Dec. 7, 2020
Sheldon I. (Shelley) Posen (Apr. 12, 1946 – ) Folklorist, Singer, Songwriter, Museum Curator
By DAVID EISENSTADT
Shelley Posen is “keenly concerned about Jewish continuity and aware of the realities we face,” he told me in a recent phone conversation.
Posen has written two (of many) songs that reflect his concerns: Will The Children Light the Candles? from his CD, Menorah: Songs from a Jewish Life and The Chanukah and Christmas Song, about an interfaith household “because there are so many and some very close to me.” That one will be on his next recording Jacob Solomon, to be released post-COVID.
Thanks are due to friend Cynthia Nathanson, who introduced me to Posen, a versatile singer and multi-instrumentalist whose career includes researching, teaching, writing, composing and performing.
For the past decade, Posen has been writing “Jewish songs that sounded as if the Gershwins or Irving Berlin had written their music about Jewish life instead of about southern Black folks or Christmas, and weren’t afraid to use Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic.”
As he explains, his Jewish songs “aren’t religious enough for Orthodox Jews, are too religious for Israelis and some Europeans, aren’t Yiddish or ‘klezzy’ enough for klezmer lovers and have too much Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic in them, not to mention religion for secular and non-Jews. One of my songs, And We Sang Ha Lakhma Anya, I’m told, is sung around Pesach seder tables the world over. That’s tremendously satisfying.”
Born to Aaron and Bernice (Bidnowitz) Posen in Toronto, young Sheldon and the family reveled in music. “My Mum made singing part of everyday life and Jewish holidays,” he recalled.
He was a Beth Sholom Junior Congregation cantor while at Associated Hebrew Day School. He attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Mich., majoring in choir and operetta. He played ukulele and guitar, and learned to play the banjo, influenced by Pete Seeger.
Posen toured with the Hart House Glee Club and the University of Toronto Chorus, continuing to perform folk music at festivals and hootenannies. He was a regular at two iconic Toronto coffeehouses, the Riverboat and Fiddler’s Green folk club.
“My Dad was less supportive of my venturing into music as a career because he wanted me to follow him into orthodontics,” he said.
Posen pursued graduate studies in folklore in 1970 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he “absorbed the music of fishermen singing in their kitchens and of the Irish and country music entertainers in popular St. John’s nightspots.”
He became a founding member of the Newfoundland bluegrass band Crooked Stovepipe, and while writing his Master’s thesis in Toronto, “served as Director of Mariposa in the Schools in the pre-dawn of the Canadian children’s folk music boom.”
He received his doctorate in Folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, carrying out ethnographic research on Irish-Canadian singing traditions in Chapeau, Que. on Allumette Island, across the Ottawa River from Pembroke, Ont. Posen said he became involved in the burgeoning northern revival of southern American choral singing from The Sacred Harp, an early American hymn book. His thesis became a text book in 1988, Singing and Dancing and All Sorts of Fun.
Posen moved to Ottawa in 1983, formed the Ottawa Shape Note Chorus, and taught shape note (a musical notation to facilitate group singing) and harmony singing at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. He also directed Congregation Beth Sholom’s men’s choir.
He formed the vocal trio Finest Kind with Ann Downey and Ian Robb in 1990, and for the next 25 years, the group recorded seven CDs and performed in Canada, the U.S. and UK. Around the holiday season each year, they reunite to perform seasonal concerts in the National Capital Region, but for 2020. they will perform virtually.
Posen was curator of Canadian Folklife at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from 2001-2015; his wife Maxine Muska is assistant director of Ottawa’s Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
He has recorded five solo CDs covering various genres and styles. Others have sung his songs. One about the end of the Newfoundland fishery, No More Fish, No Fishermen, has been performed by folk legends Gordon Bok and Lou Killen, and was a favourite of Helen Schneyer. Eve Goldberg, Claudia Schmidt and Jane Voss recorded his Cole Porter-inspired song Having a Drink with Jane.
“I am not religious,” Posen reflects, “but I write many songs as if I were because I am intimate with and highly value Judaism’s beauty, fragility and resilience as a religion and as a culture. If Jews of whatever persuasion and non-Jews see themselves in my songs and find them entertaining and meaningful, then I’ve done my job.”
David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com and Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communications. He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.