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:

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Fifty-fifty: a 1917 Yiddish theater song of scheming by Louis Gilrod and Joseph Rumshinsky

Louis Gilrod wrote the lyrics and Joseph Rumshisky (Rumshinsky) wrote the music for the show Uptown-Downtown. (The eponymous song was featured on this blog here.) 

I've loved this song for years but had to table it until I could play diminished chords on the keyboard. Here's yesterday's living room version:

Condensed from Neil W. Levin's wonderful synopsis at the Milkin Archive:

Fifty-fifty was sung in the 1917 four-act musical comedy "Uptown-Downtown." Boris Thomashefsky starred as Khayim Yosi Plotkin, a poor cabinetmaker who invents a “combination bed” for which he gains a patent. Khayim’s brother Abie is a downtrodden fruit peddler.

By the second act, the Plotkin family is wealthy, and Khayim is now Gustav Plato, banker and businessman. They move uptown to a mansion. When Abie comes to visit, the family is uneasy at being reminded of its former downtown circumstances. Khayim Yosi adopts the newly acquired arrogance of “if I can make it on my own, so can you”. Abie has come to think of himself as a bit of a Socialist.

Khayim Yosi has a nightmare, dreaming his company is threatened imminent strike. He awakens a transformed and enlightened man, vowing to move back downtown and become a philanthropist for the benefit of Jews. In the end, the entire family realizes that it is more comfortable living “as themselves” without pretensions, in their old neighborhood.

After it debuted in the show, Fifty-fifty was popular for years in vaudeville routines, music hall revues. Comedian Sam Kasten (Sem Kestin etc) is cited as the performer on the sheet music. Jacob Jacobs recorded it in June of 1917.

You can hear Bruce Adler and Joanne Borts sing Fifty-fifty live.

The plot of the second verse was stolen and turned into a whole song a generation later: Dir a nickel, mir a nickel.

Transliteration and translation from the Yiddish after the jump. 

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

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Ekskiuz mi host a toes gehat (1899 Yiddish parody of the Nathan Bivins song of 1899, "I Ain't Seen No Messenger Boy")

Excuse me, you made a mistake
With the melody from the English song
Messenger Boy Created by Louis Gilrod
Sung with great success by the beloved soubrette
Mrs B. Vilenski

One of the odious features of this sheet music cover is the inset, a lady in a big hat seemingly holding upon her palm a miniature messenger boy. As I've mentioned before, this period is shunned by right-thinking people but like it or not, it happened. (Just like our current period. And all the periods in between. They've all been vile, just more or less covered up.)

I believe the beloved soubrette Mrs. B. Vilensky is Miriam Katz aka Mary Wilensky. From Zylbercweig: "At the age of fourteen she married the prompter Bernard Wilensky and, when Adler came in 1893 to guest star in Lemberg, he took her to America."

I made a tentative attempt to sing with the Yiddish theater dialect this time. I'd put out a request on the Facebook Yidforsh group for information on these vowel shifts, and got everything from answers so detailed and erudite I could not understand them at all to people pointing out that, as I've seen myself, the kupletists were not above using vowels from any dialect in order to make their rhymes.

This tune is repetitive and wordy, and even just two verses made for an awfully long song. So I asked my brilliant friend Glenn Mehrbach if he could fancy up the ragtime accompaniment to disguise the tune's drawbacks, and he did a great job! Here's our rendition:

Transliteration of the two verses I sang, and translation, after the jump. >>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Friday, February 26, 2021

Di troyerike hokhtsayt (Isaac Reingold's Yiddish version of "The Fatal Wedding" of 1893)

The sad wedding
To sing with the melody from the English song
The Fatal Wedding by Isaac Reingold

There are plenty of Yiddish songs about abandoned wives, languishing away with their babies while the husband has gone off to America.

Victorian and post-Victorian society also wept over the plight of grass widows - in this case the husband has not crossed the sea but merely ignored his inconvenient first wife and his child, with drastic consequences. In the Gussie L. Davis song, "The Fatal Wedding," the husband/would-be bigamist and the baby die. In the Yiddish version, the husband and the new bride die. The grass widow visits their graves and leaves flowers.

