Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
Index of songs on this site
Link to comprehensive index and research notes
Youtube: all the Penny Songs I've recorded so far (with subtitles)

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List of the still-lost songs: do you know any of them?
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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Ikh bin a geler (I'm a redhead) - 1901 Yiddish vaudeville gangster song

I AM A REDHEAD   by Isidor Lillien
To sing with the melody from

This song is found in Judah Katzenelenbogen's Lider Magazin, from 1901. It's a parody written by Isidor Lilien to the English language popular song He Was a Sailor. I only found the cover to He Was a Sailor, not the inside pages with the printed music, but on youtube you can hear it as sung by the famous vaudeville duo Collins & Harlan, so I transcribed their version.

Maybe this song sank into even more obscurity than usual because the lyrics depend on slang we don't understand any more. For example, here is the first verse. It seems "sailing" has something to do with drinking:

Bill Perkins was a sailor boy, a sailor of renown.
From morn 'til night his one delight was sailing 'round the town.
If you should go to buy a drink and William was in view,
It's safe to bet this sailor boy would sail in after you.

He was a sailor, I'm sure you will agree,
Though he never sailed upon a ship that sailed upon the sea.
He was a sailor, he knew the ropes at that,
I know he was a sailor for he wore a sailor hat.

Maybe Isidor Lilian chose his title simple because it sounds like the English - geler, sailor - who knows? Here's my living room recording from yesterday:

The redheaded hero of the song is blat - the word came from High German "leaf or page" for instance a blat gemora. The word came to mean corruption, the kind of guy who arranges exchange of illegal services, using his contacts and black market deals to get ahead. In Russian blatnoy refers to a member of a thieves' gang.

There is a fair amount of English in this text. Our little crook calls himself a son of a gun. The British Navy used to allow women to live on their ships. Any child born on board would be listed in the ship's log as a "song of a gun" - later the expression was more describes (sarcastically or sincerely) a fine fellow who is well regarded.

I'd never heard the expression "ikh bin below," probably meaning I owe more money than I've got. It was also interesting to find out that just as Vegas casinos now provide cheap or free food to lure the gamblers, the saloons evidently used to provide a fresh lunch to the denizens.

I asked around to find out why our hero wearing a red tie would be considered strong. The consensus was that gangsters are flashy dressers. Ours talks a good game, but when it comes to action, well, he's still just all talk.

Translation from the Yiddish and transliteration after the jump.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Vinter tsayt (Winter Time) - Louis Gilrod 1910 parody of the American song "Winter"

Here's a distractingly inane song about winter for the very troubled early spring we're having:

I don't have much to say about this song. The original was truly dumb and Louis Gilrod sank to the same level. I like to think he was mocking the fatuous American lyrics with his first verse. The second verse features two beloved tropes: (1) a husband who gambles until late at night and (2) his wife who takes advantage of his absence to gambol with the boarder (his name, Nisl, means nut, I wonder if that rang the same bell then that it does now)

Here's my living-room recording:

Yiddish transliteration and translation after the jump:

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Sunday, March 15, 2020

Pinokl (Pinochle) - Morris Goldstein's Yiddish vaudeville hit of 1918

UPDATE: While sequestered at home due to the coronavirus I'm spending a little more time poking through Lider magazin and I found a song sheet for this Louis Gilrod song! Click for a larger view.

Allen Lewis Rickman wrote and asked if I'd post this song. I couldn't have done it without the transcription skills of Sam Weiss, who volunteered out of his esteem for Mr. Rickman!

I usually have to stick to songs for which there is either a broadside or sheet music because I'm not good at teasing out the lyrics of the old-time singers.

Here is Morris Goldstein singing:

I don't know anything about Morris Goldstein (though he has been featured on this blog several times before, you can put his name in the search box and see) and I also know nothing about pinochle except that my father and his brothers used to play it.

In Yiddish I've also seen it spelled pinakl, pinakel, pinokel, etc.

As usual, lots of double entendre here. Transcription and translation after the jump.

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Ikh hob nisht keyn tsayt! (I don't have time) - Yiddish vaudeville song

UPDATE: In Lider magazin I found another Yiddish text written to this melody. Ikh hob moyre tsu shlofn aleyn, by Louis Gilrod. Click for a larger view.

The specified melody was "I'm Afraid to Come Home in the Dark," a very annoying song from 1908 you can hear sung by May Irwin at Youtube. The words were by Harry Williams and the tune is by Egbert Van Alstyne.

The Yiddish words were written by Hyman Altman who wrote quite a few of the songs in the American Yiddish Penny Song collection.

Click the youtube button below to hear the recording I made today in my living room of Altman's version. I left out the middle verse but you can find it below.

In Amerike iz a yeder eyner nor far zikh
Muz arbetn keseyder un muz loyfn in dergikh.
Er muz loyfn vos shneler fardinen zikh af broyt,
Un ven eyner iz a foyler azoy hot er dem toyt.
Ikh gey in strit un freg eynem a vort.
Dreyt zikh oys un entfert mir zofort:

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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Ven ales iz farbay - Yiddish parody of the 1901 vaudeville song "I'm Goin' To Live Anyhow Till I Die"

Here we see the English title translated into oysyes.

This composer, Shepard N. Edmonds, has a great bio in the book Spreading Rhythm Around. The book calls "I'm Goin to Live Anyhow Till Die" the best of Shep Edmonds' songs, and one of the very few pop songs on the subject of the hypocrisy of do-gooders. Edmonds was a black vaudevillian and entrepreneur born in 1876 in Memphis, Tennessee. He founded the first black publishing firm in 1904 and later opened the first black detective agency. He died in 1957.

