2: Jubilee - Land, Greed, & Grace in American Folk

May 27, 2008

Part of the genius of the Jewish tradition was that it allowed no segmentations between spiritual and secular. When the Hebrew slaves were freed from Egypt, Torah—the Guidance given to them—was all encompassing, from toilet habits to economic practices. This was the real world redefined.

The world whence the Hebrew slaves came had a particular definition of reality: in Egypt, the powerful—the Pharaoh—expropriated the labor and wealth of the masses of the poor. No rest for the weary, no time to recreate or worship—if you think theres time for that, then keep making the same quota of bricks and start collecting your own raw materials. This was the ethic of Pharaoh, a reality propped up by theological, political, and social convention. In contrast, the freed Hebrews would practice Sabbath rest, in explicit contrast to the way of Egypt.

So Sabbath rest was extrapolated into a great variety of economic practices: every seven years, debts were to be forgiven; every seven years, slaves were freed; every seven years, the land, too, was to rest, and lie fallow. Then—keenly aware of the manner in which greed creates social inequities—Torah stipulated that every seventh seven years was to be a Jubilee, a celebration in which the land sold in the intervening years would be restored to its original family. That is, the reality of Egypt would not be permitted to become the reality of Israel.

This desire to draw a different picture of reality lies at the root of much folk music. When Mike Seeger, well-known folk-music performer and musicologist was asked what fits under the moniker of American folk music, he replied, all the music that fits between the cracks. Not surprisingly, one often finds in this music between the cracks the longing for Sabbath and Jubilee—longings for rest for the weary working man; longings for land and shelter and sustenance to be shared; the hope that greed would be gobbled up by generosity. It is these sorts of cries coming from between the cracks—sometimes angry, sometimes hopeful—that we explore tonight.