Talkin Hava Negeilah blues: Bob Dylan being silly? Or making a point?

By Tony Attwood

Way back in my younger days, I taught a university undergraduate course “Art and the Environment”.

The essence of  the year long course (which covered all the arts) was that although some art work was carefully planned and structured by the artist, a lot of art is created out of the materials that the artist uses.   Thus the visual artist might explore the results gained from a particular brush and paint colour, and have ideas from that, the poet might see a phrase in a newspaper article and find it leads him/her somewhere new, a multi-media artist might be walking on the beach and find shells, seaweed, washed up items, and use them in a work.

As for the musician he/she might hear a few chords, or knock out a few notes, and an idea might come while reading the newspaper, walking in the city centre or playing with one’s children.  These are perfectly reasonable approaches to creating new art: it can be planned or it can emerge doing other things, or it can arise from the basic materials of the art you work with.

Within all this was an element of playfulness, of experimentation, of trying things to see what happens, and while all the students on the course had some history of being engaged in the arts as amateurs while studying other courses at the university, most of them took the course because they wanted to go further.  They wanted to know what it was like to be a “real artist” (as some of them insisted on saying).  But they got stuck, because they somehow imagined that to create a work of art one had to have a grand plan, a desire to create a particular piece, a knowledge about where it is going.

At the start of each year’s course I would ask my group of students “What does a poet do?” and they would look at me as if I were a right turnip, and say, “A poet writes poetry.”  And I would say no, “a poet wears funny hats and goes the unusual places”.  My point being that “a poet” is not just the writing of poetry, it is getting into a world in which the ideas for the poetry emerge.  It is “being a poet” in a much wide sense.

I think Dylan sometimes knows exactly where a song is going and what it is about – although he then often deliberately explores where else it might go (“Dark Eyes” would seem a perfect example), while on other occasions he’s got a clear target in view from which he does not deviate (“Idiot Wind” for example).  But other times he really does have ideas by exploring the materials to hand, often with a sense of humour.

That is the case with this snippet of a song, Talkin Hava Nagila, although I must admit I never fully got the joke (not being Jewish perhaps) until I saw the video…

Don’t just play it, watch it, and then without watching listen to Dylan’s harmonica performance – he is (sometimes with a certain desperation) trying to find something, anything he can do with the harmonica – (which you will have seen on the film he had forgotten to pick up), but he does get there at the end.  He has the ideas by handling the materials.

(Incidentally if you leave the sequence running you get other versions of the song if you want to explore this further).

The lyrics in English of the original song are…

Let’s rejoice, let’s rejoice, let’s rejoice and be happy

Let’s sing, let’s sing, let’s sing and be happy

Awake, awake, my brothers

Awake my brothers with a happy heart

Awake my brothers awake my brothers with a happy heart

In 1918, the song was one of the first songs designed to unite the early settlement of Jewish people after the British victory in Palestine during the first world war, and the subsequent Balfour declaration of a national Jewish homeland.  Some writers suggest it it comes in part from Psalm 118 verse 24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

But the dance which often accompanies the song is a secular not a religious dance.

So, back to my starting point, I think Bob here was having ideas by handling materials.  He would obviously know Hava Negeilah, and decided to turn it into a talking blues.

Here’s a foreign song I learned in Utah

Ha-va-ne-gei-lah
O-de-ley-e-e-oo-

The only interpretation I can put on this (and remember that I am not Jewish, but an atheist) is that he is making fun not just of the Jewish establishment, but of the left-wing folk bands that felt that somehow this was a traditional song that express general working people’s solidarity across the world.  Dylan was laughing not so much at the old timers for whom the song had for several generations been part of their coming together and expression of they joy at being as one, but at the appropriation of the song by other people who had nothing to do with Judaism or the creation of Israel.

I think that we should remember that around this time Dylan was not expressing his Jewish heritage in any over way – he was being a regular American guy, a lad who made up stories about his past, a young man who venerated not his Jewish origins but the white working class songs of Woody Guthrie and the black blues of Robert Johnson.

Now there is an interview with Dylan which is quoted on hundreds of web sites – but suspiciously (or rather it makes me suspicious) very few of them actually say where this interview comes from.   And that makes me surprised because it is a very long quote.

So I treat this interview with a little scepticism, but the source seems to be “Spin” magazine in an interview with Scott Cohen and of course it could well be genuine.  Here’s the relevant quote

“There weren’t too many Jews in Hibbing, Minnesota. Most of them I was related to. The town didn’t have a rabbi, and it was time for me to be bar mitzvahed. Suddenly a rabbi showed up under strange circumstances for only a year. He and his wife got off the bus in the middle of winter. He showed up just in time for me to learn this stuff. He was an old man from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes. They put him upstairs of the cafe, which was the local hangout. It was a rock ‘n’ roll cafe where I used to hang out, too. I used to go up there every day to learn this stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him an hour or so, I’d come down and boogie. The rabbi taught me what I had to learn, and after he conducted this bar mitzvah, he just disappeared. The people didn’t want him. He didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a rabbi. He was an embarrassment. All the Jews up there shaved their heads and, I think, worked on Saturday. And I never saw him again. It’s like he came and went like a ghost. Later I found out he was Orthodox. Jews separate themselves like that. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, as if God calls them that. Christians, too. Baptists, Assembly of God, Methodists, Calvinists. God has no respect for a person’s title. He don’t care what you call yourself.”

Now we must remember that Dylan has long had a habit of making up stories, and of embellishing stories, and the whole notion of the rabbi appearing and disappearing like this is slightly odd, so I don’t think there is enough evidence to take this as a literal truth.  But of course I have no proof either way.

Within a year or two of creating this snippet of a song Dylan was attacking all religions, so it is not unreasonable to see this as a poke at Judaism as well as a poke at the people from white middle class all-American Christian backgrounds who would sing the song with their acoustic guitars and think they were expressing worldwide solidarity.

Not unreasonable, but not absolutely certain.

But someone somewhere decided to resurrect this little recording and put it on the Bootleg 1-3.   And they also included “Blind Willie McTell” which opens

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem”

It’s an odd collection, all things considered.   And what is still so utterly puzzling is that no one thought to put “Ballad for a Friend” on the album, so maybe there is no sense to be made of this at all.

If you find the topic interesting you might also be interested in the article “Singing Dylan in Hebrew”

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site.

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there

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1 Response to Talkin Hava Negeilah blues: Bob Dylan being silly? Or making a point?

  1. Ted Feigenbaum says:

    I think the clue that Dylan was just being silly is contained in the first spoken lines. In the early 1960’s, there would not have been more than a handful of Jews in Utah. The yodeling at the end bookends the silliness. It’s a mystery as to why this ditty was included on Bootleg Vol 1

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