The first time I heard Chaim Tannenbaum’s extraordinary singing was on Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s album The McGarrigle Hour, which was recorded at a gathering of friends and family in 1998. In particular, I was struck by the poignancy and luminance of Tannenbaum’s vocals on the traditional song, Dig my Grave. I thought, “Who is this guy?!”
This Montreal-born multi-instrumentalist, singer and producer has spent more than 50 years on the musical scene, contributing to over 20 albums. Yet, he has never released an album of his own – until now at the age of 68 years old. Chaim Tannenbaum’s long-awaited first self-titled album comes out on May 27, and he will be performing in Montreal on June 9 at Upstairs Jazz Bar.
Tannenbaum has been a longtime collaborator of close friends Anna and Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright since the 1960s. He has graciously devoted his talent, wisdom and support to the careers of other musicians.
Grammy award-winning folk musician Loudon Wainwright writes, “Maybe it’s because, due to ambivalence, fear, mathematical philosophy, or sheer stubbornness, he’s managed to not have a career in the music business, thus avoiding all the wear and tear that goes with that territory. I have never in my life come across a less ambitious, yet more talented singer, player, and songwriter than Chaim.”
In his defense, Tannenbaum was also busy teaching philosophy at Dawson College in Montreal for 40 years, and music was more of a sideline. Now retired from teaching, Chaim is living in New York City.
Tannenbaum explains, “I was leading a very agreeable life teaching here in Montreal at Dawson and playing both with Kate and Anna, and with Loudon Wainwright. The desire to make an album never occurred to me of my own with any force. But I retired from teaching two years ago and moved to New York where there’s a bit more time.”
For years, Tannenbaum has been urged by his friends and collaborators to record a solo album. He says, “When people used to say, ‘Why don’t you make an album of your own?’, it’s as if they had said, ‘Why don’t you become a manufacturer of auto parts, or why don’t you become a bishop, why don’t you join the military?’ No, I’m fine thank you. I’m having a nice time doing what I’m doing.”
Tannenbaum reinforces his point, “It’s really is because I had no shortage of a musical life. I enjoyed it a very great deal.”
Thanks to the good timing and determination of longtime friend and producer, Dick Connette, it’s now Tannenbaum’s turn to shine. “When he said, ‘Do you want to make a record?’, I just got fed up with hearing myself say, ‘No’. So I thought I’d try the other answer and see what happened,” says Tannenbaum.
Tannenbaum explains that the album is in fact a close collaboration with Dick Connette, whom he met 10 years ago when they worked closely together on Loudon Wainwright’s Grammy-winning album, High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.
Other collaborators include, Loudon Wainwright, who sings on three tracks, and good friend David Mansfield, who was in Bob Dylan’s band for years. “Everyone who makes a record who doesn’t have Dave in his band is making a mistake. He’s wonderful,” gushes Tannenbaum.
The self -titled album is a combination of old traditionals and original songs, all linked through their common theme of despair, hopeless longing, exiles and wanderers. Tannenbaum explains, “The material was chosen in the end on some flimsy idea Dick and I had of what hung together. And I hope we succeeded. I think there’s a kind of longing theme that runs through the record.”
“Who would have known that I have a gloomy side. I think of myself as pretty cheerful,” ponders Tannenbaum. “The sad songs are always the ones I love the most. I don’t think there’s a happy ending anywhere on this album.”
Tannebaum’s original song, Brooklyn 1955 is about baseball (The Yankees) and longing for a vanished world: “it’s just broken-glass gutters and boarded-up storefronts”. The protagonist will never feel at home again. It’s inescapable and there is no solution.
Similarly, Ain’t no more Cane on the Brazos is a traditional prison work song of the American south. The prisoners are sentenced to cutting sugar cane along the banks of the Brazos River in Texas. Their predicament is irreversible: “If I had a sentence like 99 years, all the dogs on the Brazos wouldn’t keep me here”
The gospel songs, Farther Along and Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit, speak of a hard and unjust world, where the afterlife is the only promise of happiness. “Longing for things that you can’t get back, or the past for instance: it’s gone. Or for immortality: that’s the gospel theme, and you’re not going to get it,” says Tannenbaum who is ironically drawn to gospel music precisely because he does not believe in an afterlife.
Tannenbaum’s original song, London, Longing for Home addresses grief, despair and longing for an ideal world from which he has been exiled. Moonshiner also expresses deep despair, where the protagonist’s only home is a drink at the tavern. Love (“all you fine young women, never brought me joy”) and wealth (“If I had some money I’d piss it all away”) nor the after-life (“Give me religion when I’m dead”) can redeem him.
Kate McGarrigle, who tragically passed away six years ago, was a life-long friend of Tannenbaum’s. She wrote the song, (Talk to me of) Mendocino about the loss of home and the longing and search for a new one, “Must I wait? Must I follow? Won’t you say ‘Come with me’?”
Chaim Tannenbaum and Rufus Wainwright singing (Talk to me of) Mendocino:
Tannenbaum highlights, “I want to emphasize this, I’m not this man! But, I like the sad songs.”
Paradoxically to the rest of the songs on the album, Coal Man Blues has a lightness to it. Despite his troubles, the protagonist is cheerful and optimistic.
The last song of the album, Paddy Doyle, is an a cappella rendition of the traditional sea shanty, which is a work song used by sailors to coordinate shipboard tasks. Tannenbaum and Loudon Wainwright joyfully sing and shout, rejecting all the despair of all the previous songs of the album.
So what’s next for Tannenbaum?
“I hope to retire into a dignified decline, in silence. I don’t have any plans.”
Chaim Tannenbaum releases his self-titled album on May 27, 2016. He performs at Upstairs Bar and Grill (1254 Rue Mackay, Montréal, QC H3G 2H4) on June 9 at 8:30 pm. Tickets $15. Show information here.
Annie Webb writes the blog, The Spaced-Out Scientist