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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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

S'iz do a sod derbay (There's a Secret Here) Yiddish theater song from 1908

This is the third in a row from the show A mentsh zol men zayn otherwise known as Abraham Hashkenazi, "The success of three leading New York Theaters: Windsor, People's and New Star." It was written by Herman Wohl and Arnold Perlmutter with words by Anshel Shorr.

It was sung by Bernard Bernstein, who I wrote about recently. He was one of a trio of stars whose pictures appear on the cover of the sheet music the other two being Kalman Juvelier and Regina Prager, each of whom has been featured in this blog.

I couldn't find a period recording, so here is me singing it this morning in super-minimalist fashion:



I recently saw a long and charming article about Regina Prager in the online Museum of Family History. She was born in 1866 in Lemberg. During a Friday night fire in the house her mother was burned to death, and the young orphan was sent away to a nearby village, where it was discovered that P. possessed a very beautiful voice. She joined an opera choir. She held herself aloof from everyone, as she did throughout her career, remaining at all times a pious Jewish daughter.

Supporters wanted her to get the chance to study opera, but at that time Abraham Goldfaden came to Lemberg and convinced her that on the non-Yiddish stage she would come to play roles in which she would have to make the sign of the cross. This had such an effect on her that she gave up her aspiration to become an opera singer.

After several attempts to get her to come to America, Berl Bernshtayn, convinced her and she emigrated in 1895. Bessie Thomashefsky wrote that Prager's success was enormous. Before every performance she said: “God, don’t humiliate me!”

Yiddish lyrics and translation after the jump.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Ikh vil mer keyn skeb nit zayn (I don't want to be a scab any more) Yiddish theater song about labor organizing

This is from the 1909 show "A mentsh zol men zayn," One should be an honorable person. It was sung by Berl or Bernard Bernstein.

I have found that many younger people in my state of North Carolina don't know what a scab is (somebody who works while the union is on strike). They hardly know what a union is. The Republicans destroyed the unions here, we are now what is called a right-to-work state, which really means right-to-fire-you-for-no-reason-at-all and right-to-pay-the-barest-minimum-wages. Republicans busted the unions because union people tended to vote against them. Now there is no job security, jobs don't pay a living wage, and people think unions are the devil. But back when this song was written, unions were brave people putting their lives and livelihoods on the line for each other. The struggle got brutal but we had unions to thank for shorter work days, higher wages, and benefits. Jobs like that hardly exist any more. Oh well.

Let's talk a little about the original singer, Bernard Bernstein. He was born around 1860 in Warsaw. His father traded in geese. It's written that he was a funny, jolly singer and dancer and people called him Berele Hotske. He worked in a cigarette factory and sang on the side. He wanted to be an opera singer, but ended up touring with as a quartet in which everybody's name ended with "stein". At 17 he was in London, a comic, then to Paris and then to Lemberg where he acted with Gimpel. Adler brought him to America, where he became very popular. He was a first-class burlesque comic with many charms and had a fine career, but later in life his kind of comedy went out of style. He died in 1922.

I didn't find any recording so I made my own this morning.


Text and translation after the jump

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Ver es grobt a grub far yenem falt aleyn arayn (One who digs a hole for another falls into it himself) Yiddish theater songr es grobt youtube

This lengthy title also appears as Ver es grobt a grub af jenem, falt alejn arajn, or far jenem, or Ver es grobt ouf jenem a grob falt, or Ver es grobt a grub farn andern, der falt alejn arajn. It's a famous saying in Polish and Russian as well, I don't know which version came first.

The song is, I think, from the 1909 show "A mentsh zol men zayn" (You should be an upstanding person).

The song was composed by David Meyerowitz (pictured), who was notorious in his early days for not caring enough about his hundreds of songs to copyright them. He'd sell them for $10 each and the buyers reaped the profits. In this case, years later in 1922 the publisher Albert Teres added just enough to the song so he could claim the copyright. It was ever thus.

I don't think I've talked about David Meyerowitz, but he was composer of many of the penny songs. He was born in 1867 in Dinaburg, Latvia, to poor parents. In 1888 his father left for America and at the age of 11 David had to support the family working in a match factory. He worked in a shop but made more money singing songs. He could not read or write in any language. Two years later his father brought him to America, and they worked in a rag shop, though he kept writing songs at night. He entered Louis Gilrod's Yiddish vaudeville theater as a singer and songwriter. His breakout hit was Gott un zayn mishpot iz gerekht, but you'll find many other songs of his on this blog if you put his name in the search box.

In 1911 he was the subject of a newspaper article with this headline: THE MAN WHO WRITES AN OPERA A WEEK -- Yet Does Not Know a Note of Music! He Plays His Own Leading Roles, Gets a $40 Salary and Found Time to Write The "Jewish National Hymn" He was 30 at the time and had written thirty-six complete operettas and several hundred songs. His contract was with the Grand Music Hall. The article says Meyerowitz didn't read music - he composed in his head and sang the music to the conductor, who would write it down.

There's always a Yiddish theater song apropos to the moment and this song is a good one for these troubled days. If you watch to the end, I've left a little treat there for you.



