Article

A Note on Roots from No Depression’s New Editor

Photo via Yonah Shimmel's Knish Bakery

Two women, both decades older than I, sit at two separate tables in an old bakery down on the Lower East Side. The floor, red with flecked tiles, is even more glaring in the harsh fluorescent overhead lights. The tables match, with their wood paneling surrounding a red border surrounding a Formica slab. The walls, covered in laminated clippings, boast headlines from The Post, The Times, The Forward dating back to at least the '70s. The papers mingle with photos of Old New York—of tenement buildings in the Lower East Side, the Brooklyn Bridge from the water, a non-descript outdoor train station, implying it’s either in Brooklyn or Queens. 

This is Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery. Yonah himself, a Romanian immigrant to America, opened it in 1910 as a way to subsidize his income while teaching the Talmud, one of the rabbinical texts in Judaism. It’s survived more than 100 years of geographic and socioeconomic changes in the neighborhood, but the tradition baked into those hot, mashed potato cakes wrapped with flaky dough remains consistent.

We three women, of different eras and surely of different locales, sit alone at these tables. Each table only holds an aluminum canister of silverware, a TidyNap dispenser, and a yellow squirt bottle of mustard. In our own time, every one of us reaches for the deli mustard.

I like to envision that the three of us all grew up learning how to perfect the ratio of knish to deli mustard (it has to be deli mustard, not yellow or Dijon or anything weird like that). Because in the words of our ideological protagonist Tevye, “it’s tradition.” 

I came here, to this tiny knish factory built into the ground floor of a tenement building on my first night at the helm of No Depression, our beloved journal on roots music, because these are my roots. Here’s the thing about roots, though: In order to maintain them, you have to look back. You have to listen. You have to ask questions of others and elders and learn from the answers. But you also have to persevere so that there’s actually something to look back on one day. You have to want a future to preserve.

Of course, music is exactly like that, too. Like Woody to the Dust Bowl or Dolly to Tennessee, the stories we tell are inextricably linked to our roots. In this new role, I want to highlight the roots of our musical heroes, but I also want to challenge ourselves to think about this music we love in new ways.

There will be changes along the way, as Kim transitions to writing her book and I settle into this role. In fact, the music industry will continue to develop and all the genres that fall into the net of roots music will continue to evolve, encompassing new sounds, new instruments, new players. But here’s another thing about roots: Even when uprooted, they can continue to grow.

I understand that I’m walking into an existing, long-standing community — at once foreign and familiar — led by Kim’s brilliant editorial vision and supported by a loyal group of readers, writers, contributors, and commentators with your own traditions. My promise to you is that I’ll listen, ask questions, empathize, and respect your ways. My request is that you’ll do the same as we journey through the next phase of No Depression together.

The other night, the man behind the counter at Yonah Shimmel’s had to kick me out because it was four minutes after closing time and I was still scribbling in my notebook about the walls and the floors and the photos. As I paid my bill, one of many kitschy signs taped to the display counter caught my eye: “You don’t have to be Jewish to eat a knish.”

I like that sentiment a lot. Likewise, you don’t have to be a connoisseur of roots music to love intelligent writing. You don’t have to be from America to love Americana music. I’ll try to remember the knish theory during my tenure here, making sure that we write about roots music, and our roots, in ways that invite and engage and educate everyone who wants to join in.

I live in England but I felt as if I'd been personally welcomed into Yonah Shimmel's Knish Bakery in this opener from Hilary Saunders. I could almost smell the knish and taste the tradition! I look forward to more flavours from America!

You have no idea how much I love this. What an excellent introduction. One request: this April marks my tenth anniversary as a NoDep contributor, so if you can wait until then to fire me, ten years looks better on my resume than nine. I also have heard you’re Nashville-bound, but before you leave if you’d care to meet me at B&H for latkes, hit me up. Welcome...and ignore whatever Kim warned you about me. 

I wish you luck but since you mentioned community I would note that in the past the site had a vibrant community and with the elimination of forums and groups that has been effectively squashed. You might want to look at the roll call of talented contributors that jumped shipped post-Freshgrass.

Good luck to you, Hilary. That bakery sounds like a wonderful gathering place for good food - and discussion. As Theartistforme noted above, community and discussion are the (now missing) things that formerly made this site hum. Meanwhile, perhaps you could explain the appeal of an egg cream, because I just don’t get it.

Pleased to meet you Hilary...a stylish and thoughtful introduction if I've ever heard one...I agree with Mr. Mutt and Jack on community, and even if Kim told you the truth about Ed, he's ND family, so you gotta humor him...

Welcome to the family!  I look forward to hearing more from you.

Nicely put. Onward.

Good luck, Hilary!  Guitars and U-hauls all the way to Nashville!

Congrats, Hilary!

Perhaps you could also look into the site's built-in email system. And if it is indeed functioning properly then perhaps you could help ND staffers and a great many of its contributors with returning email messages that are sent to them by other ND members.

Good luck.

Congrats, Hilary!

Perhaps you could also look into the site's built-in email system. And if it is indeed functioning properly then perhaps you could help ND staffers and a great many of its contributors with returning email messages that are sent to them by other ND members.

Good luck.

The early version of ND offered the ability to email each other but it disappeared when they moved to the current platform. While it would be nice to add back a communication option, the architecture of the site is so berserk we can’t even figure out how to replace 7 month old feature articles on the home page. Our new editor is sadly inheriting a broken down website, and most of us contributors and longtime community members are holding our breath that she gets the resources she’ll need to get it fixed.

Hey, some of us actually enjoy reading Raina's column about SXSW over and over and over.......

Not to mention reliving the featured community contributions from the week of March 19-26 2017 every time I log on.

Thanks, Ed.

So if someone clicks Contact>> on a contributor's page, fills out form, and clicks Send, it goes nowhere?

What about releases/reviews???

It goes to one of the 2-3 people who have an ND email domain. They’ll forward it to you. If you want to contribute, just log in and you can post whatever you like...it’ll give you the option for stories or reviews. But it’s doubtful it’ll ever be featured so not many readers will find it. Because the site is no longer really a destination, probably 95% of the page views come from being linked on the ND Facebook page, which has over 100,000 followers. 

What about submitting albums for review to those people who DO get featured?

How do we go about that, and also (hopefully) get a response from them???

Sure. If you want to reach out to a real ND editor-type, just use help@nodepression.com and somebody will get back to you. 

Done, and sent!
Now let's see how long it takes.

Thanks again, Ed.

What a thoughtful and measured introduction with many dimensions; looking back, forwards, the breadth of roots music now, and above all welcoming. You certainly reached across the Atlantic to this contributor. Hilary, I look forward to your ideas, reading your articles and contributing. With very best wishes, Lyndon.