There were two songs that played a formative role in my musical life. They are Shto Mi e Milo, recorded by the Pennywhistlers (1966) and Si Bheag, Si Mor, by Planxty (1973). The Pennywhistlers came first. They were the mother lode. Ethel Raim and her sisters created one of the first, if not THE first, American ensemble to perform world music. Until that time, American popular culture embraced the music and art of other cultures in a scattershot way. There were Carmen Miranda’s outrageous hats, Richie Valens’ La Bamba, Jose Feliciano’s Hispanic-inflected Light My Fire in the late 1960s. But these were one-off hits. Novelties.
It wasn’t until the Pennywhistlers came along that a musical group devoted its entire repertoire to the music of other cultures. Wonderful groups like the Bay Area’s Kitka could not exist without the Pennywhistlers being a forerunner. Even a native Bulgarian choir would never have had the enormous world success of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares had not the American group first popularized the music in this country.
When I first heard this song, it was a revelation. The female vocal harmonies were like none I had ever heard. It was as if I was hearing a sound from another universe. It was a revelation. I lived on planet earth but had never heard the music of the culture which produced this. It made me realize there was a whole other world out there that American culture ignored.
I have been trying to find the song for 20 years. Before YouTube existed I tried using music sharing sites, but no one appeared to have mp3 files of their music (probably because they were never transferred from LP to any other format). Though the social media revolution has brought much bad with the good, it’s an undeniable good to be able to find old musical friends like the Pennywhistlers through YouTube. With all its hyper-commercialization, YouTube has enabled the archiving and retrieval of the sounds of the world.
The Pennywhistlers’ eponymously titled first album is available for purchase from Smithsonian Folkways.
H/t to Cynthia Anne.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.