Words (transliterated Yiddish) and translation after the jump.


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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Mazel darf men hoben - You Need to Have Luck - Yiddish theater song by David Meyerowitz, 1918

In December 1918 David Meyerowitz submitted two songs to the Copyright Office at the same time. Yesterday I posted Shabes far nakht nokh der peyde and this was the other one, which is called on the page that has the musical notes on it (click image for a larger view) Me darf nor mazel huben and on the next page, the lyrics page, Mazel darf men hoben (in standard YIVO transliteration, Mazl darf men hobn)

"Lodzhi" = lodging, it could be the room, it could be the whole apartment where the lodger lives, or a lodging house. Here it is heavily implied that the OTHER boarder is enjoying special privileges due to a special relationship with the landlady. We've seen this before.

Louis Birnbaum, the handsome tenor who recorded these songs, has his name penciled into the upper left-hand corner of the manuscript. Here is his mellifluous lament:



Lyrics after the jump.


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Monday, December 3, 2018

Shabes far nakht nokh der peyde (Shabes evening on payday) - Yiddish theater songs by David Meyerowitz, 1918

This is the dishy Yiddish theater star Louis Birnbaum, two years before he recorded this song. David Meyerowitz sent this song to the Copyright Office in December 1918 along with the second song (which is on the other side of the 78), Mazl darf men hobn.

Louis Birnbaum was born in July 1884 in Lodz, Poland. He sang in the synagogue but was attracted to the circus, dance, and theater. He fled to America to escape military service and joined the "Golden Rule Vaudeville House."

It is also spelled Schabes far nicht noch der peide, Shabes far nakht nokh der peide, Shabes far nacht nuch der peide, etc.

The Yiddish of this song is kind of eccentric. "Peyde" meant "payday" but it also meant "pay." I like how it gets given to the wife who sticks it right in a sock.


Here's the recording:


Translation and transliteration after the jump.


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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Uptown, Downtown (though it really should be Fun downtown, uptown) - Jews leave the Lower East Side

UPDATE: I found a recording of this song on the Internet Archive today: Uptown and Downtown


I found this song in a little printed collection of Rumshinsky songs.



The more famous song from this 1917 show is "Fifty Fifty."

Back when I first posted this song I wrote: "This mini-description of Jewish upward mobility one is so short, it seems incomplete. Probably it led right on into another song or maybe a dance or something." If you click the link at the top of this blog post you can hear that in fact it follows speechifying and a musical prelude. The performance by Anna Hoffman, Jacob Jacobs and orchestra is really wonderful.

Boris Thomashefsky wrote the words and produced the show. The original libretto was by Zishe Kornblith.

There evidently was a Victor recording with Anna Hoffman and Jacob Jacobs singing the duet, in 1919, but I didn't find their recording.

Here's my recording from earlier today:



You'll find "Fifty Fifty" in the Milken Archive, which dutifully and correctly transliterates the title of the show as Op-to'un un da'un-to'un. Neil W. Levin's synopses of Yiddish theater shows are, in my opinion, the high point of the Milken Archive. Go read what he has to say about Uptown and Downtown here...

... but to summarize, Thomashefsky plays Khayim Yosi Plotkin, a poor cabinetmaker who invents a 'combination bed' [?], gets rich suddenly, changes his name to Gustav Plato, becomes a banker and businessman, and moves his family uptown to a mansion with maidservant and a supposedly Japanese butler.

One of his daughter is engaged to marry "Baron Geoffrey West" of London, who claims his grandmother and Queen Victoria once looked through a makhzer (prayerbook) together. The butler (actually not Jewish but instead, a Litvak in disguise) recognizes the Baron as a poor Jewish waiter he knows.

And Khayim's brother Abie is about to lead a strike at one of Khayim's businesses! Due to a life-changing nightmare of the previous night, Khayim gives in to the strikers’ demands, on condition that the workers promise to pray at the new synagogue he intends to found. And in the end, the family decides to live downtown again in their old neighborhood.

Words and translation from the Yiddish after the jump.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Watch Your Step! (Vatsh yur step) a 1922 Yiddish theater hit from the Thomashefsky show Berele Tremp

"Vatsh yur step" is from the 1922 "comedy drama" Berele Tremp, produced at Kessler's Second Avenue Theater in New York. The words are by Sam Lowenworth, the music is by Joseph Rumshinsky. The song was sung by Bessie Thomashefsky in the show Berele Tremp.

You can read the complicated plot of the show at the Milken Archives - I'll just say Act I takes place in Odessa in the teahouse of Khayke Zets and her husband Leybe. Our hero young Berele (played in the show by Bessie Thomashefsky) loves their daughter Sonya. But because Berele's father abandoned his wife and son to go to America, Berele and his mother are now street peddlers and Leybe doesn't approve the match. The father's business partner from America arrives with $3,000, says the father wants a divorce, Berele travels to New York to look into this situation. All the Odessa people show up in America and stage a disapproving play about a husband abandoning his wife, the dad gets sick, and there's a happy ending.

Here is the Julius Nathanson recording of Vatsh yur step from 1922 with my transliteration and translation in the subtitles:


Transliteration and translation after the jump.

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