08 June 2008

Jewish roots of the song “Rich Girl.”

 I first noticed the 1993 recording “Rich Girl,” by British duo Louchie Lou & Michie One, when I heard it played at the Basement Bhangra parties I attended at the dance club S.O.B.’s in the late 1990s. I was immediately struck by the surprisingly Jewish elements of a West Indian dance hall record.

 The chorus, sung in an Oriental melisma, is to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man” from the 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, composed by Jewish-American Jerry Bock. The lyric is changed but nonetheless patterned on the original lyric by (I assume) Jewish-American Sheldon Harnick which, according to Wikipedia, in turn was inspired by the 1902 Yiddish monologue “Ven ix bin Rotşild” (If I were Rothschild, װען איך בין ראָטשילד), written by Şolem Aleyxem (שלום עליכם). (The title of the Yiddish version of “If I Were a Rich Man” is “Ven ix bin a Rotşild” [If I were a Rothschild, װען איך בין ראָטשילד], the extra word presumably added to fit the song’s meter.) What few other people seem to have noticed is that the additional “na na na” part is to the tune of Hat-tiqwâ” (התקוה), the Israeli national anthem. (Gwen Stefani’s more popular cover version uses a different melody for the “na na na” part. Was that intentional based on the melody’s Zionist connection?)

 The only online acknowledgment I could find of the use of “Hat-tiqwâ” was James Lœffler, “Ethnic Sampling,” Nextbook: A New Read on Jewish Culture, 26 August 2005. Lœffler noted the borrowing of Jewish melodies “as part of an unlikely ode to social justice and community harmony.” Eric Schulmiller posted a comment on that article on 31 August refuting Lœffler’s interpretation: “…[T]he juxtaposition of the two most popularly recognizable Jewish melodies (outside of ‘Hava Nagilah’)…echoes the age-old antisemitic trope of the money-grubbing Jew as typified by the spoiled, materialistic Jewish American Princess (aka the ‘Rich Girl’).” Schulmiller’s accusations of anti-Semitism are unwarranted and unfounded. Louchie Lou & Michie One are a London group that was, again according to Wikipedia, exponents of a “rise of radio friendly reggae in Britain.” According to Michie One’s MySpace profile, the duo co-wrote “Rich Girl.” Listen to the recording: The performance contribution of Michie One, the black West Indian member, was toasting in a light West Indian créole. All the Jewish elements (the melisma and two Jewish melodies) were contributed by the other member, Louchie Lou, better known to her friends and family as Louise Gold. I have no direct documentation of her ethnic background, but the evidence suggests she is a British Jew rather than an anti-Semite.

 Perhaps my epiphany is common knowledge in Britain. For all I know, hundreds of magazine articles may have been published in the U.K. about how Louchie Lou & Michie One have a blend of Jewish and West Indian influences, but I never read any of them and I found none on the Web. I admittedly have not sought any print sources for information on the Jewish element of the group or the recording, instead relying solely on Internet sources. I would love citations of print sources that confirm or deny my suspicions about the group.

 On an unrelated, typically linguistic aspect of the record, Michie One’s toast curiously mixes verb tenses. The rich are perceived as singular, but the poor as plural: “Rich is getting richer, but the poor are getting sting.”

Update (11 June): “Rich Girl” (1993), by Louchie Lou & Michie One

Update (3 February 2009):
“Rich Girl” (1993), by Louchie Lou & Michie One
“Rich Girl” (1993), by Louchie Lou & Michie One

Versions of this article are reproduced at webcitation.org/5eJlAStJc and 5eJlkViv2, as well as on Facebook.