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Tangled ‘roots music’ makes new plant in Revenson’s first Jewish music CD

By Leon Cohen
of The Chronicle staff

February 11th, 2005

Milwaukee musician and music teacher Marc Revenson, a.k.a. Lil Rev, loves what is sometimes called “roots music.” This usually means American acoustic folk music, like that of the Appalachian Mountains or deep South.

But in making his latest recording, the ‘roots’ got all tangled, with American music mixing with Israeli and Yiddish songs he learned at area Jewish camps or from his grandparents.

The resulting plant is his seventh recording and his first Jewish music release, “I Can’t Keep the Past Behind Me,” a compilation of Israeli and Yiddish folk songs, plus a couple of songs of his own creation.

As Revenson put it in a recent telephone interview, “I like to describe [the new recording] as ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ meets ‘Oh Brother, Where art Thou?’” The latter is the 2000 film whose best-seller soundtrack recording revived interest in “American roots music.”

The two musical streams mix in Revenson’s arrangements. “Most of my instrumental skills are from American roots music: bluegrass, country, folk. When you filter Jewish music through that prism, you get something unique,” said Revenson, who received the 2004 best folksinger award from the Wisconsin Area Music Industry.

He takes Israeli folk songs like “Tzena Tzena” and “Simi Yadech”; and Yiddish songs like “Zhankoye” and “Oy Meyn Kepele”; and applies to them his own banjo, harmonica, acoustic guitar, plus mandolin and mountain dulcimer from Joseph Ruback and bass from Guy Florentini — with occasional flute from Rick Aaron and harmony voice from Cantor David Barash of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun.

The results often sound “totally right” and “like it was meant to be,” he said. “I am discovering that tunes I have fallen in love with and taken for granted sound unique and refreshing when played this way.”

He also strove to keep the arrangements and sound “as simple as possible,” he said. “These songs are incredibly soulful and foot-tappers and dance tunes. They deserve to be able to stand on their own.”

He quoted one of his idols, the great folk singer and composer Woody Guthrie, as having said, “Any darn fool can get complex, but it takes a genius to attain simplicity.”

The recording also includes one story, “Something from Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman — read by Milwaukee Jewish Day School co-director and Jewish studies principal Rabbi Philip Nadel — which inspired Revenson to compose a song of the same name.

Revenson will perform some of these songs in a concert on Sunday, Feb. 20, 7 p.m. at the Cedarburg Cultural Center. The concert will also include other music — folk, blues, Tin Pan Alley songs — plus “high energy string band music” with the ensemble Frogwater that he belongs to.

Revenson, a Milwaukee native, has been both a camper and counselor at camps run by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center; and he has taught at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School for five years.

He majored in education and minored in music at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has taught there. He plays six instruments, including mandolin, ukulele and recorder.

Tickets to the concert are $8 in advance, $10 at the door, $5 for students, and a with $1 discount for seniors and cultural center members. For more information, call 262-375-3676.