The Duhks: Moses Don't Get Lost
Crooked Still: Pharaoh
Passover begins tonight, and all around the world, Jewish families will gather with family and friends around the table to retell the story of the Israelites, their oppression, and their escape from the hands of Pharaoh's army into the vast and empty desert thanks to Moses, his brother Aaron, and the hand of God, who brought plagues from darkness to disease and death upon the Egyptian people in their attempt to persuade a slavemaster culture that their pyramids and comfort were not worth the wrath of a chosen people.
But modern Jews know well that how we retell that story is up to us: it is the engagement, and the resulting understanding that none of us are free until all chains are lifted from all peoples, which matters. As I wrote in a Passover songset over at Cover Lay Down several years ago,
The story of the Jews’ escape from slavery, and their emergence as a people, has much to offer as a modern parable of freedom. The seder meal is bittersweet, tinged with sorrow for those who had to die that others could be free. As a metaphor for struggle itself, it asks us to be aware that though freedom is paramount, violence is always a last, worst resort; patience and persistence go hand in hand.
The seder traditionally ends with a call to return to and remember the land of one’s ancestors, but in more and more households in this day and age, it’s the freedom to go or stay which is emphasized in the telling. Many modern haggadot frame the tale explicitly with calls to ongoing struggles for freedom throughout the world, and reminders that as long as one human remains enslaved, none of us are truly free. It’s a powerful message for children, and I’m proud to be able to share it with my own, and thus help plant the seed of human rights and social consciousness in yet another rising generation.
And when it comes to musical representation of that story, nothing beats the American folkways.
The early American black slave culture's adoption of the biblical story of the Israelites and their exodus as a parallel for their own story of oppression and potential release is well-documented; the gospel canon includes several such songs, and their echoes ring into civil rights movements here and abroad. Here, two modern takes on traditional tunes represent our journey to freedom: an appalachian fragment retuned by Tim O'Brien and subsequently recast by Arcadian folk band The Duhks, and a low, throbbing cello-driven newgrass revival of a Stanley Carter signature tune from New England based folk interpreters Crooked Still.