Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Ralph Stanley, Levon Helm, Innovation, Entrepreneur-ism, Judaism and Israel

In Uncategorized on November 5, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Now, that’s a helluva title.  Recently, Ralph Stanley the unparalleled mountain music singer and banjo player published a memoir, The Man of Constant Sorrow. He is 82 years old and still performs about one hundred concerts a year.  Anyone who saw the film, “O Brother Where art thou”, will recognize Ralph’s pipes singing to the grim reaper in his chilling rendition of “O Death”. Stanley eschewed electric  instruments and anything else that was not traditionally used to play mountain music.  He, nevertheless, was incredibly innovative within this limitation. His claw hammer banjo style was path breaking, and he claimed that although he learned from his predecessors, he always had to do things his own way. Still, he adhered to the perceived strictures of the genre, and was very critical of those “ignorant hippies playin’ with their electric banjos”.

Levon Helm, once the drummer and vocalist for The Band, has had an amazing comeback at age 71,  Recovering from throat cancer, his miraculously unimpaired voice has given us two magnificent solo albums. One, “Dirt Farmer” and the other, “Electric Dirt”. Levon has taken a different path than Ralph. He is rooted in the same place, but has produced more eclectic offerings.  His, and Ralph’s voice are cut of the same cloth.  The power of which is in the feeling, the experience, the pain and the joy they bring to each vocal.  Levon, however, is happy to sing the blues, invite horn arrangements and play rock and roll, not as a concession to a fickle public, but because he is at home in all these musical settings.

Ralph attributes his long career to his fidelity to what he feels the music required.  Whose to argue with him? Levon, I suppose, would say that his long career is a product of his love for many kinds of music and the unique impression his voice brings to each song.

When interviewed on Diane Rehm, Ralph was asked what he listened to. Incredibly, he answered that truthfully, he just liked to listen to Ralph Stanley.  Even if his mother taught him a lick, he was more impressed by how he changed it than he was by the fact that she taught him.  I’m sure that Levon would have a long list of musicians who had inspired him from several genres.

Dan Senor and Saul Singer have written a book about Israel’s hi-tech industry called Start Up Nation that chronicles Israel’s stunning contributions to everything from computer chips to cell phones.  In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Dan Senor makes a distinction between innovation and entrepreneurship.  Innovation means coming up with something new, whereas an entrepreneur will figure out how to market it. Many countries are entrepreneurial, but they lack innovators.  Israel, on the other hand, has both. That is what sets her apart.

The Talmud teaches that: It is impossible for a Beit Midrash [to exist] without innovative thinking. (Hagiga 3a) In keeping with Ralph Stanley, it means within the rigors and structure of an articulated framework, we are nevertheless commanded to come up with our own “fingerpicking styles”, our own voice, but it must be from within the system itself. Every innovation must be filtered through that which has preceded it. It is from there that we reap the rewards of authenticity and longevity.  It is also true, that others will find sustenance from being more fluid and experimental, but what cannot be claimed, is that such a path will have the staying power of a tradition that feels the profound tension between fidelity to what was and innovation for what needs to be.

Ralph Stanley, and Levon Helm know this, but they interpret it very differently. Their authenticity hinges on the fact that they see this tension as essential to their mission as musicians who represent more than the sound of their own voices.


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