Howdy! New release, 'The Triumph of Assimilation," coming out June 1st
"There's Jews in Oklahoma?" Yup. It's BBQ, not Bagels. And we're not a punchline.
Yikhes (yiddish for "my lineage, my story")
Oklahoma-born, Texas-reared, and now living in New Orleans, multi-instrumentalist Mark Rubin is an unabashed Southern Jew, known equally for his muscular musicianship and larger-than-life persona. Over an accomplished 30+ year career, he has accompanied or produced a virtual who’s-who of American traditional music, while straddling numerous musical genres, including Country, Western Swing, Bluegrass, Cajun, Tex-Mex, Polka, Klezmer, Roma, and more. He is perhaps best known for co-founding the notorious proto-Americana band Bad Livers, though his more recent work as a first call tuba and bass player in the klezmer music scene has now earned him equivalent notoriety.
His credits in the Jewish music world include long time collaborations with Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, The Other Europeans, and Andy Statman, as well as two decades on faculty at KlezKamp. He has been featured performer and instructor with multiple appearances at Yiddish Summer Weimar, KlezFest London, KlezMore Vienna, Klezmer Festival Furth, Festival of Jewish Culture Krakow among others. Jew of Oklahoma debuted as a special feature at Toronto's Ashkenaz Festival in 2016.
Today, he lives and works as a professional musician in New Orleans and makes a study of the musical traditions and cultures of South Louisiana.
Here's his Wiki page for more:
"Mark is simply one of my very favorite all around fantastic and authentic real folk musicians!" - Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records
“Everything Mark Rubin does is done with no compromise. He is fearless, fearsome, and most of all, completely musical!” - Gurf Morlix
“Mark Rubin’s songwriting silences the superficial chatter, revealing myriad stories that tell just as much about his community as his role within it in the 21st century,” - Dom Flemmons
NEW ORLEANS — Like every good Jew, Mark Rubin looks for the humor in any situation he can. But he’s tired of being treated as an outsider in his own country, where his skin protects him from indignities non-whites suffer, but his DNA still marks him for hate. And he’s tired of not being taken seriously by people (including fellow Jews) who can’t fathom how the south-meets-west state of Oklahoma could spawn any Jews, much less a bluegrass and old-time country-loving tuba and standup-bass virtuoso. Especially one known for melding acoustic roots music and hardcore punk in the influential ‘90s band Bad Livers, playing polkas in dancehalls and honky-tonks across Texas with top Czech and Polish bands, and merging Klezmer and Romani music in the Other Europeans. So he’s drawing a line in the sand — or at least, the bayous surrounding New Orleans, his current home. Rubin says The Triumph of Assimilation, releasing June 1 on his namesake Rubinchik Records, is meant to serve notice that conversations addressing discrimination and inclusion should involve Jews, too.
“I just want a place at the table with other disenfranchised groups now getting their voices heard,” he explains. “I'm hoping that this record can help create a safe place for American Jewish people to be Jewish, to be American, to be Southern — and not have to explain themselves.” Rubin, who’s built a solo show and Internet presence as “Jew of Oklahoma,” began to embrace his cultural identity more fully over 20 years ago. With Bad Livers about to break up, Rubin told a prominent bluegrass bandleader that he was planning a move from Austin, Texas, where the band had been based, to Nashville. The bandleader pointed out that Nashville already had a Jewish bass player. (Apparently, one was plenty for a town in which, Rubin was told, bassists get hired in church parking lots.)
“I've always thought of myself as a cross between Harlan Howard and Mordecai Gebirtig,” says Rubin, referencing the prolific Nashville songwriter and the beloved Polish poet who inspired two songs on the album.
But despite feeling more comfortable playing songs like Webb Pierce’s 1950s hit, “There Stands the Glass,” than he is playing Yiddish dance tunes, and despite the fact that he’d been performing bluegrass and traditional country professionally since joining Dallas band Killbilly at 19, Rubin got the message: He may have helped to build the house, but he wasn’t welcome to live in it.
So he headed where he knew he was welcome — musicologist and Klezmer revivalist Henry Sapoznik’s KlezKamp. Sapoznik first lured Rubin to the annual Yiddish folk arts gathering — held, of course, in New York’s Catskills — in 1993. By 1995, Rubin was teaching sessions. But faced with embracing a community that didn’t want him or one he wasn’t completely in tune with meant choosing the least uncomfortable situation, not the preferred one.
Never again, Rubin vows.
“With The Triumph of Assimilation,” he declares, “I'm carvin’ out the place where I'm going to be comfortable. Playin’ this music is my goddamned birthright.”
