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, 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.

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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.

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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:

Why were there so many waltzes at the turn of the 20th century?

In the days before ragtime hit, almost all popular songs were waltzes, which seems quite tedious to us. Here are some thoughts from Isaac Goldberg who was an old codger when he wrote his 1961 book Tin pan alley; a chronicle of American popular music:
Our popular song, in its industrial phase, begins largely under the influence of women. It is women who sing songs in the home. It is women who play them on the piano. The men, as it were, serve only as the page-turners ...Thus it happens that, to the songs that our parents sang before ragtime came to rescue us from the musical doldrums, there was, in words and melody, a distinctly feminine flavor.

A wise-cracker of Broadway exploded the other day with the report that the "waltz is coming back." One hadn't noticed that the waltz had ever gone out. It is one of those dances that live beyond the vogue of a night because they embody, somehow, the spirit of dance itself rather than the figures of a passing pattern. The innocent waltz! And yet a gay, not too innocent Goethe could write, in his even simpler day, of a "chaste and dignified polonaise," after which "a waltz is played and whirls the whole company of young people away in a bacchic frenzy"

There was no bacchic frenzy to our waltz-songs of the Nineties and early Nineteen-Hundreds. If the verses were frequently maudlin, the sentiments were as moral as the maxims in a copy-book. Often they read — and sound — like the sentimental admonitions of a drunkard in his self-pitying, weepy stage. There is the faint aroma of alcoholic hysteria about them. It is difficult, indeed, to dissociate the popular song from a hovering suggestion of globulus hystericus. Its tears are often as false as its laughter.

For sheet music and/or performances contact me:

Friday, August 21, 2020

Khonine (Yiddish parody of the 1904 ragtime song "Alexander")

Isidore Lillien wrote this parody, probably for a show in which a female actor/singer is trying to get her boyfriend to marry her so she can retire from the stage.

I enjoyed making videos for Trip to Yiddishland so much I decided to try a live one this morning. My technical skills were rusty so it was quite time-consuming! I was listening to Glenn Mehrbach's keyboard track through the headphones. Here is the result:

Translation and Yiddish lyrics in transliteration after the jump. 


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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Sweet Rosie O'Grady: Yiddish Parody by David Meyerowitz of the famous Irish-American song for St Patrick's Day

UPDATE: I know there are a lot of people interested in cross-dressing performers of the vaudeville and music hall stage who will enjoy this picture I just found of Maude Nugent as a young woman:

Here's the track from our cd Yiddish Ragtime.

Here is another song from Lider Magazin - a Yiddish version of Maude Nugent's Tin Pan Alley Irish-American hit song of 1896. (You can hear her singing the original song on Youtube.)

Last March Randy Kloko, the bass who has sung with me on so many of these Yiddish projects, made an unexpected visit from Florida and he sang on this in time for St Patrick's Day 2019. He is a barbershop quartet expert and added the correct flair! Then we were able to put it on our new cd Yiddish Ragtime.

If you have been looking for a Jewish song to sing for St Patrick's Day, here it is.

Note that in the third verse it is revealed that Rosie is disrespected in society. I believe she is probably a chorus girl or an actress, it was a familiar trope of the day (actually still true) that boys of respectable families would fall in love with show biz dames.

Transliteration and translation from the Yiddish after the jump.

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Khone (Yiddish parody of Irish-American vaudeville song Barney) - 1903

by Isidor Lillien
To sing with the melody of

As I've hypothesized before, WASP America was sick of its own music by the turn of the 20th century and went nuts for anything exotic or ethnic. Unfortunately, whites could only take in alien cultures by mocking and caricaturing them; African-Americans as well as Irish, German, Jewish and Italian immigrants were portrayed foully and gleefully on stage. That's just how it was.

Before I started working on this song I had to figure out how to pronounce the hero's name. The consensus at the Yiddish research Facebook group was Khone or Khune, and since it rhymed with matonele and rosheshone I went with Khone. However, in the third verse, which I didn't sing, shlof rhymes with roof, so that's the case for singing Khune, matunele, and roshashune. Oh well.

Here's today's living room recording:

I sang two of the three verses. Translation and transliteration from the Yiddish after the jump.

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