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)

About this project ♦ ♦ About Jane Peppler
List of the still-lost songs: do you know any of them?
Search the blog:

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Der blumengartn - The flower garden - 1891 parody of "The Church across the Way"

This song, Der blumengarten, ought to be a starring example in some upcoming PhD dissertation about Jewish assimilation in New York City at the turn of the city. David Meyerowitz was paid by Yehuda Katzenelenbogen to write Yiddish words to what must be the most goyish song ever. It even has a musical quote from "Nearer My God To Thee"! Here's the sheet music cover. Click for a larger view (you'll want it for your publication)
One Easter Sunday morning, while the sun was shining clear,
And good folks to the old church came the parson's prayers to hear,
They little knew while seated there, upon that blessed day,
A human life was ending in a home just o'er the way.
A man in deepest poverty, without a single friend,
Would answer soon the call of death, his life was nearing end,
With no one there to comfort him, no tender words to say-
He heard the morning service in the church across the way.

The minister was preaching his good and sacred teaching,
The congregation sat, in ecstasy;
The bells had just ceased ringing, the choir was sweetly singing
"Nearer my God to thee."

The preacher's words touched ev'ry heart within those sacred walls;
He told how honor always thrives and how deception falls.
The outcast in that humble home, whose life had been a blank,
Sighed softly at those truthful words as nearer death he sank;
Be knew not. that the preacher was his honored brother Ned,
Whom he'd not seen for years, not since to hide his crime he fled.
If he could live life o'er again, his thoughts would never stray
From each word taught that morning in the church across the way.

Here's my living room version from yesterday. I put together the keyboard track by pasting little bits together, because I can't actually play.

I've written about David Meyerowitz before, and invite you to read this great puff piece written about him in 1911 by Almer C. Sanborn: THE MAN WHO WRITES AN OPERA A WEEK -- Yet Does Not Know a Note of Music! Here are some tidbits:

He has bound himself to write the music of one operetta a week, to conduct all its rehearsals and play the principal role twice a day. In addition he has agreed to furnish the other actors with all the new songs they need for their different acts ... on Saturday night he receives his check for $40. ... Mr. Meyerowitz cannot read music ... When he has finished his operetta, he takes the libretto and sings his airs as he reads the words to the conductor. The conductor transcribes the music as he sings it.

Also astonishing to me is that, according to Zilberzweig, as a young emigrant from Latvia he wasn't able to read or write in any language. He taught himself English and Yiddish.

Meyerowitz's Yiddish verses are on a very old trope of man's life rising and falling, in this case the parable involves a blooming tree. I sang only the second and third verses (in reverse order). 

Transliteration and translation from the Yiddish after the jump. WARNING: I found this Yiddish kind of odd and hard to translate and my rendition is clunky. Anyone, please feel free to send me an improved version!

>>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Saturday, November 7, 2020

A foygl in a golden shtayg (A Bird In A Gilded Cage) 1900 Yiddish music hall parody by Solomon Smulewitz

This is a very famous waltz, by our own Harry Von Tilzer aka Arie Gumbinsky. The original beats a Victorian dead horse: the beautiful young woman who sells her self out by marrying a rich old man (still happens of course). The first verse of the Solomon Small parody is on that same theme, but he pivots to workers' issues in verse 2 (where we see a cashier in a high-priced department store, surrounded by luxury and hands full of the customers' money, none of it hers) and in verse 3 (where in a world full of natural riches millionaires are sticking it to the workers).

Here's my living room version from today, with the wonderful guitar and bass tracks sent to me by Jim Baird, thanks Jim!

Here are two of the sheet music covers, and an illustration by John Held. Transliteration of the Yiddish and translation after the jump.