In the original, the abandoned wife with baby in arms crashes a big fancy wedding in a church. In Reingold's version, the fancy wedding is in a tempel - this is the first time I've seen the word tempel in a Yiddish song.

Gussie Lord Davis (1863-1899) was a minstrel show composer and the first Black songwriter to make it on Tin Pan Alley. Denied formal admission to the Nelson Musical College in Cincinnati because of his race, he performed janitorial duties at the college in return for private lessons. His first commercial success, "We Sat Beneath the Maple on the Hill" was written when he was only 18. He also wrote "Goodnight, Irene."

My German language informant, Randi Kloko, told me the word shalend is surely the German schallend: "sounding, ringing out" - this is only one of many daytshmerisms in the lyrics.

My favorite thing about this song is the disconnect between the tragic words and the bouncy tune. My least favorite thing about it is its length - the story can't be compressed into less than five minutes! I asked my genius friend and bandmate Jack Herrick to "gussy it up" and give some variety to the monotonous tune and he did me proud, thanks Jack! He also mixed the song for me! Here it is:

Translation and transliteration of the Yiddish after the jump. >>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Monday, February 15, 2021

Obituary for Louis Gilrod, Forverts March 14 1930

Since Gilrod features so prominently among the parodists featured on this blog, I thought you might be interested in what the editors of the Yiddish Forward had to say right after his death. 

The following week there was a reflection by Joseph Rumshinsky which I'll post later, when I record "Fifty-Fifty," which it references extensively. 

 March 14 1930
The deceased Gilrod wrote couplets for dozens of years
Most of his little songs were popular across the entire Jewish world - his career as actor

A small number of actors and others in the Yiddish theater came yesterday to pay last respects to the deceased Louis Gilrod, but not one member of the larger theater audience, which had been enraptured by Gilrod as actor and lyricist some decades ago. The public was not moved, even by curiosity, to come say a last farewell.

It was a sad scene which elicited sad thoughts about the current state of the Yiddish theater, about the attitude of the theater audience and the luck of the small and weak who in their best years helped build up the giant edifice of Yiddish theater, now beginning to crumble...

One who would certainly not have fallen into a bad mood seeing the scanty funeral was the deceased himself.

If such a miracle could occur, if Gilrod could have attended his own funeral and seen how little popularity he has now at the time of his death, he wouldn't have been disappointed. He was ready for anything with his resigned attitude and somewhat strange philosophy of life. He had for quite a time seen himself as a corpse's spirit, hovering, its body no longer with us.

And how long has it been since since Gilrod cooked and stormed, burned up the world? How long since he was the star of the Yiddish vaudeville theater, and thereafter its star lyricist?

Louis Gilrod was born September 10, 1879, in the village of Ruizana. He grew up in Ulyanov, in the Padolya region of Ukraine. His father was a bookseller; he let his son study in cheder and afterwards in a shul. In 1881 Gilrod came with his father to America. It was the era of the great exodus to America. But Gilrod's father, like many immigrants, couldn't get used to it; he went back to Ukraine, leaving the 12-year-old boy here with an uncle. A trade was found for him: he was apprenticed to a barber. He learned the trade, and worked in Newark, but never liked the work. When was 17 he founded a dramatic club and performed "The Greenhorns" by Lateiner, playing, successfully, the role of Moyshele. He began to think of making theater his profession. While continuing to act, he began writing lyrics; this led him into professional theater, where he began to play small roles in the Thalia and Windsor theaters.

His greatest period of success began in the early years of this century, when New York was flooded with Yiddish vaudeville houses. At the time there weren't yet any English vaudevilles or movie theaters on the East Side; English language melodrama played only in the Thalia theater, where every Sunday Yiddish theater was performed as well. The Yiddish population was not yet Americanized. Every day new "greens" came. They made a living and wanted a little bit of life as well, in the Jewish style, and the Yiddish vaudeville houses were well patronized. There were two on Broome Street and a few on Eldridge Street, on the Bowery, on Grand Street and Canal Street.

