Debbie Friedman compilation covers 3 decades of Jewish folk music

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Over the past 35 years singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman has become her own cottage industry. With the exception of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, no creator and performer of contemporary Jewish music is as well known, at least in this hemisphere. Friedman, who began as a skinny, long-haired kid in jeans with a guitar, has matured into something a bit more matronly — but still with the guitar. Her music has grown with the times, while retaining the folk-boom roots from which it sprang.

“Songs of the Spirit,” a new two-disc compilation on the Jewish Music Group label, traces this progression with 45 songs written between 1972 and 2003. It’s a lot of Friedman to take at one sitting, but is an interesting overview for her legions of fans. Others may use the “forward” button to pick and choose.

Some of the melodies are familiar parts of the Reform and Conservative liturgies, like Friedman’s setting of the “Mi Shebeirach” which has been incorporated into the worship of numerous synagogues. Others, like “Laugh At All My Dreams,” will be recalled from summer camp or youth group, either by the listeners or their offspring.

Almost all have been performed by Friedman herself, who still gives some 50 concerts a year, in venues from Carnegie Hall to feminist seders, from the banks of the Volga River to intimate healing services. That ubiquitous purple dinosaur, Barney, has performed the charming “Alef Bet Song” on TV.

The youth group/summer camp movement was as vital as the folk music revival of the ’60s in shaping the life of this kosher butcher’s daughter from Utica, N.Y. A move to Minnesota when she was 5 also moved the family from traditional worship to Reform. Young Debbie combined them both, attending a traditional Hebrew school while worshipping and eventually working within the Reform movement. It was at summer camps and youth congresses that she received her first recognition.

Some of the tracks on these CDs are delivered with full chorus and orchestra, but the most affecting are those with Friedman singing solo, accompanying herself on the guitar she picked up, like many of the kids of the ’60s and ’70s, in high school.

Many show the influence of the music of the day. “L’cha Dodi,” the liturgical welcome to the Sabbath, is a combination of rock and Israeli rhythms with a bit of Broadway thrown in for good measure. The 1972 “Sing Unto God” could have been a number from the popular Stephen Schwartz musical “Godspell.” “Not By Might” is a hard-driving ’60s-style folk song, and the gentler “Im Tirtzu” and “Arise My Love” fall into the same category.

Inexplicably, the very serious “Ani Ma-amin” comes out like a pop song. It might shock Maimonides, who penned the original, but probably delights Friedman fans.

There is a nice, if unfamiliar, version of “Oseh Shalom” with a klezmer instrumental that gradually speeds up until you can almost see the Chassidim dancing. “Mi Chamocha” also is given the full klezmer treatment. From her “Alef Bet” album comes a raft of children’s songs, highlighted by a humorous “613 Commandments” and a lament by a potato latke.

Friedman’s style does move forward with the years, but not a whole lot. Some of the most recent compositions, the love song “It’s You,” “Seasons of the Moon” and 2003’s “Light These Lights” show her music keeping up with the times. But it is those old familiar campfire songs that continue to steal the show. n

“Songs of the Spirit” (Jewish Music Group), is available in stores. $29.98. Information: www.jewishmusicgroup.com.