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'I could exploit the Jewish music without co-opting it'

Folk guitarist makes experimental soundscapes from old Jewish phonograph records

According to Nathan Salsburg, the early American record industry marketed aggressively to European immigrants, and he draws from a wellspring of klezmer tunes for his new project

Nathan Salsburg in a barn on his property, which also functions as his office. (Joan Shelley/ via JTA)
Nathan Salsburg in a barn on his property, which also functions as his office. (Joan Shelley/ via JTA)

JTA — Folk musician and record archivist Nathan Salsburg lives on a 40-acre former tree farm in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, with fellow songwriter Joan Shelley.

Shelley is not Jewish, but she and Salsburg — who has a complicated relationship with his Jewishness dating back to childhood — began observing Shabbat in the last year.

“We don’t turn everything off,” Salsburg notes. “But we light the Shabbat candles and say HaMotzi and drink wine. We’d like to keep it going. But I don’t really have any Jewish community to speak of.”

That is, until he looks on his record shelves.

An accomplished folk guitarist who has collaborated with respected acts such as Louisville music-scene kingpin Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Canadian folk collective The Weather Station and Shelley, Salsburg has also been the curator of legendary musicologist Alan Lomax’s archive of vinyl records since 2000. The barn that serves as his office is packed with hard drive copies of Lomax’s records and thousands of his own vinyl records — including old phonograph albums he has collected over time of Yiddish-language and klezmer music marketed to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in the early part of the 20th century.

Those albums unexpectedly became a big part of the foundation for his latest project: a pair of avant-garde instrumental albums that represent a literal dialogue with American Jewish history through music.

For the previous five years, Salsburg has been working on-and-off on an album of arrangements of Hebrew psalm texts, which is tentatively scheduled to be released later this year. But when the pandemic began, he found himself unable to fly to Chicago to work with other musicians on the project.

Quarantined at home, Salsburg, 42, found himself messing around with old phonograph records from his collection and recording his own playing on top of them. The results became “Landwerk” and “Landwerk No. 2,” two albums that Salsburg released last May and December, each consisting of four long sound collages, assembled from repeated samples of mostly Yiddish and klezmer music and Salsburg’s own guitar playing.

The project was inspired in part by “An Empty Bliss Beyond This World,” a 2011 album by British experimental artist The Caretaker, who assembles sound collages from old recordings of British ballroom songs.

“I wanted to sit down and do something to kind of reconnect me to my record collection, which would give me someone or something to collaborate with,” says Salsburg.

Salsburg has access to tens of thousands of recordings in the Lomax archive, but he decided against using them because “it didn’t feel like they were mine to mess with.” He started focusing on his own collection, sourcing blasts of organ or bits of clarinet that could be used as a compositional basis for the slow, wandering, slightly ominous pieces that populate the “Landwerk” albums.

Salsburg had no shortage of material to draw from. According to the artist, the early American record industry in the 1910s and 1920s marketed aggressively to European immigrants in the United States, and Greek, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian and Jewish folk music was well-represented in recordings of the era.

“The idea was that there were all these immigrant groups in America,” says Salsburg. “Some of them were coming into the middle class, and some of them had discretionary money to spend. And if the company wanted them to buy record players, they needed to sell the music that was familiar to them.”

On the first “Landwerk” album, only two tracks are sourced from Jewish music. On “Landwerk No. 2,” every track comes from klezmer recorded between 1924 and 1927 — except for one based on a sample of a Slovak miner’s band from Northeastern Pennsylvania, where Salsburg’s father’s family lived for generations.

Salsburg used this music as the basis of the project because, to some extent, he felt like it was his.

“The Jewish stuff felt like something that I could exploit, so to speak, without co-opting it,” says Salsburg. “I didn’t want to do this with, like, 1920s blues records. Those don’t feel like mine to exploit. So the collaborative angle took in these kind of Jewish ghosts.”

Salsburg also credits being unable to work on the psalm project as an impetus to explore Jewish themes in his own work. For the guitarist, listening to these recordings and making music from them represents a way to maintain a connection with his Jewishness.

“It felt like there was a hole in my engagement with Jewish culture,” Salsburg said. “I can get it through reading, but that’s still a passive experience. I wanted something where I wasn’t just a receiver.”

Salsburg’s upbringing was not exactly a fountain of yiddishkeit (Judaism). His mother converted to Judaism before he was born, and his grandparents on his father’s side were so concerned with assimilating that they objected to the name Nathan, considering it too Jewish. Raised in a working-class family, Salsburg felt a disconnect from the kids in the Hebrew school at his family’s mostly upper-class synagogue.

“There was [a] really intense class divide at this place,” says Salsburg. “I definitely felt a cultural remove from things that my fellow Hebrew school kids were interested in. I came up being into punk rock and folk music, and [Hebrew school] was very preppy and sports-oriented, so I always felt that kind of estrangement from the Jewish community as I knew it.”

At age 12, Salsburg attended a Jewish summer camp, where he started learning to play “very earnest Jewish liturgical campfire music.” Picking out old Debbie Friedman songs inadvertently helped lead him to his folk music career.

During the “Landwerk” project, one of the musicians Salsburg learned about was Mickey Katz, an entertainer during the 1940s and ’50s who recorded klezmer music and Jewish-themed parodies of then-popular songs. Salsburg’s dad was shocked when he found out his son didn’t know who Katz was, since his parody tunes were popular decades earlier — and Salsburg is an expert on the music of the time period.

But Lomax — who recorded countless folk singers and musicians for the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center — preferred to document music that was not widely commercially recorded and thus bothered little with Jewish music.

Learning about Katz was a revelation to Salsburg, especially since he existed in an era of intense assimilation for Jewish musicians, many of whom changed their last names or otherwise hid their heritage.

“The musicianship is pretty stellar, but just the transgressive aspect of it is almost punk rock,” says Katz. “In the midst of all these Jews trying to lose any remnants of their yiddishkeit, he was there hanging out a shingle.”

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