NOVEMBER 2, 2017 – Growing up a fan of finger paint, Brookline-based talent Ilana Katz Katz (who justifies her doubled last name by explaining that her mother’s maiden name and her husband’s last are both Katz and, as a cat lover, it seemed to fit) recalled a “creative flair” that began during her childhood.
After hearing blues master John Lee Hooker when she was 15, Katz Katz was inspired to play the fiddle like Hooker played the guitar. After years of playing in the Boston subway tunnels, Katz Katz has emerged as a formidable force on the violin.
Her latest CD, “Subway Stories,” is an ode to performing at T stops on the Red Line. You can hear tracks when Katz Katz visits Holly Harris’s “Spinning the Blues” radio show Nov. 18 on wumb.org.
“This CD, in particular, is a nod to my time playing in the subway,” said Katz Katz, who has been performing in the tunnels for the better part of nine years, making it her most frequent tour date. “I wanted to pay homage to that incredible experience and all the people I’ve met.”
Among Katz’s favorite songs on the CD are the opening song, “Don’t Forget” (which names and pays particular tribute to her many musical inspirations), and her unique renditions of such timeless classics as “This Little Light of Mine” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a song that originated with African-American slaves yet Katz Katz suggested also relates to Jews and others.
“It is certainly a song that speaks to the Jewish history of the Holocaust and into the modern era of slavery that still exists in so many, many areas of the world,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think it has a universal quality and was happy to have an opportunity to share my version.”
Katz Katz recalls that she once began to sing “This Little Light” spontaneously after stopping a woman who had dropped her phone from leaping down on the tracks to retrieve it.
“She kept telling me ‘I need my phone,’ ” Katz Katz recalled. “It wasn’t easy to convince her that she could ask for help and that she would risk her life by just jumping down there. So that song is very important to me and a reminder to myself that wherever I go, I will try to sing, play, be kind, be helpful in whatever way I can.”
After growing up in in Kansas City, Mo., and Prairie Village, Kan., Katz-Katz studied journalism at UMass-Amherst. After some time doing technical writing, she first made her mark as a novelist and has since published three more books, one of which she is currently transforming into a screenplay.
Throughout her writing career, Katz Katz has held firmly to her fiddle and regularly played for herself and friends.
“I never thought I was a very good musician,” she said, “but always loved to play the fiddle.”
She earned top honors in this year’s Boston Blues Challenge in the Solo/Duo Act category. As a result, she is now preparing to participate in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in January.
As Katz Katz has been able to reach people with her writing and her music, she finds it difficult to pick a favorite form of expression.
“I honestly love doing them all,” she said, “and I wouldn’t say one completes the other. Each creative entity has its own joy.”
What she can describe, however, are her influences. In addition to Hooker, she cites literary and musical legends, including Chaim Potok, James Baldwin, and Tommy Jarrell.
Another inspiration is her father, Paul Levenson, who once served as the rabbi of Northeastern University Hillel.
“He plays guitar and always sang folk songs,” Katz Katz said, “and also sang in synagogue.” As a result, she grew up not only in the midst of the folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, but also with Klezmer, which her mother also loved.
“My mother always wanted me to play Klezmer,” she said, calling it the “Jewish Blues,” “and my parents bought me Klezmer music books, but it didn’t speak to my heart the way the [blues] does.
“The blues helps to ease that pain and suffering. The music can soothe the soul, at least for me.”