While I’m Here
Red House Records
(This is an expanded version of a review published in the September 26, 2016 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)
There is no doubt that Theodore Bikel – who died last year at age 91 – was one of the greatest Jewish actors and folksingers of our time. This new 2-CD collection highlights both aspects of Theo’s distinguished career.
The first CD is a compelling 62-minute set of spoken word pieces, recorded not long before he died, in which Theo – with his actor’s skill – tells stories from his long life and career. Among other stories, we hear about his relationship to Judaism, his move as a young man to pre-state Palestine, his early years as an actor in Israel and London, his move to America, his passion for social justice causes, his love of Yiddish language and culture and more.
The second CD is a collection of folk and Broadway songs – more than half of them specifically Jewish folksongs sung in Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino – drawn from various sources recorded over many years. Many of them are recent recordings, which show that Theo never lost any of his ability to communicate the essence of a song, while some date back to the 1960s.
“Partizaner-Marsh,” “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” “Un Az Der Rebi Tantz,” and “Oh Freedom,” the African-American civil rights anthem Theo recorded at a 1965 synagogue concert, are just a few of the many highlights from these songs. Others include “Wasn’t That a Might Day,” Theo’s song about Hurricane Katrina that he based on “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm,” a song about the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas in 1900 that killed thousands of people, and “When I’m Gone,” Phil Ochs’ song about needing to get things done and living life to its fullest while we can. The album’s title, While I’m Here, comes from the refrain to Phil’s song.
Theodore Bikel accomplished so much while he was here and these two CDs are a wonderful summation.
Kudos to producers Michael Stein, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer for assembling this excellent set and to music historian Mary Katherine Aldin for her excellent notes.