“This music” is a remarkably broad collection of folk songs through which Rubin inventively addresses historical events, delivers pointed commentary, charms with slice-of-life humor (and biting sarcasm) and even offers a kid-worthy sing-along tribute to Shabbes and a dreidel-spinning Chanukah song. And smack in the middle, he plays a superb three-part suite featuring the one instrument absolutely no one expects to hear on an album of Jewish music: five-string clawhammer banjo. “It's an instrument of my tradition, and Yiddish culture is also my tradition, so for me, at least, I don't see why not,” Rubin writes in a preview note about the track. “I have no interest in clawhammer banjo entering the Yiddish space. But how lovely would it be if Jewish banjo players would be able to pick out a few numbers from their own tradition, eh? What, would it kill you?” (Invoke your favorite Jewish grandmother’s voice when reading that last part.)
Grammy-winning old-time banjo (etc.) player and Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Dom Flemons praises The Triumph of Assimilation, calling it “a raw and unflinching portrait of Jewish life in the American South.”
“Mark Rubin’s songwriting silences the superficial chatter, revealing myriad stories that tell just as much about his community as his role within it in the 21st century,” Flemons observes, adding, “This is an American story everyone should be able to appreciate.” It starts with “A Day of Revenge,” based on a Gebirtig poem smuggled to safety while its author remained interned in a Krakow village. What begins as a cheery-sounding ode to retribution eventually recommends peace and love as the ultimate payback for inflicted suffering. For “It’s Burning,” Rubin “trans-adapts” another Gebirtig poem, “Es Brent,” written after the bloody 1936 pogrom in the Polish shtetl of Pryztyk. Over a hammer-on-metal chain-gang rhythm, Rubin sings, There ain’t no rain, there ain’t no flood/We’ll quench these flames with our blood. Conveying a seemingly prescient message from a man who suffered the very fate he warned against, Rubin’s vocal and banjo delivery suggest he’s also communing with Pete Seeger’s spirit.
Another poet’s response to a tragedy inspired Rubin to record “My Resting Place.” Polish émigré Morris Rosenfeld’s Yiddish original, “Mayn Rue Platz,” gave voice to victims of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The writer often used his pen to address conditions Eastern European immigrants endured in New York’s slums and sweatshops; Rubin’s musical remembrance features his “oldest and dearest friend,” Bad Livers co-founder Danny Barnes, on banjo.
Along with “Unnatural Disasters,” by singer-songwriter and longtime civil-rights activist Si Kahn, these songs provide the “context wrapped in context” Rubin says he builds into all of his work.
“Whether it's obvious or not, it's obvious to me, and hopefully to somebody else,” says Rubin. Actually, he wouldn’t mind reaching the estimated worldwide population of 17.5 million Jewish somebody elses, or even a fraction of the estimated 7 million plus in the U.S.
But there’s no need to search for deeper meanings in Kahn’s song; sarcasm gushes like spilled oil from this Tom Lehrer-like litany of events for which Jews allegedly deserve blame. Using mandolin and piano to lay a cool little honky-tonk groove, Rubin jauntily repeats the catchy chorus, It’s the Jews, it’s always the Jews/We caused global warming, we give you the blues/Wherever we go, we’re always bad news/Whatever goes wrong, it’s always the Jews.
Rubin drops the skewer but keeps the laughs in “Down South Kosher (A Dance of Hunger & Reconciliation),” about the challenges of keeping kosher in a region where nearly every dish contains pig products or shellfish. The tuba-embellished melody comes from “Dance of Anger and Reconciliation,” a Yiddish wedding dance performed by the couple’s respective mothers-in-law. Rubin quotes his late father verbatim in the line, The church picnic may be the only meal/so they ain’t pork chops; let’s call it pink veal. Rubin’s Austin-based rabbi, Neil Blumofe, sings along on the banjo-plucked Hebrew prayer, “Avinu Malkeinu” — which precedes what may be the liveliest “Spin the Dreidel” version ever, thanks to the Panorama Jazz Band of New Orleans.
As for “The Murder of Leo Frank,” Rubin says he contemplated writing it for 20 years before finally bringing Frank’s tragic story to life as a classic murder ballad. Frank, a Georgia factory superintendent, was wrongfully convicted and eventually lynched for the murder of 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan — despite evidence pointing to another killer. Rubin wants to set the record straight about Frank’s status as a second murder victim, while reminding Jews to watch out for the virulent anti-Semitism that caused it.
Rubin laments that too many Jews remain unaware of Frank’s story — much less the role of popular folk-music figure Fiddlin’ John Carson, whose songs helped fan the flames of public sentiment against Frank.
Unfortunately, Rubin experienced and witnessed many instances of anti-Semitism growing up in Oklahoma, from a cross-burning in his family’s yard and bricks tossed through his windows on Hitler’s birthday to denial of access to the community swimming pool – not to mention the cops’ consistent harassment and humiliation of his father.
