There’s Paul Simon’s first acoustic guitar, early lyrics of legendary song “The Boxer” scrawled inside a 1968 issue of Mainliner magazine and a notepad with early lyrics for world-music fusion hit “Graceland.” Those pieces, along with a letter Paul Simon wrote to Art Garfunkel from summer camp and the duo’s first record contract, which their parents had to sign because they were too young, are among a treasured collection now at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit “Paul Simon: Words and Music” opened last weekend in Baltimore. This is the first tour stop for the exhibit, which opened in October 2014 at the Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Alongside more than 80 artifacts that chronicle Simon’s life and career are videos of select performances and the man himself narrating his life, discussing some of the artifacts and his creative process through interviews conducted by the Hall of Fame.
“He is a master, master, master songwriter, and you can see that, not only that, but he’s always grown.
He’s never stagnant,” said Karen Herman, vice president of curatorial and collections affairs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “His music, it just crosses over so many lines.”
From his folky roots in Greenwich Village in New York to being at the forefront of folk-rock to pioneering the fusion of American and African music, Paul Simon has permanently etched himself in popuar music history.
“[He went] from a rock ’n’ roller to a folk-rocker to a genuinely original American songwriter, and that’s also the evolution of his generation,” said Richard Goldstein, author, professor and former executive editor and longtime rock critic at The Village Voice. “He eventually becomes a real pioneer of world music by the time he’s doing ‘Graceland’ … you can see that he is a superb synthesist of different musical styles from around the world. So he has a tremendous trajectory as an artist.”
Goldstein is part of a robust schedule of programs, film showings and lectures that the Jewish Museum is hosting in conjunction with the exhibit to further explore Simon, folk music and the connection between folk and the Jewish experience.
In addition to Goldstein’s Nov. 15 lecture, “Paul Simon and the Birth of Folk Rock,” there are performances by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Cantor Robbie Solomon alongside New York Cantor Jeff Klepper, a major figure in American Jewish music, and Baltimore native and Grammy winner Sonia Rutstein of Disappear Fear; a folk movie festival featuring four films; and lectures on Woody Guthrie’s Yiddish connection by his daughter, Nora, the New York folk revival, and the Jewish entrepreneurs who recorded, promoted and celebrated the music, among others.
“We talk about celebrating the life of the Jewish community and not just the religious life of the community, the community as a whole,” said Marvin Pinkert, the Jewish Museum’s executive director.
“It seems to me that this is providing just an ideal opportunity to broaden that scope, and we are going to be able to really introduce a much wider community to what’s happening in the Jewish experience.”
Pinkert also curated the pop-up exhibit “An American Tune: Jewish Connections to Folk and Folk-Rock,” a small display in the museum’s lobby that explores the Jewish roots of Simon and fellow folkies Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and Baltimore’s Cass Elliott, as well as the Jewish entrepreneurs who worked to bring the music to the masses.
The birth of the exhibit and its move to Maryland
All it took was a visit. When Paul Simon, who has been inducted twice to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — as a member of Simon and Garfunkel and as a solo artist — visited the museum, he liked what he saw and began talking with museum President and CEO Greg Harris.
“The next thing we knew, he was all in for an exhibit,” Herman said.
Although Simon didn’t save a lot of stuff from his Simon and Garfunkel days, he saved everything when he went solo and now has an archivist. The Hall of Fame’s curators were able to go through his personal collection to find the combination of objects that would best tell Simon’s story. Simon even suggested a few things himself, including his first guitar, which he got as a birthday present.
Herman, who has a background in oral history, thought they should get Simon to narrate his own story.
Videos in the exhibit have Simon talking about his life, playing guitar and discussing some of the objects, including the time he broke a string on the first guitar and hid it under his bed because he didn’t want his father to find out.
“You really get a sense of how he kind of thinks in music and how comfortable he is with a guitar in his hand,” Herman said. The videos are project on screens above mini-stages with stools on them.
Joanna Church, collections manager at the Jewish Museum, said this exhibit is a different direction than the museum has taken in the past, especially in terms of artifacts.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had to put up guitars. I don’t think we’ve had Grammys on display,” she said.
“There’s ephemera from his childhood. I love the letters that he wrote to Art Garfunkel when they were both at different summer camps. … I think a lot of visitors are also going to really enjoy the lyrics he wrote on random pieces of mail.”
Music aficionado and Jewish Museum board member Ira Malis, who traveled to Cleveland to see the Paul Simon exhibit at the Hall of Fame, helped get the ball rolling when heard the exhibit, which was built to tour, was going to be traveling.
“Much like when the museum had a very successful exhibit that involved comic books and [Jewish writers and illustrators], I think it exposed a lot of people to that fact, but also exposed a wonderful historical museum to people who were maybe coming in for the cultural items,” he said. “So I think it’s a win-win to get those kind of exhibits with broader appeal.”
