Mark Rubin is a legend from back in the alt country days, known for his pioneering work in the 90s with his band The Bad Livers in Austin. While he’s never left behind his earlier punk bonafides, his new work in recent years, billed as Mark Rubin – Jew of Oklahoma, has been more focused on the complexity of his identity as a Jewish person of Southern descent. With his new album, The Triumph of Assimilation, he masterfully melds old-school roots music with Yiddish protest songs and brutally acerbic ruminations on the long history of American anti-semitism. Special guests on the album include Danny Barnes from The Bad Livers, Si Kahn, and The Panorama Jazz Band of New Orleans. Folk Alley is proud to premiere the first single of his new album, “It’s Burning,” a chillingly prophetic protest song adapted from the poem “S’Brent” by Polish Yiddish poet Mordechai Gebirtig. “S’Brent” was written in 1938 after the bloody 1936 pogrom in Pryztyk, a Polish shtetl. The song echoes painfully in the politics of today, certainly the idea that the government’s going around taking names, or that the streets are burning, is not a new idea to anyone protesting in 2020. With our own nation teetering so close to the brink this past year, it’s viscerally unsettling to feel the familiarity of these sentiments from a poem written one year before the Nazis invaded Poland. Though Gebirtig’s songs are still sung and known today throughout the world, the Nazis murdered him in 1942. The central idea of “S’Brent” is a call to everyone to take up buckets to put out the fire, and Rubin echoes this as well, chastising those standing around with their arms crossed while it all burns, and reminding us “Pick up a bucket, you got the tools.”
When I asked Rubin what he found in Yiddish songs and poems, he replied “the musicality and evocativeness, which transcends even translation, has always drawn me in. From the short stories of Scholem Aleichem and Issac Bashevis Singer to collections of Chassid parables, I’m taken by the flowery details filled with nostalgia, melancholy and I’ll use the word again, musicality, of the prose. But it’s Gebirtig and Morris Rosenfeld (the poet of the sweatshops) and songs like “Dolloy Poltzoi,” (F**k the Police,) and “Fun di Barrikaden” (To the Barricades) by Kaszergenski that inspire me the most. Yiddish to me is, in these respects, the language of complaint, of militancy, and protest. You don’t need to be Jewish to be moved by that.”
Rubin’s album touches on Jewish and Yiddish culture in America, but it’s also an astute look at the larger legacy of anti-semitism in America. One of the most powerful songs on the album, “The Murder of Leo Frank,” shines a light on the shameful history of Leo Frank, a Jewish day laborer lynched in 1915 after being framed for the murder of young girl. Fiddlin’ John Carson, the forefather of modern country music, achieved fame in part from his rendition of the anti-semitic song “The Ballad of Mary Phagan,” so the DNA of this old hatred is embedded in Americana music (not to mention Henry Ford who sponsored fiddle contests to fight Black jazz and bankrolled publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for years). Rubin’s new album was written in part during the reign of Trump, when anti-semitism reigned supreme, but even with Trump gone, “is Trump ‘out,’ really?” Rubin asks. “I don’t know about where you live but at least 1 in 4 of my neighbor’s, 1 in 3 if I leave city limits, say he’s still the President. The man is simply the symptom, he was never the disease. It’s the mechanism that created him that is still very much in place, plotting their return to power every day. To be clear, somewhere someplace it’s burning right now and something can be done to stop it, that won’t change no matter who’s in charge.” We have to make that change ourselves, so grab a bucket, friend.
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