responsible for presenting songs that would have otherwise never been exposed to American audiences. When Bikel took to the stage of the 1968 festival, the musical and cultural landscape had considerably changed since he helped launch the festival. The country was rapidly reaching a political boiling point over the Vietnam War, civil rights activism had become increasingly violent, and the musical landscape had shifted dramatically. Many had become bored with traditional folk music, and many of the festival attendees were now more interested in amplified rock and blues offerings. Although respectfully received, much of Bikel's 1968 repertoire still focused on presenting multicultural traditional music. Despite performing before a decreasingly interested audience, this set showcases Bikel's wide-ranging diversity and captures a challenging moment in his career as a folk musician.
The recording begins with a somewhat stoned sounding MC Fritz Richmond extolling the virtues of Bikel to the Newport audience. Bikel begins his set with one of his most popular Yiddish folk song recordings, "Hulyet, Hulyet, Kinderlekh." Translated to "Play, Children, Play," this opening number immediately demonstrates his gifts as an acoustic guitarist and singer and sets the stage for a set featuring both traditional and contemporary folk music from around the world. Bikel addresses the audience following this song, using his Yiddish inflected Bronx accent to comedic effect as he introduces the next number. Sung in Spanish, "Segaba La Nina," is the first of two songs in this set sourced from Bikel's celebrated 1967 album, Songs of the Earth and the first of three international love songs performed in succession. A more contemporary love song (sung in English) surfaces next, with "Do You Remember." Before venturing into more thought provoking material, Bikel returns to the Songs for the Earth album, with the Ukrainian love song, "Dobryvechir Diwchyno," a dialogue between a man and a woman, in which Bikel sings both parts.
The most resonating sequence of this set is saved for last, with two numbers addressing the same subject matter - the horrors of war. The first, "Pete Bog Soldiers," Bikel describes as being over 350 years old, before he concludes the set with a penetrating cover of Glenn Yarborough's "A Hundred Men," originally recorded by the Limelighters. Both of these songs are sung in English and, despite being written centuries apart, are equally haunting.
Written by Alan Bershaw