Track of the Day: 'Kretchma'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Spurred by Megan’s new piece on the political dissent imbued in the song “Edelweiss,” a reader writes:

I had the privilege of interviewing Theodore Bikel [the actor and folk singer who played Captain von Trapp in the Broadway version of “The Sound of Music”] for a half hour last February. He still had a strong voice (and strong opinions) at age 90, sang and played the guitar beautifully, and seemed to be in possession of all of his faculties … I never would have guessed that he would be dead less than six months later.

He told me the story of how “Edelweiss” was written especially for him to take advantage of his folk-singing talents, and it was introduced into the show less than two weeks prior to its Broadway opening. (It’s such a crime that he wasn’t cast in the movie, especially since Christopher Plummer detested the song and wanted it cut.) I have a feeling Bikel would have approved of this characterization of the song, since he was a fierce champion for human rights and frequently sang as a form of social protest. He was jailed both for marching in Alabama with Dr. King while singing “We Shall Overcome” and for singing Yiddish and Russian songs in front of the then-Soviet Embassy to protest the USSR’s treatment of Jews. (Of course, he also played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Worf’s adopted father on Star Trek, the German officer who questions Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn at the end of The African Queen, and many many other roles.)

He told me the story of how one fan greeted him at the stage door saying “I love that song Edelweiss—of course I only know it in the original German.” I will never forget Bikel’s Yiddish-inflected facepalm as he told me that.

Here’s a rough recording of Bikel singing “Edelweiss” as an old man. Above is a more upbeat performance of him singing “Kretchma,” a boisterous Russian drinking song.

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