Usually the program in these vaudeville houses began with a one-act operetta in which the whole company appeared. Most of these operettas were excerpted by Gilrod from the original works, and some of the songs in the operettas were his. After the operetta came "single turns" (in Europe called "solo numbers") and here Gilrod would sing or act his songs, for some of which he'd written the music. The programs concluded with one-acts or more acting sketches featuring Max Gebil and Ida Dvorkin, or Zigmund Vayntraub and his wife, or Louie Kremer, Jacob Vekslekh, or Gilrod. Each was the star of a vaudeville house in which he played. These sketches were written by Gebil, Louis Kremer, or Gilrod; each star acted only in his own sketches. Gilrod wrote up to 65 sketches in which he himself acted.

Gilrod's popularity was, however, not as an actor. Although he created his own comic characters in the course of his career, many others surpassed him. It was as a lyricist that he was popular and famous, as the writer of the songs sung in the Yiddish operettas he revealed his rhythm and musicality. His lyrics sang themselves. He wasn't one-sided, he wrote national, sentimental, humorous and social songs. There were lyrics through which actors became famous and lyrics sung by tens of thousands of Jews in the whole world. Especially popular was his ditty "Pavolye, Reb Volye," which Mogulesco sang in "Faytl Pavolye," the lyrics to Thomashefsky's "Pintele Yid" (music by Herman Wohl), and "Got un zayn mishpet iz gerekht" (written together with David Meyerowitz) which was sung by Jacob P. Adler in Libin's "Gebrokhene hertser."

After retiring from acting, he kept writing lyrics. His last lyrics were to Siegel's operetta "Dos freylikhe yesoymele" (music by Joseph Rumshinsky), which is playing at the Second Avenue theater right now.

Gilrod also had to his credit the big theater career of Muni Weisenfreund. In 1918 as Morris Schwartz's messenger he went to Muni in Philadelphia, where he was playing in a Yiddish vaudeville house, saying he should come to New York and play in Yiddish art theater at Irving Place.

These last 3-4 years Gilrod was ill and expected catastrophe every day. In the last months his illness intensified and he had to be taken to the hospital. He was in a bad economic situation and two weeks ago a matinee benefit performance was organized for him at the Second Avenue Theater. Stars acted, but one star was missing - the public didn't come... The sick Gilrod had barely managed to drag himself to the theater, and instead of coming home with money, he was left with heartache.

Feeling his last days were near, Gilrod asked for the actor Abraham Sinkoff and gave him all his lyrics, asking that they be published. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Meyzl, kum kusht dayn Reyzl! - 1901 Louis Koppelman parody of "Pliny, Come Kiss Yo' Baby"

Meyzl, come kiss your Reyzl 
by Louis Kopelman 
Sung by Madame Finkel, with the melody from 
Pliny Come Kiss You Baby

I think this sheet music cover (left) is the ugliest one ever. Dave Reed Jr wrote the original words and melody.

This is on a page of Lider magazin with another song (for which I can't find the melody) (Fun Aylenish kumt keyn guts aroys sung by H. Rosenshteyn). It says they are songs from "Der muzinke" by Professor Horowitz, about whom I've written on this blog.

Madame Emma Finkel (there's an amazing story about her I'll tell in a later post) sang this song in the show. The first verse, which I didn't sing, is just the setup: Reyzl is a very healthy, strong village girl longing for her sweetheart.

I sang verse 3 and then verse 2, in which she bewails his absence (we know he isn't worth it though).

I sent the sheet music to pianist extraordinaire Glenn Mehrbach and he e-mailed me this ragtime piano file, thanks Glenn!