>>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Monday, October 12, 2020

Yetst muz ikh im rufn tate - Louis Gilrod Yiddish vaudeville parody of "Now, I Have To Call Him Daddy"

Now I have to call him father
by Louis Gilrod
Sung with the melody from "Now I have to call him father"
Sung with great success by the famous artist Mrs Dora Vaysman

This ditty, published in 1908 by composers Charles Collins and Fred Godfrey, was a hit for, among others, Vesta Victoria (though not as big as "Waiting At The Church," which was featured on this blog in its Yiddish parody version here: Zol zayn mit mazl.

If you're interested in the original lyrics, they're posted at Radio Days, here: Vesta Victoria, Now I Have To Call Him Father! Vesta Victoria (1874-1951) became hugely wealthy on the strength of her comedic songs.

Dora Weissman, lauded here as the famous artist who sang the Yiddish version with huge success, emigrated to New York from the Ukraine with her family when she was two years old. Her father Reuben was a playwright. She played in the Yiddish theater starting as a child and performed her whole wife, notably in vehicles written for her by her husband Anshel Schorr, like Der meydl fun der vest; one of her hits from that show was Hit aykh, meydlekh.

Louis Gilrod's parody keeps the original conceit: that a girl's fiance marries the mother instead. In his version, it's when the guy "tastes her Jewish fish" that he is won over. The same tempting dish wins the day in the song Yidishe Fish.

Here's my version from yesterday, stripped down to its bare bones. The coronavirus quarantine has removed any desire I might have had for embellishment.

There are some nice Yinglish touches here: gespendet was my favorite.

Transliteration of the Yiddish lyrics and translation after the jump.
>>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Gute brider, a Solomon Smulewitz parody of "My Ann Elizer The Ragtime Girl" by Malcolm Williams, 1898

Good brothers
To sing with the melody from the English song
My Ann Elizer
by Solomon Smulewitz

Originally I filed this song in the "duds" directory because the sheet music arrangement was clumsy and incompetent.

In 1898 ragtime songs were the new range and music publishers were trying to help the daughters and mothers in their parlors understand how to play it, so there is a second chorus page included with the ragtime rhythms written out, but it is uninspiring.

The American song's first verse goes like this:

My girl ain't much to look at, she ain't no dream.
She can't sing like an angel, Ann Elizer Green,
But when she hears the "rag time "she can't keep still,
Her nerves commence a-jumpin' she gets a chill-well,
Her eyes begin a-shinin', her cheeks get red,
Her feet commence to shuffle, she shakes her head.
And when she starts a-dancin' she's the real thing;
I can't keep still no longer, I got to sing:-Well-

My Ann Elizer, she's a surpriser. a tantalizer, she's in the whirl,
And I'll advertise her, my Ann Elizer, she is my "rag-time" girl.

Eventually I decided to abandon the original arrangement entirely, especially since it takes me ages to be able to play even the simplest little bit of ragtime. Here is my recording from yesterday:

Turning to the Smulewitz text, it's a pretty classic lament of a drunk, gambling womanizer. He blames the situation on those who leeched on him when he had money and complains that now he's in the ditch and they just step over him. A more classic (and beautiful) version of this story is told on my other blog: Dos fleshele

Yiddish lyrics in transliteration and translation after the jump.

>>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Af di felder fun Virginia (Yiddish lyrics to Mid The Green Fields Of Virginia) - 1898 Yiddish vaudeville song

On the fields of Virginia
A parody of the English song
Mid The Green Fields Of Virginia
By Isaac Reingold

This is a good illustration of "parody" not meaning the same thing to us as it did to the Yiddish rhymers and Jewish music publishing companies at the turn of the century. We think of a parody as a humorous reflection of the original text (Wikipedia: "A work which is created to imitate and/or make fun of or comment on an original work—its subject, author, style or some other target—by means of satiric or ironic imitation"). They used the term both to refer to any Yiddish version of an English language song, from Yiddish lyrics with no relationship to the original text (contrafacta) to semi-faithful translations of the original, as in this case. 


