Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Friday, May 3, 2019

The freeing of Mendel Beilis - a Yiddish penny song. (Revisited)

Mendel BeilisUPDATE: I originally posted this four years ago, and I never re-do them, I just throw them into the huge pile to be forgotten again. However, my original recording suffered from being a failed experiment - I converted a midi file and used that for the backup - and it was so horrible that when I heard it by accident recently I gasped out loud in horror.

So I asked wonderful pianist Aviva Enoch if she would do a real live recording of the piano score and she agreed. Thanks Aviva! Here's our recording from this week:



It took me hours, back then, to find the underlying melody. At the top of the songsheet it says, To sing with the English melody "When the Warfield is Singing Margaret" but I looked for a song of that name unsuccessfully.

When somebody wrote and asked if I'd record this song for him (he wanted it for his Yiddish club, which was studying Beilis), I tried again and searched the Library of Congress website for ALL songs songs starting with the words "When the." There are more than 600 of them. 

I found one (about 550 songs in!) called "When the Whippoorwill Sings Marguerite" and bingo. Probably this tune was first used for a (now lost) First World War parody called "When the Warfield is Singing Marguerite" and the lyricist here wrote a parody of the first parody.

Click the picture below to hear the original song as sung in 1906 by Irving Gillette (aka Henry Burr).


Coming back to our parody - I wonder if you find the combination of these dark lyrics and this sappy tune as peculiar as I do? That's how it is with many of the American Yiddish Penny Songs - it's possible the seemingly hard-wired association of major-key melodies with happy lyrics did not exist among Jewish immigrants - after all, their tunes called "Freylekhs" (it means happy) were mostly in minor keys.

The Yiddish Forverts published a video about Beilis. I hadn't realized he had immigrated to America after leaving Russia for Palestine - that must be why in the end of this song published in New York it says "Mendel Beilis has come into our land, so let's welcome him!" Here's the Yiddish Forward video (with English subtitles):


Here's an article about Mendel Beilis from Tablet Magazine. Mendl Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew born in 1874, was arrested in 1911 by the Russian secret police and charged with ritually murdering a Christian boy to get blood to bake Passover matzah. He was jailed until 1913, when he was acquitted by an all-Christian jury.

Here's another song about Menachem Beilis: Martirer Mendel Beilis at the Brown University collection. See below.

See the original song sheets and translation from the Yiddish after the jump:


There in pitiless, terrible Russia
Where a person's life has no worth
Day and night is constantly slaughter
The sword is honed ever sharper
To annihilate innocent people
Because they carry the name "Jew"
For one blood libel people would execute
This Mendl Beilis, an innocent Jew

In the land of pogroms and blood
People plague an innocent Jew
Now he has awoken from his dark night
The persecuted, broken Jew
With great courage he stood fast
He convinced the whole world
Because he was prepared, he was freed (through his innocence)
Just as the Jews were freed from pogroms and blood

The whole world is overjoyed
By his release, which happened quickly
It made all the Jews happy
When Mendl Beilis was released from the tyrant's teeth
It's all thanks to the American brothers
Who made such an outcry
The Russian pig was terrified by the tumult
And he was forced to release Mendl

In the land of pogroms and blood
Nobody will murder any Jews
But we must still see that such a libel doesn't happen again
There must be agreement: an end to blood-libel
Therefore, be happy all you Jews, side by side
Mendil Beilis is coming here into the land
Welcome him! Welcome the red, white and blue flag
From America the free land









For sheet music and/or performances contact me: jane@mappamundi.com

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