Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dem arbeters lid (The Workers' Song) - a Yiddish song of oppressed tailors (and others) set in 1898

Jewish Labor Movement, Wobblies, IWWEighteen-year-old Louis Gilrod (see his picture on the cover page below) wrote the words to this song in 1898 and set them to the sentimental American melody from William Gray's "The Mother of the Girl I Love." (See the cover below)

Gilrod and other rhymers were hired to write Yiddish words to American songs; often their parodies were cynical and humorous, but this one is earnest, a classic workers' anthem set in a tailoring sweatshop.

This was certainly not one of my better recordings, sorry, but I didn't have the stamina to do it again. It's long!


I can imagine Jewish labor movement members and enthusiasts singing along on the chorus and feeling themselves very au courant to be singing of familiar sentiments with such a non-Yiddish tune.

Here's the transliterated Yiddish text.

In an altn finstern tenement vi eyn keyver vist
Vu ales vos men dortn zen iz troyerik un pust
Dortn af dem fertn flor derkent ir nokh dem klap
Dos dortn iz nit mer vi eyn vister shnayder shop
Gezikhte blase farmaterte on a tropn blut
Zitstn dortn oysgezetst on lebn absolut
Di mashinen traybn zey mit zeyer gantsn koyekh
Un a lidl zingt zikh zey bay yedern in moyekh:

Di kinder zaynen naket di froy krank un shvakh
Keyn cent nito in pocket in hoyz nito keyn zakh
Dos gezikht drikt oys a mine vos volt a shteyn gerirt
Un di royshende mashinen tsum takt akompanirt

Azoy zitst men op dos bisl tsayt, bay dem shnayderay
Oder bay eyn ander zort, fun zelbn shklaferay
Oh, arbeter, dervakht shoyn dokh, fun ayer langen shlof
Un makht shoyn fort a mol an end, makht a mol a sof
Bafrayt aykh fun dem shvern yokh, di keytn arop varft
Dervakht ir arbeter un tsaygt, ayer makht, ayer kraft
Dan vet ir nit darfn mer, tsu zayn fun lebn mid
Un in ayere moykhes vet nit mer, zikh bomblen aza lid. vi: (ref)

Darum arbeter farshklafende, shtelt zikh yeder glaykh
Un shaft op un makht an end, tsu orem un tsu raykh
Zol bay aykh keyn untersheyd zayn, fun rase un natsion
Hoybt uf un lozt shtolts flatern iber aykh di royte fon
Dan vet ir nit darfn mer, tsu zayn yenems knekht
Ir vet yeder genisn glaykh, fun ales vos iz rekht
Ir vet dan ruik tsufridn zayn, un lebn gants solid
Un in ayere moyekhes vet nit mer zikh zingen aza lid vi:

After the jump, my translation of the Yiddish text into English:


In an old dark tenement, desolate as a tomb,
Where everything one sees is sad and empty,
There on the fourth floor you can still hear, from the clattering,
That there one finds nothing other than a dismal tailor shop
Visages pale and exhausted, bloodless,
They're sitting in their places absolutely lifeless
They're running the machines with all their might
And they're all singing this song in their minds:

"The children are naked, my wife's sick and weak,
There's not a cent in my pocket, there's nothing in the house."
On each face is imprinted an expression that would move a stone
And the noisy machine accompanies the song in rhythm

Thus one sits for one's brief life, tailoring,
Or by some other kind of self-slavery...
Oh, worker, wake up already from your long sleep
And make an end to this, already. An end!
Free yourself from this heavy yoke, throw off the chains.
Wake up, worker, and show your might, your strength!
Then no longer will you have to be tired of life,
And in your mind you won't any longer be humming a song like this: (chorus)

Therefore enslaved worker, stand up, each of you equally,
And abolish and make an end to "poor and rich"
Race or nation shouldn't make any difference to you.
Raise up the red flag, let it flutter,
Then you won't need to be anyone's servant any longer.
Each of you will have joy equally from everything that's right.
Then you'll be peaceful and happy and live "solid."
And in your mind you won't any longer be singing a song like: (chorus)





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

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