Charles Harris was a very successful Tin Pan Alley composer and many of his songs have Yiddish versions in Lider magazin. This one is only unusual in that the Reingold version is not ironic or sarcastic at all - it's full bore pathetic, just like the original. 


I've found the famous American country group The Carter Family did their own versions of these old-fashioned songs a generation later. They generally retained the original lyrics but folk-processed the tunes, maybe to make them easier to sing or play. I asked my friend and band-mate Jim Baird to make me an accompaniment track using a country-esque style, but I can't sing like the Carters, so I used the original tune (the one Reingold would have heard), so this is a hybrid.


Here's my living room recording from a couple days ago:



Lyrics and transliteration of the Yiddish after the jump.

>>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Monday, August 31, 2020

A yenke lidl - to be sung to "Ta Ra Ra Boom De Aye" or close equivalent

A Yankee song
To sing with the English melody
"Bom Ta Ra Ra Bom Di Aye"
Created by Isaac Reingold
Sung by A. Fishkind



We've heard this chorus 1,000s of times, in cartoons and comedies. We associate it with high kicking women in frilly knickers. It's as simple as Happy Birthday and in its day was so popular the first huge media-circus music copyright court room battle was fought over it (see below). 


I read that this refrain originated among sailors from the west coast of Africa who used it in a pulling shantey. It was said that Black dockworkers in New Orleans caught the refrain and soon it had reached far into Louisiana, "where a Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay was shouted when anything was to be hoisted at the sugar mills"


It was perhaps the year 1890 when Henry Sayers, the white manager of a blackface minstrel company, went to a nightclub/brothel in New Orleans (or maybe St. Louis) run by Babe Connors. There he heard the resident singer, Mama Lou, deliver the song. He stole the song for his own troupe, replacing the "unspeakable" lyrics, and featured the song in a blackface farce called Tuxedo, which opened in 1891.


The American husband of English music hall star Lottie Collins saw the show and acquired the English rights to the song from Sayers. Obviously neither Babe Collins nor Mama Lou saw a cent of that money.


Lottie made the song a sensation in England and her song and dance act is said to have ushered in the Naughty Nineties. There are many accounts which speak of it as a "Bacchanalian frenzy" though she mainly twirled, ran, and jumped around the state, kicking up on the word "Boom."


Lottie brought the song back to New York in 1892 but was not a success. By that time, audiences were expecting something more like the can-can of the Moulin Rouge.


"In 1894 there was a lawsuit in London over the rights to the song. The defendants produced an affidavit from a woman who sang the song in the US as far back as 1884. Counsel read aloud the ("unspeakable") words of the original song. The text and its solemn delivery by the lawyer were irresistibly comic, and the spectators roared, and there was an attempt to join in the chorus, which was sternly repressed by the court..."


In a musical world with thievery as rampant as it is today, there were many knockoffs of this already knocked-off song (I featured some of their sheet music covers in the video). Also response songs, like I'll give him Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay and Boom Ta-Ra-Ra, Boom Ta Zing by Richard Stahl:

Ev'ry night and through the day
You hear Ta ra boom de aye
All the people sing or say
Naught but ta ra boom de aye
In our graves we cannot rest
For ta ra ra boom de ay
And the man we oft have blessed
Who wrote ta ra boom de aye
And the next time someone tries
To sing ta ra boom de aye
Be sure to blacken both his eyes
Stop that ta ra boom de aye

It was obvious that some Yiddish ditty would be set to this song and Isaac Reingold was the rhymer who did it. In the recording I omitted the first verse (the usual "Everybody is singing this ditty" intro). Each verse uses the catchphrase to stand in for something unsaid.


What's interesting (and lucky for me) is that he specified as a tune one of the knockoffs: Bom Ta Ra!. This one has a more interesting melody than the usual. Also, he did not even bother to write the chorus into the song sheet since its nonsense syllables were no harder for Yiddish speakers than for English speakers. (And I didn't bother to sing it.)

