A Note on Roots from No Depression’s New Editor
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.