“What is it about being Jewish that makes me less American?” Rubin wonders. He hopes The Triumph of Assimilation might clue at least a few more people in to the correct answer, which is (or should be) “Nothing.”
Mark Rubin: Jew of Oklahoma
Since he began playing the tuba in eighth grade, Mark Rubin’s passion for exploring all forms of musical expression has never waned. That curiosity guided him toward renowned Tejano/conjunto accordionist Santiago Jimenez Jr., with whom Rubin played bass for decades. Jimenez earned a Grammy nomination for the first of three albums he recorded in a label deal Rubin arranged. Rubin also worked with Texas-Polish dance band leader Brian Marshall & his Tex-Slavic Playboys, Texas Czech Polka band Mark Halata & Texavia, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, and Klezmer and bluegrass talent Andy Statman. He’s also performed and recorded Klezmer and Romani music in the Other Europeans (“I’m, like, incredibly well known in Moldova,” he says, laughing, though it’s probably true). An integral part of the Yiddish cultural renaissance, Rubin has taught KlezKamp seminars in several countries. In 2016, he debuted his “Jew of Oklahoma” show, which he describes as “songs of social justice and Southern Jewish Americana.” Once a week, he holds “Office Hours” on Facebook, dispensing advice, information and street wisdom from his New Orleans home.
"Mark Rubin is a legend from back in the alt country days, known for his pioneering work in the 90s with his band The Bad Livers in Austin. While he’s never left behind his earlier punk bonafides, his new work in recent years, billed as Mark Rubin - Jew of Oklahoma, has been more focused on the complexity of his identity as a Jewish person of Southern descent. With his new album, The Triumph of Assimilation, he masterfully melds old-school roots music with Yiddish protest songs and brutally acerbic ruminations on the long history of American anti-semitism." - Devon Leger, Folk Alley
"If an Okie Jew had a banjo and set his latest tune to a field-song arrangement, he’d very likely wind up with something like “It’s Burning"...It’s not what one might expect from a Jewish dude. But that’s the point of the track and the Triumph of Assimilation as whole." - Kristopher Weiss, Soundbites
"To live in New Orleans is to master the art of juggling.
On the one hand, that’s a great thing. Residents fighting to keep various food traditions from hitting the floor lead to the city’s famously blended culinary culture. On the other, you have a locale with terrible transit and neighborhoods that will flood if the faucet’s left on. You take the good with the bad, the bowling pins with the chainsaws, and you do your best to not make a mess of it.
With that said, it’s not surprising that Mark Rubin ended up here. It’s actually a wonder he didn’t land here sooner. The member of defunct folk-punk icons the Bad Livers is both outspokenly Southern and proudly Jewish. He’s been juggling all his life, y’all.
On his sparse new collection of tunes, Rubin doesn’t mind letting you see him sweat as he struggles to keep both sides of his identity balanced. The cuts are rough—often the first take—but Mark’s skilled playing and Catskills wit keep the whole enterprise aloft as he cycles between stories of cultural appropriation (“Royal Street Shuffle”), the War on Drugs (“Single Joint”) and parking lot fights (“Ballpeen Clawhammer”)." - Alex Galbreith, Offbeat Magazine, New Orleans LA 2/28/2018
"Mark Rubin has created a masterpiece of American dark humor and grief. A bucket of personal history thrown into the wagons, mixed with the southern subterranean gravy of love and loathing. Since leaving Austin for New Orleans he has somehow managed to position himself as the Godzilla of Gypsy Juke N' Tuba Two-Step." -Kevin Russel (shinyribs)
“With Passover beginning tomorrow night, I can't think of a better time to listen to Mark Rubin's fabulous "The Dark Side Has Doughnuts" over and over and over again, along with all the other songs on his really remarkable (and often very funny) new album, "Songs for the Hangman's Daughter." It's the best singer-songwriter album I've heard in a very long time.”
- Michael Wex NYT Best Selling author
"The best way to be faithful to musical traditions is very rarely to go for the slavish copy. Slavish is never a good look. It invariably sounds like what it is, a copy of something. For my money, the artists who come closest to capturing what I love about old music are not the ones who have worked for years to get every note just right, to sound exactly like their examples, but the ones who seem to have an instinctive grasp of the energy of the music, of it’s heart, of what makes it special; those who have the ability to channel that understanding into the music they make. You can include Mark Rubin’s work in that category" - Lyons Recorder, Lyons CO, 2010
Sights & Sounds
9/15/2020, New Orleans, LA
"Key Chain Blues" from Southern Discomfort
December 26 2011, Austin TX
Belorussian Jewish Old Time Tunes
October 30 2017 w/ Craig Judelman, fiddle. Blackpot Festival, Lafayette LA
"Whitey's on the Moon" from Southern Discomfort
April 2009, The Kennedy Center, Washington DC