Last year it was “Cups,” the hit song from the “Pitch Perfect” movie. Now, it’s “Happy,” the breakout hit of 2014 by singer Pharrell Williams.
It would seem that the Chicago-based Jewish a cappella group Listen Up! simply cannot pass up a chance to set the 11th century hymn Adon Olam to the latest musical craze.
Granted, it wasn’t Listen Up! who set the Jewish liturgical poem of reverential awe to New Zealander teen Lorde’s “Royals” last year. We can thank Josh Warshawsky and the students of The Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy Middle School for that. However, one cannot but wonder whether we should already expect the group to arrange and perform a rendition of Adon Olam inspired by next summer’s chart topper.
“People think we will come out with an entire album of Adon Olam renditions, but I am pretty confident that our next song will not be another Adon Olam,” said the group’s founder, Steve Singer.
According to Singer, the group (whose membership has changed almost completely since “Cups”) felt it was appropriate to release a song that was, upbeat, celebratory and joyful as a way of uplifting Jews at the end of what has been a most difficult summer.
“We actually released the video on August 20, which was not at all a good news day,” Singer said. “We have lots of friends and family in Israel, so what is going on there is very real for us.”
“A little frivolity is good for us right now,” said Cantor Nancy Abramson, director of the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
“But I wouldn’t use the ‘Happy’ version of Adon Olam in shul.”
Although Abramson is not generally in favor of taking songs from YouTube and moving them into the sanctuary, she does believe there could be a time and place for a “Happy” version of Adon Olam in the synagogue.
“It’s really a matter of taste and what a congregation is willing to accept. A more formal setting requires a more formal melody, but I could see using something like this in a family service as a way of starting where people are at and bringing them closer to the tradition,” Abramson said.
Jews are known for adopting and adapting from host cultures, so the melding of a prayer about God’s awesome power and protection that references Psalm 23 with what Abramson referred to as “the street thing” of Williams’ “Happy” is not totally unexpected.
“After all, the most widely used tune for Adon Olam is actually a German drinking song,” she said.
The plethora of melodic versions of Adon Olam, including all the ones taken from popular American songs, can be attributed to its strict iambic tetrameter form.
“It fits with just about anything,” said New York-based Cantor Jenny Izenstark, who was ordained by Hebrew Union College.
Izenstark also pointed out that Jewish worshippers are used to Adon Olam changing its tune according to the time of year. It, along with the half-Kaddish and Mi Chamocha prayers, are sometimes sung to seasonal melodies related to holidays.
“For instance, it would be the tune of Maoz Tzur at Hanukkah time or Yankee Doodle Dandy for the Fourth of July,” she said.
However, it turns out that despite all the melodies that have been attached to Adon Olam, not that many have had true staying power.
“Almost every composer has set it [Adon Olam], but not that many have lasted. This new ‘Happy’ version won’t last either. It will only last as long as the song remains popular,” said Izenstark.
Singer and his fellow group members Shayna Elliott, Freddie Feldman and Eli Nathan Taylor are okay with that. They feel this is the moment for a “Happy” Adon Olam, and they have put together an arrangement that both imitates Williams’s groove and brings a bit of musical novelty to the number.
“Both songs are mega hits. ‘Happy’ is really strong and catchy, and Adon Olam is about faith, strength, and not being afraid,” Singer said.
“I like those connections. It’s not an accident that these two songs work together.”