Daniel Kahn On “Inner Emigration”

I’ve sung the praises of Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird before; my favorite “Punk Cabaret, Radical Yiddish, Gothic, American Folk, Klezmer Danse Macabre” band. Been listening a lot to their latest album, “Lost Causes” – particularly a brilliant ditty called “Inner Emigration.” This song is simultaneously a meditation on identity politics, a treatise on the absurd reality of national borders, but ultimately, I think, a blistering diatribe against the way we all assent to our own inner/outer oppression. It’s also catchy as hell.

Click above for a clip of Kahn performing the song solo in Tel Aviv. Click below for the lyrics. (The song is truly a text study in itself…)

“Inner Emigration”
by Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird

Prepare yourself to swallow all your diamonds and your rings.
And all your ‘tiquey, shiny, windy things.
Don’t scare yourself, the photos in the newspapers are blurred,
the radio is broadcasting a word.
Beware yourself, the neighbors aren’t neighbors anymore.
They’re leaning with a glass against your door.
Take care of yourself and hoist into the air your disbelief.
Just go ahead and give yourself relief.

Get ready for your inner emigration, get ready to be alien inside.
Consider all your social obligations, the borders of your foreign order bride.
You won’t ever have to leave your nation.
You won’t have to even try.
Just make a secret emigration and you won’t ever have to say goodbye.

Now Hanna was at home in the Berlin cabarets of ’32.
But in ’33 the weather turned and the brownshirts all turned loose.
The rumors they were bad, her sozie lover Alex was getting scared.
He heard his name was on a list for having red friends and brown hair.
He wanted to get out and Hanna could have gone with him to his family in Ukraine.
But instead she took a walk out in the rain through her Berlin
and thought about how this weather, it would pass
and how things had always worked out in the past.

She made a kind of inner emigration.
She started to feel alien inside.
With all the social marginalizations her sense of place was starting to be tried.
But she couldn’t bear abandoning her nation.
She didn’t want it all to pass her by.
So people make their inner emigrations,
till one by one they have to say goodbye.

Well Sasha had heard about the emigratzia,
and the talk wasn’t just in the family anymore.
But in the Kharkov streets there was a kind of thaw.
“We’re going home!” said old Saminsky,
when he filed his application to leave
and Anya already had family in Tel Aviv.

But Sasha didn’t know:
two hundred years among Slavs being called “Hebrews,”
he knew they’d only be called “Russians” by the Jews.
And then on the Prospekt Lenina ovtobus
He heard the Saminskys lost their apartment and denied their pass.
The weather seemed like it was never going to pass.

He chose to make an inner emigration.
He chose to keep his alien inside.
And all the bureaucratic frustrations
he chose to keep his status bona fide.
And what’s the bother of finding a new nation?
A border isn’t art, it’s just a frame.
Just make a secret inner emigration,
the holy land and exile are the same.

Anat was a Sabra,
the daughter of a Sephardic Kibbutznik nurse
and a Yekke lawyer from Bonn.
She fell in love with Khais,
born in a PLO refugee camp in southern Lebanon.
They married in Cyprus.
He almost got arrested living with her family in Ramat Gan,
so she tried wrapping her hair and serving coffee with his family in Hebron
but that didn’t work either.

Then they thought about leaving to live with her cousin David in Brooklyn
but he and his boyfriend Patrick wanted to get married
and were moving to Berlin.
So she went to the Jaffa beach and stared at the sea
and thought about how someday all of this would pass,
if only she could find someone to help Khais pass.

Should she make an inner emigration?
Tell me what you think she should decide.
Considering the couple’s situation
she’d be better off as someone else’s bride.
She and he comprise a kind of nation,
the kind we build inside when we’re alone.
But if they just make inner emigrations,
then they’ll only have a home when they’re at home.

Compare yourself.
What does this all have to do with you?
How does your experience ring true?
You’re where, yourself?
You aren’t suffering anyone’s regime.
You’re free to follow every little dream.
Be fair to yourself. You needn’t be oppressed to feel alone.
You don’t have to be driven from your home
to spare yourself from feeling like a part of the control
with an internal diplomatic role.

Make a kind of inner emigration.
It’s a kind of shift accomplished easily.
We all have made our disassociations,
whether on the job or in our family.
What could be more irrelevant than nations,
when everywhere you go it’s buy or sell?
But if we make only inner emigrations,
then everything will only go to hell.

3 Replies to “Daniel Kahn On “Inner Emigration””

  1. Inner Emigration is a brilliant theatrical pingback to Brecht/Weill — a provocative bonding of artsong ambition to brash bistro retro, like nothing I’ve heard since except Tom Waits. And I have to go back to Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne to find a lyric with resonances so teasingly, movingly complex. (Kahn’s March of the Jobless Corps video does something like the reverse for the protest song — breathing catchy new life into the mad-as-hell tradition, and adding some old visual memories.) Inspired.

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