Folk-rock and the Jewish experience
Paul Simon is Jewish, and many Jews like his music. So what? How do Paul Simon and all the other Jewish folk singers represent being Jewish?
Pinkert’s pop-up exhibit and Goldstein’s lecture, among other presentations, will answer that question in various ways.
“I met him not long after ‘Sounds of Silence’ came out because I was doing my column. … Like a good New York Jew he knew a good cheap Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and he took me to it, and we had to climb this flight of linoleum-covered stairs,” Goldstein recalled. They talked about the music industry over egg rolls and fried rice. “It felt to me like a typical New York Jewish experience.”
But Chinese food aside, Simon and his Jewish contemporaries such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen created their own forms of music with common lyrical themes.
“Jewish performers are most strongly associated with original folk music,” Pinkert said. “People like Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen are literally writing new folk music. Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs grew up in non-Jewish communities as outsiders. They could look at other folk traditions and could see it with an eye and an angle and be able to write something new.”
Goldstein said this outsider view inspired songs that sang of an idealized view of America.
“These writers tend to create an ideal, larger-than-life America,” he said. “This is true of a lot of great Jewish American artists who write or sing popular music. Where would American music be without them?”
From Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to Bob Dylan creating new music from traditional folk forms to Neil Diamond’s “hyper-American songs,” Goldstein said, “Rather than Jews creating a Jewish music in America, they created an American music that is informed by their views as outsiders.”
While Simon fit this tradition, Simon’s lyrics often took on a more critical edge.
“There’s kind of an edge of uncertainty that really reflects a more modern vision of America,” Goldstein said. “These are really American themes.”
For Pinkert, the question was why so many Jewish people are connected to folk and folk-rock. His pop-up exhibit aims to answer that.
Jewish involvement in progressive politics at the time was very strong, and folk singers and folk-rockers captured that energy in their music, Pinkert said. There were a lot of connections between the Jewish and African American communities at the time, and these connections were often centered around folk music, with the civil rights movement as another forum and inspiration for the genre.
“Being born in an environment with tikkun olam as a major tenet is probably something that has an impact,” Pinkert said. “I think that within the tradition, there are elements about social justice among other things that made [folk music] attractive.”
The exhibit and the programs curated around it offer up a wealth of experts and knowledge in a variety of areas. But Pinkert thinks people just need to come see the exhibit themselves.
“The quality of the Paul Simon exhibit really speaks for itself,” he said. “It’s a chance to check out all the ways Jews and folk music have been connected.”
“Paul Simon: Words and Music” runs through Jan. 18 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St., Baltimore. Visit jewishmuseummd.org for a schedule of events.
This story first appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week’s sister publication.
Jewish folk entrepreneurs helped music scene grow
Jews weren’t just prominent performers of folk music when it experienced a resurgence during the 1950s and 1960s. Members of the Tribe had record companies and magazines, owned venues and wrote articles that helped the scene grow and remain abundant.
Author Stephen Petrus, who curated the Museum of the City of New York exhibit “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival,” will give a lecture of the same name on Dec. 13 at the Jewish Museum to discuss some of these important figures in folk and what made New York City the center of folk revival.
Petrus hesitates to call them businessmen because he believes these men, mostly of Eastern European background, were motivated by their left-leaning, progressive values.
“[They thought] almost from an anthropological point of view, ‘this is the people’s music. We’re here to disseminate it, we’re here to preserve it,’” Petrus said.
He’ll talk about people such as Moses “Moe” Asch, who founded Folkways Records in a mission to record the sounds of the world “as an expression of people’s culture,” Petrus said.
“He wanted to come up with this kind of chronicle of world music, what we call world music today,” Petrus said. “He saw this as a cultural and political imperative. He’s not ranking musicians in a hierarchy or cultures in a hierarchy.” The liner notes in Folkways albums included historical context and information about the cultural backgrounds of the musicians as well.
There were people like Jac Holzman, who founded of Elektra Records in his dorm room at St. John’s College in Annapolis and worked to get albums out by new folk singers in the Greenwich Village scene.
And Irwin Silber, co-founder of Sing Out! magazine, who Petrus said came from a leftist background with strong commitment to the labor movement. A provocative character who criticized The Weavers for playing African-American music but not having any black members, Silber was interested in folk music as a means to advance political change.
Petrus will discuss Robert Shelton, a New York Times critic who chronicled the music scene.
“That would be the best if you got your set reviewed by Robert Shelton,” he said. Bob Dylan got a major boost from a Shelton review in 1961.
There’s a wealth of people Petrus plans to discuss, with Jewish people also involved in sheet music publication, venues and more facets of the industry.
“There’s really just a tremendous amount,” he said. “[The Jewish community] was particularly critical in pushing forward folk music.”