Jersey Reflections: Rhineland to Vineland

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Songwriter’s lyrics reflect his grandparents’ journey.

The camera captures waves as they break upon a beach. A dancer clad in ballet attire gracefully glides into view, accompanied by the sound of a piano introduction before the opening words of a ballad are sung by an unseen vocalist as the dancer cavorts along the sand: “Vineland, New Jersey, farmlands stretching far as the eye can see…” It isn’t until the third verse when the camera pulls back under a pier, momentarily framing the shot between two pylons, that we see the singer, bearded and contemplative.

The song is “To Be Free” and one might first suspect that a resident of Charles K. Landis’ settlement wrote those words and married it to a melody, but the truth is the tune belongs to Michael David Rosenberg, a Brighton-based British musician better known over the past decade by the moniker Passenger.

Rosenberg was born in 1984, grew up in Brighton and left school at the age of 16 to pursue a career in music. In 2003, he co-founded the band Passenger, which released one album before breaking up in 2009. Rosenberg retained the band’s name for his subsequent solo career. Over the past 10 years, he has released seven albums and toured England, Europe, Australia, and the U.S., opening for Ed Sheeran on more than a few occasions.

His most recent album, Runaway, has been described by the songwriter as a concept album influenced by Americana. The tracks have accompanying videos that were shot by Rosenberg, Jarrad Seng, Stu Larsen, and Chris Vallejo during a three-week Kerouacesque U.S. road trip, that included a stop in Avalon, New Jersey where the “To Be Free” video was reportedly filmed. According to the Passenger Facebook page, the footage was shot on an old Super 8 camera.

Rosenberg announced his plan to debut a new track from the album every three weeks in 2018 through the release of a video. “To Be Free” premiered in August and it wasn’t long before it was garnering attention on Sirius XM.

Although Rosenberg is not a Vineland native, his grandparents Simon Rosenberg and Molly Bimbach were, and he celebrates their relocation to this area following the conclusion of World War I in the song’s first verse, recounting their departure from the Rhineland and the uncertainty that awaited them here.

Rosenberg’s grandparents’ choice to travel to a new life in America is representative of the outlook of many immigrants during the early 20th century and beyond, and Rosenberg couches it in the simplicity of the song’s title. The fact that they engaged in this location’s poultry farming makes them part of a legacy once recognized nationally and now celebrated historically.

According to A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II, about 75 percent of New Jersey’s Jewish farmers were actually poultry farmers. Since it didn’t require much land or machinery, poultry farming had an appeal to immigrants lacking revenue and agricultural experience. South Jersey offered cheap land and access to Philadelphia and New York wholesalers.

By World War II, Vineland became known as the “Egg Basket of the East,” and afterwards was one of the four major centers for Jewish farming in the state. But Jewish poultry farming was what A Time for Healing calls “a one-generation phenomenon.” It became increasingly difficult to lure younger generations into the trade.

That notion is conveyed in the second verse of “To Be Free,” which follows Rosenberg’s father Gerard from the time he “left the farmhouse” to head West and into a life that would touch down on California, South Africa, and France before settling in England after meeting the woman he would marry. According to online sources, Gerard took a job in film production.

Rosenberg saves the third verse of “To Be Free” for himself, representative of a new generation looking back on his family’s history and coming to terms with his place in this scheme. The lines reflect his trip to the U.S. but, more significantly, he sings of what connects him to his grandparents and his father. “I’ve seen the Rhineland, I’ve been to Vineland,” he sings before bringing the song to an abrupt conclusion with the line “I’m a feather on the breeze.” 

The columnist thanks John Kee for bringing the song to his attention.

Happy New Year!

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