Here's my living room recording from yesterday:

Translation and transliteration of the Yiddish after the jump.

>>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Sunday, August 23, 2020

About song pluggers and pirates - the heart and soul of Yiddish penny songs

Here are some passages pertinent to Yiddish Penny Songs found in a book called Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay: The Dodgy Business of Popular Music by Simon Napier-Bell. Before I read this, I thought the business of swiping songs and printing cheap copies in the basement and then flogging them on the street was unique to Jewish peddlers on the Lower East Side, but in fact they were just copying what was happening in the American music business. This is worth reading if the history interests you:
By the beginning of the 18902, the old generation of New York publishers ... had completely faded away, outclassed by the energy and innovation of these newcomers (Marks, Stern, Feist, Harris, Witmark, Shapiro, Bernstein, Von Tilzer) nearly all of them Jewish immigrants, or children of immigrants.

They all understood that the essential link between a newly written song and the sale of its sheet music was the plugger. "He it is," wrote music sociologist Isaac Goldberg, "who by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, meyhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has, sees to it that his employer's music shall be heard."

Leo Feist hired pluggers to sing in public places - on the platform of a train station, in Times Square, a saloon bar, a theatre balcony, a pool hall - anywhere a crowd gathered.

Edward B. Marks told people the best songs came from the gutter. "There was no surer way of starting a song off to popularity than to get it sung as loudly as possible in the city's lowest dives." He went out himself each night, buying drinks for the performers and distributing chorus-sheets to the customers...

Other pluggers would go to the music counters of department stores with hundreds of copies of the song printed on the cheapest paper, then stand and sing it while selling them for ten cents each. Every department store had a grand piano allotted by the hour to publishers for their pluggers to play and sing new songs.

At Witmark & Son, the preferred method of plugging was 'booming.' It meant buying a dozen or so tickets for a vaudeville show and placing pluggers in the audience. When the performer sang, they joined in, and applauded wildly afterwards. Sometimes a singer would pretend to forget the words and a boomer would stand up in his seat and prompt him by singing along.

At Shapiro Bernstein, Louis Bernstein took his plugging crew to the bicycle races at Madison Square Garden and the audience got it full in the face ... "We'd have a pianist and snger with a large horn. We'd sing a song to them thirty or forty times a night - it was forced down their throat. They'd cheer, and they'd yell, and they'd boo, but we kept pounding away at them. When the people walked out of there they'd be singing the song. They couldn't help it."

... When songs became popular, the masses bought them to sing round the piano at home for their Saturday night entertainment. In turn of the century New York nearly every home had a piano, rich and poor. ... When Harry Ruby was a child he lived with his family on the lower East Side. ... 'All the families around us were poor. But they had pianos... you could buy one for a hundred dollars and pay it off on time payments. They'd hoist it up to the apartment on a rope.'

Because the music publishers depended on sheet music sales, it was important that evven the most amateurish pianist could play their songs easily. ... Songs were made simple, chords uncomplicated, rhythms obvious. Melodies had a range of no more than one octave, often less...

The familiarity became addictive. The listener waited with pleasure for the places in the song where he knew the changes would come, and with equal pleasure for the return to the original tune. ... There was no point writing something cunningly clever if it couldn't easily be played and sung round the family piano.

And about thievery of music:

In 1905 a bankrupt fishmonger almost killed off the British music industry. Music publishers called him 'The Pirate King' because all over London he sold cheaply made copies of sheet music on the street ... they sold for pennies, less than a tenth of the normal price...

Popular songs only required two or three pages of paper and they could be photographed or litho'ed in any old shed or barn which happened to be handy. They could then be retailed to an army of street hawkers for distribution...

Composer Sir Edward Elgar joined the publishers in petitioning parliament for a bill with real teet -- the Copyright Act of 1906. Afterwards, hawkers selling pirated music found themselves going off to jail for twelve months and the illicit trade stopped dead.

For sheet music and/or performances contact me: