Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Vos vet zayn der sof? What will the end be? A Yiddish labor union song.



Many, maybe most, of the penny songsheets are about the problems of the working class. Their tunes tend to be a bit dreary, like this one, which was much improved by having Jim Baird's acoustic bass as the sole accompaniment. Jim and I have played together in Mappamundi since 1994. I owe him a lot! Thanks Jim! This was the first time he played the tune.

See here that this tune has no attribution other than "aroysgebn" which means distributed. David Berkowitz was in charge of selling the Yiddish broadsides wholesale to the peddlers who sold them in the street. They probably were singing the song to attract attention, people would hear the tune and sort of learn it and then buy the words and take them home.

Professor Jacobs, Mind Reader, was the advertiser here, he was a big supporter of the songsheets.


I found the sheet music at the Library of Congress website, despite the ghastly spelling (Was Wet Sein der Sof?). The LOC has made available a very rich collection of notated music in the public domain.

So we see Gustave Mendelsohn wrote the tune and the lyrics were by Isaac Reingold, click his name to see a great little biography of him.



Turns out Chana Mlotek wrote an article about Reingold in the Forverts in 2003, recalling that when he died in Chicago in 1903 he was lauded as the "Greatest Poet of the West." He came to America with his father while in his teens and worked in sweat shops in Baltimore, Milwaukee, and New York as well as in Chicago. He died at the age of 30, of tuberculosis, a very common death for the overworked laborers of his day.

This is the very Germanic (daytshmerish) Yiddish typical of the period. Here's my translation from the Yiddish:

When I take a look at the workers' world, my heart breaks
Because of hunger and want and cold, there's more than the eye can take in
The worker creates for others, all that's left for him is poverty and anger
People live off his toil and his blood,
but him, they take for a fool.


Oh, dreaming lazybones, you are always sleeping
Oh, tell me, dreamer, what will come of all this?

Your hand builds many great palaces but you don't have a home for yourself.
With your understanding you create many rich inventions. Tell me, what's in it for you?
Sometimes you don't have any bread and salt to still your hunger
You feed others with meat and fat, then all that's left for you is the bone.

You plow the fields, you sow them, you harvest them,
There's a rich profit from the earth
But take a look, you wretch, see how you suffer, it wasn't for you that your field bloomed
You spin the wool but you have no clothes,
You're hungry though it's you who bakes the bread.
You create for somebody else a happy loaf; for you there's only a slow death.


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

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