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Audio: Yehuda Kaplan on Disco, Berel Wein and Woody Guthrie

Jewish musician Yehuda Kaplan talks about his guitar-based, rocking pro-Israel anthem This Land.
7/15/2008, 6:19 PM

A7 Radio's "Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast" with Ben Bresky
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Between scoring Rabbi Berel Wein's new movies and working on three new solo albums, singer/songwriter Yehuda Kaplan keeps busy. The newly released history series by Rabbi Wein, "Fate and Faith 6" features Kaplan's rock music, a change for the series intended to attract a younger audience.

Israel National Radio's 'The Beat' talked to Kaplan about the film project as well as his pro-Israel anthem This Land which references communities in Judea and Samaria.

Question: Let’s talk about This Land.

Answer: I was doing a track for somebody else of Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land, and my son came over and said, why are you always doing this secular stuff? Why don't you do this about Israel. We shouldn't be giving land away in Israel. You could turn this song around for that purpose. So he and I sat down together and reworked the song to make a statement about not giving land away in Israel.

Question: I've heard other people do Jewish versions and parodies of that song.

Answer: Yes, I heard people did camp songs and other things. But I don't do parodies. The melody and chord changes are different. My original intent even before I was starting to do it about Israel was to reconstruct the song. It's like Brownstone renovation. You keep the outside and rip out everyone inside and re-do it. A parody is like a squatter coming into the abandoned building. Here is a very long tradition of classic musicians finding something they like about a pre-existing song and then ripping it apart and making it their own piece.

Question: I guess you would call it a tribute or an homage.

Answer: No, it's really using someone else's raw material and running it through your own processor.  A parody is someone who takes a song and just slaps on their variation and that's it. I guess the difference is digging deep.

I'm working on a new CD now where I'm taking familiar songs and totally reconstructing them. Songs that you would think have nothing to do with Yiddishkeit whatsoever. People ask me, what makes you different from Shlock Rock? From a Chassidish point of view, I hear a spark in certain material that wants to be elevated and I take that and disregard the rest.

Question: Can I ask you what the new songs are going to be?

Answer: No, you can't! I don't want somebody to beat me to the punch! I'd rather surprise people. So it will be very unusual stuff for the Jewish market.

Question: You mentioned squatters in terms of music, but we talk about that in terms of land and politics in Israel.

Answer: Well, it's interesting, Woody Guthrie was a Communist. I know Arlo Guthrie a little bit. I knew Arlo's mother, Woody's wife, and they were nice people. But Woody was a Communist and he was very upfront about it. 'This Land Is Your Land' is a Communist song. We have Pirkei Avot and it says that someone who says that "what's yours is yours and what's mine is yours" is a tzadik. And someone who says "what's yours is mine and what's mine is yours" is a fool. That's my interpretation of Communism. So Pirkei Avot anticipated Karl Marx by a few thousand years.

Question: Many people grew up singing that song in school along with the Star Spangled Banner.

Answer: There are verses in the song they don't sing in school. They dropped them. They were pat of the Communist agenda. But there's another side to Woody Guthrie. He definitely had an interest in Jewish culture, in Torah. They unearthed 15 Jewish songs on Jewish themes and put new music to it. I don't know if Woody would agree with what I'm saying in This Land, but he's agreed with my right to say it.

Question: What is the song Hodu Hashem about? Its very catchy.

Answer: There's a famous classical piece called Pachabel's Cannon, and I think maybe half of the songs written after 1969 use the chord progression from that. There's a funny comedy routine on YouTube where someone does a dozen or so pop songs using it. I was aware of how prevalent it was and I used it. I had in mind that there was a spark, that was so pervasive. It's so much part of our musical culture. I knew at some point I wanted to do a setting of Hodu Hashem Ki Tov, and it took me many years to figure out how to set it to those chords. I think most people listening to it for the first time wouldn't necessarily catch it. It's the same process of taking something down so far to its structural level.

Question: Let's talk about Rabbi Berel Wein's new Fate and Faith movie.

Answer: I am his house composer. That's a totally different side of my music. The new film, I decided the title song should sound like my CDs. For the other movies, I did more traditional Jewish music, more acoustic mandolin, dulcimer guitar kind of traditional sound, but for this new one I used my song Signs and Wonders. We wanted a rock title song for "Fate and Faith 6." It's the most difficult scoring process because it's about the Holocaust. We had footage in it that no on had ever seen before. The Russians filmed everything and they had amazing archives. They just passed their own Freedom of Information Act and this footage became available. There are atrocities. It was emotionally devastating visual material. It was traumatic to watch. I felt that the information in this video was so important, that I wanted to make sure that it reached younger audiences and I insisted that we do a rock track and make it more accessible.

Question: Tell us about the song By Design.

Answer: I was producing and arranging a Judy Collins CD. In the early 70s she was a top singer on par with Joni Mitchell. I was doing her CD and there's a song called "With G-d on Our Side" by Bob Dylan. There's a verse in that song that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic even though Bob Dylan wrote it. He's been kind of back and forth on a 360 degree turn of Jewish life. When he wrote that particular song, it wasn't exactly pro-Jewish. I felt a little uncomfortable being the only frum Jew on the project. So I got up my courage and told Judy. She looked at me, and she has these incredible steely eyes and she said, "you think it's anti-Semitic? Well then it's out!" So she left out the verse. I thought it was wonderful. So that emboldened me and I asked her to write a song together. Immediately I came up with the music for By Design. She was starting to work on the lyrics and was called away for a second, and ended up not coming back. So I went home and sat down at the piano and the lyrics just poured out of me. So she is kind of a midwife to that song. It would have made a nice Judy Collins song.

Question: So you've been around for a while and worked with some well known people. How long have you been in the music business?

Answer: I started out when I was a kid and I saw a New York Times interview with Randy Newman and it mentioned the name of his publishing company. My music was a little like Randy Newman’s, so I looked it up and called them. They said come down and they seemed to like my stuff. At that company they had working there as songwriters Barry White, Jimi Hendrix, Randy Newman, Al Cooper and others. I wasn't a senior member, but I was sort of there while these people were walking in and out. I did lead sheets. Musicians would write songs and besides Randy Newman, none of them could write sheet music and they needed someone for copyright registration.

Question: Did you write Jewish music originally?

Answer: Not at all. Around 1974, and this year is significant for music and for me, the record companies realized that they weren't making money from having artist-oriented music -- people like Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel. They made more money by getting kids off the street and paying them very little and having quick turnaround. They put a stop to regular song-oriented music and produced only disco. All of a sudden you had a bunch of people in the music business who either couldn't work or didn't want to work. We didn't want to do disco. Some people went into commercials and some people left the business. I went into teaching. Eventually synthesizers were a new thing and I realized if I could play that I could play on disco records. There were about five or six musicians who played synthesizer on almost all the disco records that came out of New York and I was one of them. But I didn't want to do disco and began teaching The New School in the rock department. When I became a ba'al teshuva in the 1970s, I was astonished that what I had run away from in the secular world of disco music had become the Jewish music. Because to me that was the least spiritual, most gashmius form of what I thought Jewish music should be. I heard some of my own licks coming back at me on these Jewish records. It was shocking. I asked, where do I fit in? What's G-d's special plan for me? So I decided that I would take a few years off and go to yeshiva and then I started doing my own Jewish music.

For more information of Yehuda Kaplan, visit

Ben Bresky is a music journalist and recording engineer living in Jerusalem. He hosts The Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast interviewing a wide range of Jewish and Israeli musicians from Carlebach to klezmer, from hasidic to trance. For full archives visit
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