Born Martha Haftel in Wien in 1923 (though she knocked two years off her age officially), she escaped from Hitler’s Austria in 1938 via Strasbourg to England, only to be interned in 1939 on the Isle of Man, where German and Austrian citizens, both Jews and Nazis, were lumped together as “enemy aliens.” Inspired by the Icelandic singer Engel Lund, she began performing international repertoire early, and never stopped. Keeping the last name of her first husband, Hans Schlamme, she later married attorney Mark Lane (Lee Harvey Oswald’s posthumous defender), but lived most of her life amicably divorced. One of her several one-woman shows which com-bined laughter and tears inextricably woven together was called “A Woman Without a Man Is…”
Her first recordings, where she sang only in Hebrew, were made in the late ’40s and early ’50s, first on 78 RPM, then on LP, with the great Israeli composer/songwriter/pianist Nachum Nardi and his wife, the Yemenite singer Bracha Zfira, on the Hebraica, Reena, and Columbia labels. Then came Israeli folk dances recorded with baritone Mort Freeman and conductor Elyakum issued by Folkraft, the Israel Music Foundation, and finally Vanguard. In 1950 Tikva issued an LP with her accompanied by flute and piano in 13 “Jewish popular folk songs” – all in Yiddish.
Vanguard first recorded her in 1954, singing 17 French Christmas songs, with the chorale “Les Chardonnerets de Nancy” along with a vocal ensemble, harp, and harpsichord. The same year she made that famous German folksong recording with the best folk expert she could find, Pete Seeger. Though she not infrequently ran into difficulties with post-war audiences who identified those songs with the Hitlerjugend, which had also sung them, she would usually win listeners over by saying that she refused to allow the Nazis sole domain over a part of her culture she remembered from her childhood with fondness.
In the late 1950s she made an MGM recording of “Favorite Yiddish Songs” with orchestra conducted by Samuel Matlovsky (the music director of the famous Theatre de Lys Threepenny Opera production) and three Vanguard LPs of Jewish (i.e. Yiddish) folk songs with orchestra conducted by Robert DeCormier in his own arrangements, in part based on piano arrangements by Martha’s composer/pianist friend Tamara Bliss. “Raisins and Almonds” was the last of the three; all deserve to be reissued. Her enthusiasm and nostalgia without sentimentality were a model for three generations of students, fans and followers, and a new generation deserves to experience her art. Noone I know can hear her “Mesinke” without a smile or her “Oy, Dortn, Dortn” without a tear. On the present recording, the way her “Rebbe Elimelech” chants Havdalah, and the swift, confident tempo she takes in “Dona Dona” are particularly memorable.
But there is much more to the Martha Schlamme legacy. Featured at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival (on Vanguard, vol. 1), she later made several live appearances which were recorded – at Town Hall (where I first saw her in 1961, at a Jewish Currents concert she shared with Morris Carnovsky displaying an energy and verve I’ll never forget as long as I live), at the Gate of Horn, and elsewhere, including a few Negro spirituals and works in 12 languages among her “Songs of Many Lands.” She worked with and inspired composer/pianist William Bolcom and his wife, the singer Joan Morris, and marvelous accompanists like Harry Huff and Steven Blier. Helene Williams and I have dedicated portions of our show “The Jewish Woman in Song” to her memory.
I had the privilege of meeting her in 1981 after Jewish Currents printed an article on my feminist anti-war Chanukah opera, Hannah, and its premiere at a U.S. military theater in Heidelberg. She called me up and wanted to know all about it. (It relates to a little-known aspect of the Chanukah story not touched on in the otherwise fascinating and commendable articles on the holiday by Frederick R. Lachman in the last two issues of Aufbau.) We ended up travelling together to the world premiere of the musical I wrote with Barbara Tumarkin Dunham, Growing Up Woman, at Glassboro State College, where she managed to be both immensely (and justifiably) critical and supportive. (The work has since been revised, presented in Berlin, and is in preparation for a New York production.)
She is perhaps best of all remembered for her Kurt Weill Cabaret which she began off-Broadway as “The World of Kurt Weill” with Will Holt, and continued for close to two decades with Alvin Epstein, singing Weill’s settings of American English, French, and German, often in translation by Marc Blitzstein or Michael Feingold. (MGM issued two recordings of her with Holt, but her work with Epstein was recorded only privately.) Her other shows with Epstein included “Whores, Wars and Tin Pan Alley” and “Schlamme & Epstein sing Bernstein and Blitzstein” – for which I had the honor of acting as one of their advisors and providing some material. She also staged numbers from my translation of the Brecht-Eisler Die Rundkoepfe und die Spitzkoepfe with her students at Aspen in 1981.
Her voice was heard on the 1964 soundtrack for the movie of Threepenny Opera which starred Sammy Davis, Jr. Her Broadway debut came as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof in 1968; she also appeared in straight plays of Gorky and others off-Broadway and at Long Wharf Theater.
Her obituary announcement – “There are no survivors” – was disputed by her many friends and colleagues, especially Sue Renee Bernstein and Belle Linda Halpern, who produced a beautiful threehour tribute to her, aired on WBAI in 1987, and well worth repeated listenings. Speakers at her November 26, 1985 memorial at Circle in the Square included Holt, Epstein, Brecht translator Eric Bentley, composer Elie Siegmeister, and others. A Martha Schlamme Scholarship was established at Circle in the Square, where she had taught, “so that such dedication to excellence as that which Ms. Schlamme inspired may continue for generations of artists to come.”
It is fitting that Omega should be the company to begin re-releasing her work now. This is the same company that two years ago released “The Odyssey of Paul Robeson,” an artist Martha admired intensely, and with whom she was proud to have appeared. So proud, in fact, that she refused to denounce him even when an immigration officer hinted that that might be the price she would have to pay in order to obtain the U.S. citizenship for which she had applied. During apartheid, she also refused to sing in South Africa. And she refused to believe in anything but triumph over adversity. Her own life was, in many ways, just that. And though she regretted having had no children of her own, she realized that we who learned from her, we were, and are, her children and her survivors.
Source: AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman