"Even the Song is Stolen"
by Susannah Tarbush
When Israeli composer Naomi Shemer was on her deathbed last year, she made a startling confession to a friend: her song “Jerusalem of Gold”, sung by Israeli forces to celebrate the capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, was derived from the melody of a Basque lullaby.
“Jerusalem of Gold” is not the first composition to be involved in a case of musical plagiarism. For example the late former Beatle George Harrison lost a lawsuit in which he was accused of using the melody of The Chiffons’ 1964 hit “She’s So Fine” in his composition “My Sweet Lord”. But the Middle East political angle has made Shemer’s admission a particularly hot talking point.
“Jerusalem of Gold” was Shemer’s most famous composition, and after the 1967 war it became a sort of unofficial national anthem. Shemer was often asked over the years whether she had plagiarised the Basque melody, but she always angrily denied this. In 2000 in an interview with the newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth, she insisted that the two songs didn’t sound the same at all.
Shemer finally came clean in a letter to fellow composer Gil Aldema written just a few days before she died last June. News of her confession surfaced a few days ago, and Aldema explained to Israeli Army Radio that although Shemer had agreed that her secret should be revealed after her death, he had allowed some time to pass before doing so.
In her letter, Shemer said that in the mid-1960s she had heard a well-known Basque lullaby in the mid-1960s, sung by her singer friend Nehama Hendel.
“In the winter of 1967 when I was working on the writing of ‘Jerusalem of Gold’, the song must have creeped into me unwittingly,” she wrote. “I also didn’t know that an invisible hand dictated changes in the original to me…it turns out that someone protected me and provided me with my eight notes that grant me the rights to my version of the folk song. But all this was done, as I said, unwittingly.”
Shemer told Aldema that she regarded “the whole matter as an unfortunate work accident – so unfortunate that maybe this is what caused my illness.”
A few days after the news of the confession broke, Haaretz newspaper quoted the famous Basque singer Paco Ibanez as saying he had sung sang the Basque melody in question at a performance in Israel in 1962, and perhaps Shemer had heard it then.
Ibanez said his mother used to sing the melody to him when he was small. He recorded it in his volume “Songs I heard from my mother”. As soon as he heard Shemer’s song in summer 1967 he recognised it as his song “Joseph’s Hair.”
He said he was sad to hear of Shemer’s guilt feelings over basing her song on the Basque folk melody and not admitting it. “It is a shame. She had no reason to feel guilty.”
Many Haaretz readers e-mailed messages to the newspaper on the Shemer case. Some of the messages were supportive, and pointed out that classical composers have often used melodies from folk songs. Several noted that the Israeli national anthem Hatikva is based on a melody from Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s “Moldau”. Others observed that singers such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez have borrowed folk melodies.
But there were also some more critical comments, with “Arik” from Toronto writing: “Even the songs are stolen…just like everything else …the land you live on….the water…everything.” Others noted that Shemer had become a patron of the settler cause after 1967 and that her song had become the anthem of the settlers.
One Basque wrote he felt ashamed for the use of the Basque lullaby as a war hymn, and he criticised Shemer for stealing Basque folklore for war purposes. Another reader said part of Shemer’s estate should be seized and given to the Basques.
Saudi Gazette, 10 May 2005