Tzena composer remembers Pete Seeger

Tzena composer remembers Pete Seeger

The week after Pete Seeger died seemed an appropriate time to visit a longtime colleague of his. Issachar Miron, whose daughter, Ruth Miron-Schleider, lives in Englewood, now has an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Mr. Miron was born in Poland but he was in Palestine when he wrote the music that made him famous in his youth and a friend to Seeger for many years after.

That was the music for the song Tzena.

Mr. Miron likes to tell the story of how he and Mr. Seeger met.

Issachar Miron in his Manhattan apartment.

Tzena had risen to the top of the Billboard charts when it was recorded by Mr. Seeger’s group, the Weavers; other groups recorded the popular tune as well. (It was introduced to the world as the flip side of the 45 “Goodnight Irene.”)

Mr. Miron had come to New York at his music publisher’s request in 1950. He was there to fight for the royalties due him; the Weavers’ record company used a complicated mechanism to cheat him.

The legal battle that followed ultimately awarded him ownership of two-thirds of the song. (The other third went to an American composer, Julius Grossman.) And it launched a third stage in his life: He settled permanently in New York City, writing music, teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and working for Jewish organizations, including the United Jewish Appeal and the American-Israel Cultural Foundation.

If proving ownership of Tzena was acrimonious – the topic occupied Israeli courtrooms as well – the meeting with Mr. Seeger, as Mr. Miron recalls it, was anything but.

“I heard that at the Village Gate, a little club in Greenwich Village, there was a singer singing Tzena every night,” he said.

“So I went to the Village and I saw Pete Seeger. I went up to him and he embraced me and I thanked him for taking my little song and making it popular in New York. He smiled and he said, ‘And I thank Issachar Maron for catapulting me and the Weavers to the top.’

“Afterward, we were in touch over the years. He was coming to me quite regularly to say hello, to sing together, to speak,” Mr. Miron said.

Recently, Mr. Miron earned a share of a Grammy for his role in Pete Seeger’s 2008 album, “At 89.”

Mr. Seeger added Arabic lyrics to the song for the album, written by a friend of Mr. Miron’s in Haifa.

That version also had its Hebrew lyrics modified to more closely match the English words: “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, / Can’t you hear the music playing / In the city square? / Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, / Come where all our friends will find us / With the dancers there.”

It had been more than half a century, after all, since Mr. Seeger had served in the U.S. Army and written songs attacking Hitler and supporting the war effort; he had long since assumed the role of peacenik. But the origins of Tzena, both words and music, were strictly in the military. They came from that odd moment of Jewish military history where Hebrew-speaking Jewish soldiers were organized in their own companies, regiments, and ultimately a brigade under British command.

Mr. Miron was 20 when he wrote the song. He had come to British-ruled Palestine not long earlier and joined a kibbutz before enlisting with the British army.

In Poland, his family name had been Michrovsky. He was from the central Polish town of Kutno, whose most famous resident was the Yiddish author Sholem Asch. (Mr. Asch’s son, Moses, started the Folkways Record company, which recorded Mr. Seeger back in 1943 and went on to release many of his records.)

Mr. Miron’s father was a violinist; his mother, who died when he was 7, was a pianist.

The elder Mr. Miron had been ordained as a rabbi and then went to university to learn the violin. “It was a sin in those days,” said his son. When he discovered that music could not earn him a living it was too late to return to the rabbinate, but he found success in business.

Issachar, born in 1920, learned both Judaism and music from his rabbi/musician father, His prime instrument was the piano, although he could also play French horn and other instruments. He was a member of Beitar, the Zionist youth movement, and as Polish anti-Semitism gathered strength he saw it was time to leave.

“I realized that there is no future for the Jews in Europe any longer,” Mr. Miron recalled. “My father said ‘You are probably right, but we are already 780 years in Poland and there were good times, very good times, and also very bad times, and we will survive.’

“But he said ‘If you are so eager to go to Israel I’ll give you my blessing.’ So I left, and unfortunately I was the only survivor of my entire family.”

Serving in a Hebrew-speaking company of the British Army in Palestine, Mr. Miron composed a company anthem and the regimental song, as well as a few others. Eliezer Lubrani, who headed the Hebrew section of the British-controlled Palestine Broadcasting Service, heard the company singing the songs in Hebrew and tracked down Mr. Miron. The result was a radio show “dedicated to the wonder that a soldier wrote these several songs that caught on,” as Mr. Miron recalled it.

A couple of months after the show aired, Mr. Miron received a letter from Yehiel Haggiz, who introduced himself as a Jewish soldier now serving with his Palestinian company in Tripoli. He had heard of Mr. Miron’s musical talents, and sent him a poem to be set to music.

The song began “Tzena, tzena – go out, go out, daughters, and see the soldiers in the village.” As written by Mr. Haggiz, it had four verses.

Like Mr. Miron, Mr. Haggiz was the son of a rabbi, so the core of the song could have come from the classic Yiddish Torah explanation for women, “Tzena Urena,” or from the verse in Song of Songs that gave the book its title: “Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon king Solomon.”

In any event, it was a call by the male soldiers to the girls of the village, telling them: “Don’t be shy.” No wonder it caught on in the army.

Mr. Miron came up with the melody, and he doubled the repetition of the word “tzena.”

“I wanted that the entire company would sing it, so I wrote it as a round,” he said. “And amazingly, the entire camp sang it. Everybody. The Palestinian Israelis. The Australians. The English. Everybody.

“Since they didn’t know Hebrew, they sang ‘Tzena tzena tzena tzena tzena tzena tzena tzena,'” he said, singing as he told the story.

“The song became so immensely popular that the entire country started to sing it,” he said. “This was the beginning.”

Mr. Haggiz and Mr. Miron wrote 200 songs together.

“Sadly, he died young. He was the best friend and creative partner I ever had,” Mr. Miron said.

Not long after his service in the British Army, Mr. Miron served in the new Israeli Army as chief educational and cultural officer. He organized musical events “in a way that little Israel hadn’t known – and the whole nation sang.”

In Palestine and young Israel, songwriters were deliberately creating the soundtrack for a new culture in a newly spoken language.

Were the new Hebrew songs new? Or were they “of the folk”? Mr. Miron learned one of the ironies of folk music the hard way.

He was in a synagogue in New York when he saw that a song he had written – “Mah yafeh hayom, Shabbat shalom” – was accredited as traditional.

“From Sinai,” he said.

He knew better. He had written it.

He tracked down the publisher, and said: “I’m very grateful that you’ve published my song, but it’s my song, duly copyright by Mills Music.”

“They asked forgiveness and fixed the records and gave me some money,” he said.

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