So here is our rendition:

Yiddish transliteration and translation after the jump
>>>>>READ MORE >>>>>

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Shmaysn vet men mikh shoyn say vi say (They're going to smite me anyway)

UPDATE: Reposting to add the video I just made of me singing this really fun song. It's a quarantine do-it-yourself special: I sang lead and harmony and played oompah and then added what should have been a fiddle line, but because I was babysitting for my son's dog and it was whining and barking, instead I played the line on the Yamaha ("clarinet" setting, YMMV). This was the first video I tried with two of me.

Sung with the greatest success by the famous coupletist
Mr. Morris Seidman
Distributed by Sani Shapiro 120 Delancey Street

I've pretty much given up on finding any more of the melodies in the Morris Rund Penny Song collection but every once in a while I give the orphans a whirl. Yesterday I was lucky at the Sound Archives of the National Library of Israel - they have the song printed by Sani Shapiro on a broadside as "Shmaysn" but recorded as Schmasen wet men dich. - and not by Max Zaydman (Seidman) who is named on the Shapiro songsheet, but by comic singer Max Streng (1874-1928).

Max Streng was born in 1874 in Lemberg, Galicia. He was a chorus boy in Gimpel's theatre and started to act in 1891 on the Polish stage, soon after on the Yiddish stage. He toured England, France, Romania, Poland and Germany and then staged theater for for many years in Vienna.

I found this recording of great interest because it is the first I've found of a Yiddish parody set to an American tune! In this case it's "I'm Goin' To Live Anyhow Till I Die," by Shep Edmonds, a tune also used for a parody I recorded called Ven ales iz farbay (check there for a longer discussion). On today's songsheet the original melody is not cited (perhaps because there are minor tweaks to make the Yiddish fit better) and the parodist is anonymous.

There is a strong flavor of the original in the contrafactum. In each version we have a non-religious, good-time-loving hero. In the original English chorus he sings:

I’m goin’ to live anyhow, till I die
I knows ma’ kind of a life ain’t very high
With sticks and stones a you can break a ma bones
[note in the Yiddish he is a "treyf bone"]
You may talk all you want to ’bout me when I’m gone
But I’m goin’ to live anyhow, till I die

I love Max Streng's voice, it is so joyous! Have a listen.

Transliteration of all three verses (Streng sang only two) and translation from the Yiddish after the jump. I had to face the fact that I don't know how to use the verb smote, smited, smitten? So I've decided to go around it.

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

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Shtoyst zikh on (Figure it out yourself) - Solomon Small sang it in 1910 and I sang it today.

UPDATE: The lyrics for two verses of this song were found in Solomon Small's own magazine of (primarily his own) Yiddish theater song lyrics, but it took a while to find the melody (on the recording you'll find below, which I bought on eBay). Updating because four years ago I had somehow mislaid my own version so today when I wanted to write it up for my "Yiddish pour tous" series, I had to sing it over again.

Also, Mordkhe Miller and Ri Turner helped me figure out the words to the third verse. I guess it was a little too risque to be printed on the sheet music. The music teacher and his beautiful student work on the piano, the verb is tsimblen which means play the cimbalom, strike the cymbals; make a racket, play boisterous music; thrash, beat and it sometimes is used for people beating on each other and it also is a rough synonym for banging, which would have been the cruder translation. Anyway, here's my recording from this morning:

And also to point out this song has the same "nudge nudge wink wink" theme as a song I posted in December: Dos iberike farshteyt aleyn (and the rest, you understand).

Now back to the real thing: I found the Smulewitz record on ebay. What a great orchestra! The song is by Arnold Perlmutter and Herman Wohl with words by Louis Gilrod. The singer is composer and performer Solomon Small (originally Solomon Smulewitz) but the song was originally out in 1909 featuring Bessie Thomashefsky - it's from Boris Thomashefsky's show Dos pintele yid (or as it says on the sheet music Das pintele yud). You'll find it spelled Shtoist sich on or Shtoist zikh on. I love this recording!

I'm sad the third verse (about, I assume, a lecherous piano teacher) is not printed in the sheet music. If anybody wants to figure it out I'd be grateful. Email me if you do.

The YIVO transliteration of the Yiddish and my translation after the jump.

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

Labels: , , , , , , ,