Kosher for Passover: Jewish folk songs reimagined as rock and roll records


(Above: You may wish to add a few 45’s to the table as well.)

I grew up in a predominantly Catholic suburb of Chicago in the 1970s and 80s.  We didn’t stop to ask questions about other belief systems, especially not in grade school.  The Spring Break calendar was the same every year: no classes on Good Friday, and the week after Easter was the week off. You always knew when it was Lent, since it was the only time that McDonald’s had the Filet-o-Fish sandwiches ready without having to stand around for one. It was just assumed that people believed the same way, and the one or two Jewish families in the neighborhood were the outliers.

It wasn’t until I got to college (a Catholic college, ironically) that I really got to interact with people of other faiths and see that there were differences and traditions.  My first attempt at this failed: the class that was supposed to compare religions did it from a point of view largely consisting of “And here’s why they’re wrong!”  (The instructor for the class was a Christian Brother who was trying to look like Jesus, replete with beard and sandals.) Later classes were much more open to the notion that there’s many ways people pray and many different holidays and traditions to observe.

That explained for me, later, why some songs I’d heard coming out of the radio sounded vaguely familiar later.  For a stretch of time in the early days of rock and roll it wasn’t unheard of to adapt a folk song from the public domain to see if if could be a hit. In many cases, unscrupulous publishers claimed the work (and the subsequent royalties) as their own. Some, like “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” by the Highwaymen, managed to top the charts. Others could only be described as misses rather than hits. Not surprisingly, a few were adaptations of Jewish folk songs, in the public domain and ripe for the re-recording. To wit:

-The Wildwoods, “Here Comes Big Ed.”  This is a cool instrumental track that borrows its melody note for note from “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” Fans of the film Kentucky Fried Movie may well expect to see Big Jim Slade crash through the wall, because the song factors into that classic scene as well. (The capital of Nebraska is Lincoln!) Released in 1961, this failed to move the needle on the charts.

-Betty Madigan, “Dance Everyone Dance.” This made it up to #31 on the Billboard charts in 1958.  You more likely recognize it as “Hava Nagila.” A different set of lyrics was created for the record, and Sid Danoff was given sole credit for “writing” the piece. Despite appearances on Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand, Madigan, who had earlier hits in the pre-rock-and-roll era, never hit the charts again.

-Frank Slay, “Flying Circle.” Why not just redo the same thing?  Slay’s 1962 instrumental version of “Hava Nagila,” listing him as the sole composer (OK, so which one of you wrote this?), just missed the Top 40, peaking at #45. Frank Slay is much better known for his work with Bob Crewe; the two co-wrote “Silhouettes” for the Rays in 1958, and “Tallahassee Lassie” for Freddy Cannon in 1959.  Slay later went on to produce a few records, most notably “Incense and Peppermints” for the Strawberry Alarm Clock in 1967.  So yes, the same studio mind gave us both these records.

There’s just a few.  So, if you’re looking to liven up a seder this year, why not introduce a little rock and roll to the after-dinner mix?


One thought on “Kosher for Passover: Jewish folk songs reimagined as rock and roll records

  1. I’m also a huge fan of all the amazingly cheesy a cappella covers of modern songs by students studying to become rabbis. Some of the best for Passover:


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