Almost everything in life — human emotion, faith, nature, lifecycle, familial connections, celebrations, tragedies — can be expressed through music. That especially holds true with Jewish music, which has been used to convey the Jewish experience from the beginning of the Jewish experience.
“Sounds Jewish” is a nationally distributed radio show that offers a weekly dive into the variety of ways in which Jewish life, culture and religion are expressed through music.
The voice behind the music is Andy Muchin, whose “retirement” in the early 2000s from more than two decades in Jewish journalism enabled him to pursue his lifelong interest in Jewish music.
Muchin grew up in Manitowoc, Wisc., where he attended that small Jewish community’s traditional synagogue, learning liturgical melodies. He spent summers at Camp Herzl in Webster, Wisc., where he learned a lot of folk songs and Israeli songs.
His interest in Jewish music kicked into high gear as a young adult in the 1980s, as editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, assistant editor at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and co-publisher of Jewish Heartland magazine.
“I saw some of the CDs coming out of the early klezmer music, and I wanted to hear what it sounded like,” Muchin says.
He attended a few klezmer concerts, including one by the Klezmatics, the band he credits with “modernizing klezmer music and bringing it into the 20th century. It was the first time Jewish music really spoke to me, and I became hooked.”
As Muchin was wrapping up his Jewish journalism career, he was looking for a new area of interest — it became Jewish music radio. He obtained a foundation grant to produce a Jewish radio show in Milwaukee, which ran for two years.
Then he pivoted to cultural programming with the Goldring-Waldenburg Institute for Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss., and was motivated to get on the radio again. He hooked up with Mississippi Public Broadcasting. “They decided to take a chance on me.”
That chance grew into what is now a 12-year weekly run of Sunday radio, each program devoted to a different theme showcased through Jewish music.
Muchin’s weekly themes are driven by the Jewish and secular calendar, current events and the seasons of the year.
Recent themes have included solo performances, duos, trios, summertime, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Fourth of July, weddings, and anthems of protest, solidarity and hope from around the Jewish world in the aftermath of the recent controversial and polarizing Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
“I try not to be overtly political,” says Muchin, “but I try to show that the Jewish community has dealt with social and political issues over the centuries. It’s reflected in our music.”
Each one-hour episode of “Sounds Jewish” is comprised of an eclectic mix of Jewish music from klezmer to hip-hop to indie rock curated to fit the theme of the day.
For example, the Father’s Day episode included “Oh My Papa,” a Jewish song by non-Jewish artist Connie Francis, “Abba,” a song by Israeli singer-songwriter Gaba Allon and a satirical Yiddish folk song, among others.
Earlier in the spring of this year, in a show of solidarity with Ukraine during the Russian invasion of that country, “Sounds Jewish” featured Jewish music from Ukraine as well as Jewish music with distinctive Ukrainian roots.
During the week of Veteran’s Day, Muchin presented Jewish music that honors those who have served and sometimes have given their lives in service to their country.
It’s not just music. Muchin often includes comedy routines by Jewish comedians, a genre of record albums that was popular in the 1950s and ‘60s. Think summertime, summer camp and Alan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” Mel Brooks’ and Carl Reiner’s “2,000 Year Old Man” is also a favorite.
Each song or performance on the show is preceded by an introduction by Muchin in his soothing, well-modulated, made-for-public-radio voice, and imparting his vast knowledge of Jewish music and musicians.
The music on the show comes from Muchin’s extensive collection of record albums, CDs and songs he downloads from iTunes.
“I collect Jewish records. I have about 1,200 33 RPM LP albums and hundreds of CDs.
“I also have a number of old 78 RPM records. I’ve spent a lot of time in used record stores, and I also shop online for records. There are things available just as downloads,” Muchin explains.
Muchin researches the genres and music selections for each broadcast.
“I always make sure I have lyrics or translations for songs I play. It’s important to know what the songs are about, but not necessarily word-for-word.
“And I like to find the background of the musicians or understand historically where a record may fit because there was a North American Jewish music subculture throughout much of the 20th century that’s fun to learn about and fun to share information about.”
Muchin has a broad definition of “Jewish music” when it comes to his song selection, beyond Jewish artists.
“It’s more music that expresses a Jewish theme. For instance, that allows me to play non-Jewish musicians who may do a Jewish song.”
He cites Connie Francis, Perry Como and Johnny Mathis as examples of artists who included Jewish music in their repertoires.
“It can also be almost anything that comes out of Israel since that’s the Jewish state.”
Muchin also plays cantorial music, “more around the holidays.” A recent show featuring solo performances included a cantor’s piece from 1907. “He’s backed by a choir, but it’s mostly just the cantor singing a capella.”
Muchin now produces “Sounds Jewish” from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. He spends five to eight hours producing each show, including the time to choose the themes and music to organizing the show, writing the script and recording the narration. His “studio” is actually a walk-in closet, the walls lined with pillows for sound mitigation.
Muchin’s does not get paid for “Sounds Jewish.” It’s a labor of love, and he’s grateful to Mississippi Public Broadcasting for carrying the show for the past 12 years, especially considering that Mississippi is not a state with a large Jewish population.
Listenership extends far beyond Mississippi, thanks to the internet.
“Sounds Jewish” can be heard on Sundays, 2 p.m. Mountain Time on MPB Music Radio and its livestream.
One also can hear “Sounds Jewish” on Radio-J.com on Sundays and Mondays at noon and 6 p.m. Mountain Time.
Archived programs are at the PRX radio exchange.
Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News