We see listed here three white performers and one very famous black vaudevillian (Ernest Hogan, about whom I've written previously) as singers of this song. There is a record on youtube of Harry Talley but more interesting is the recording by Pete Hampton and Laura Bowman HERE.

Pete Hampton was born in Kentucky in 1871. He performed with Vaudeville groups like In Dahomey and the Darktown Entertainers. He made more than 150 recordings in the United Kingdom and Germany between 1903 and 1911 and toured in Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, and France.

Louis Gilrod was one of the two most prolific writers of Yiddish parodies at the turn of the 20th century.

This song has three verses but I only sang two. Glenn Mehrbach plays keyboard on this living room recording.

Transliteration and translation from the Yiddish after the jump.

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Sunday, March 1, 2020

All kets look alike to me: written by Hyman Meisel, commissioned by Bessie Thomashefsky, ragtime tune by Ernest Hogan, 1895

This song was truly scary to delve into.

This Yiddish parody, and the underlying song, could be the subject of a PhD thesis. Together they are so rich, they deserve a lot more than I can deliver.

I hesitated half a year before making this recording. My daughter said, when I told her about it: "Ma, you're standing on the edge of a vortex." I was just discovering the horrifying genre called "Coon Songs." The first coon songs were written in 1897 by African-Americans to ragtime tunes, for a white audience, so they were full of leering, menacing, absurd stereotypes. Subsequently many composers, mostly white, piled on the bandwagon and by the time the craze expired more than 600 such songs had been written. When later in life the successful African-American composers were asked how they could have served such an evil master, they pointed out that no other avenue of success was open to them. Black vaudevillians often performed in black face.

Lider magazin, published by Judah Katzenelenbogen, contains many Yiddish lyrics written to these ragtime melodies. (There are TWO different Yiddish versions of today's song in his collection.)

Nobody would consider performing the original songs in this day and age (I hope). But I consider the charming melodies to have been somewhat laundered by the Yiddish lyrics.

Another reason I didn't record this song earlier is, I can't sing it adequately. The range is too much for me, and I couldn't play the piano part. But finally I did it anyway because the song is so interesting. My videos are no more than blueprints - I wish more competent folks would come along and adopt the songs for their own repertoires.

The underlying song was "All Coons Look Alike To Me," written by African-American vaudeville star Ernest Hogan. Here's enough about Ernest Hogan to wet your whistle; read more online at and in the lovely book "Spreading Rhythm Around."

He was born Ernest Reuben Crowdus in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1865, son of former slaves. As a teenager he worked in traveling minstrel shows as a dancer, musician, and comedian, changing his name to Hogan because "Irish performers were in vogue."

In 1895 he wrote "All Coons Look Alike to Me", with lyrics stolen from a pianist in a Chicago brothel. The title then was "All Pimps Look Alike to Me". Hogan changed the words slightly and added a cakewalk syncopation to the chorus. It was one of the very first published ragtime songs.

Hogan's use of the racial slur "coon" in the song infuriated many African Americans. Some black performers made a point of removing the word "coon" from the song whenever they sang it.

While Hogan was considered one of the most talented performers and comedians of his day,[3] his contribution to the racist "coon song" craze haunted him. Before his death, he stated that he regretted using the racial slur in his song.
Fellow black musician Tom Fletcher said Hogan was the "first to put on paper the kind of rhythm that was being played by non-reading musicians."
He was also the first African-American entertainer to produce and star in a Broadway show (The Oyster Man). In January 1908 he collapsed onstage while performing in it and died from tuberculosis in 1909.

Here's my living room version from this morning. I left out a lot of the interjections because I couldn't figure out how to fit them in. How I wish there were a period recording! I sang only the 3rd and fourth verses, and reversed their order. Yiddish transliterated text and translation after the jump.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Pak dayn tronk un gey - 1897 parody of the Irving Jones ragtime song "Take Your Clothes And Go"

In October, after I finished canvassing for the year, I thought I might try, yet again, to get better at playing the piano, so I wouldn't have to ask my pianist friends to help me with this project that pays nobody any money.

After taking lessons for a while - I was in fact working on this very song - I got sick and couldn't make myself practice for months. When I came back to the project, I'd lost a lot of ground, and instead of practicing until I could actually play it, I engineered the part, playing a few bars at a time and stitching them together with Audacity. Here's my living room recording:

An interesting song...

I've written often about the Yiddish parodist Isaac Reingold (look him up via the search bar) so let me tell you a bit about this melody's African-American composer, Irving Jones. He also wrote "Get Your Money's Worth," already featured on this blog.

His first big hit was today's song, published earlier that same year: Take Your Clothes And Go. It sold about 100,000 copies over two years. Jones was one of the most successful African American composers of early ragtime era. He debuted with the Creole Burlesque Company in 1890 and was for many years a headliner on mainstream vaudeville circuits. All told, Jones published about fifty songs, twenty of them between 1898 and 1899.

The seedy genre known as "coon songs" came to a relatively quick end (after 600 or so were published). In July 1898 the "Christian Advocate" newspaper wrote: "All of that class of music is written at the expense of the Negro. Some people's idea of the colored man is based entirely on what they get from the coon songs and other ragged music [ragtime] of our degenerate day." Jones's last song "Any Old Way You Cook Chicken" was published in 1910.

You can read more about Jones, among others equally fascinating, in the great book "Spreading Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters 1880-1930 by David A Jasen and Gene Jones.

3 verses of Isaac Reingold's Yiddish lyrics and translation after the jump. There were actually four verses - that would have take about eight minutes! I recorded only two.

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