Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Saturday, February 6, 2016

A brivele der mamen - famous Yiddish song. Just because it's melodramatic doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Most of the songs on this blog are punishingly obscure and/or extinct in our modern world, but A brivele der mamen by Solomon Smulewitz lives on.

I certainly don't need to record A brivele der mamen, there are scores of recordings easily available (like Solomon Smulewitz himself, Harry Rabinowitz, Jacob Lerman, Marta Brumer).

I have sheet music (with standard YIVO transliteration and chords) if you want it, digital download for $2.50, click here:

The song was later made into an operetta and even, in 1938, a Joseph Green movie starring Lucy and Misha Gehrman and Max Bozyk, in which Smulewitz received no credit at all.

Neil W. Levin at the Milken Archive writes great blurbs and here's some of what he had to say (go here to read the rest, it's worth it):

A brivele der mamen (A Little Letter to Mama) is one of the longest-running and schmaltziest tissue-soaking tearjerkers in the aggregate repertoire of sentimental American Yiddish popular song. It was written and first published in 1907, at a time when its lyrics resonated with considerable boom in the hearts of many immigrants who had left parents behind in Europe, knowing that they would probably never see them again and that letters would be their only form of communication.

First recorded by its composer-lyricist, the ballad’s popularity was instantaneous... [it] reverberated for decades from music halls, variety shows, and subsequent recordings in many arrangements. It touched off a virtual category of mother-related and letter-based songs, as well as some thinly veiled imitations. ... Smulewitz reputedly sold his rights to the song for twenty-five dollars—before it achieved its immense popularity and long before its use on the stage or in a film.

Have a good look at this 1907 sheet music ("sung with great success by Mrs. Sarah Kanner"). On the cover (above) and the first page, it says "A brivele der mame," but in the chorus it says "A brivele der mamen," which is correct.

I know I harp on the casual and inconsistent spelling on Yiddish song sheets and published sheet music, but compare what's printed on the American Penny Song broadside (left) to the very German (daytshmerish) transcription printed on the sheet music itself (right); neither is standard YIVO transliteration; see how hard it would be to google ANY of this. The first page of the songsheet peddled on the streets of the Lower East Side is below, also my translation is below.
Mayn kind mayn treyst du forst avek
Ze, zay a zun a guter
Dikh bet mit trern un mit shrek
dayn traye libe muter
Du forst mayn kind, mayn eyntsik kind,
ariber vayte yamen
Okh! Kum ahin nor frish, gezunt,
un nit farges dayn mamen.
A for gezunt un kum mit glik
Ze yede vokh a brivl shik
Dayn mames hartz mayn kind derkvik

A brivele der mamen
zolstu nit farzamen
Shrayb geshvind libes kind,
shenk ir di nekhome
Di mame vet dayn brivele lezn
Un zi vert genezn
Heylst ir shmerts, ir biter herts,
Erkvikst ir di neshome

Dos akhte yor bin ikh aleyn,
mayn kind iz vayt farshvumen
Zayn kinderish harts iz hart vi a shteyn
keyn eyntsikn brif bakumen.
Vi ken mayn kind nokh hobn mut
vi geyt im eyn dos lebn?
Es muz im geyn dort zeyer git,
vayl er keyn nakhrikhe gebn
Kh'ho im geshikt a hundert brif,
un er hot nokh keyn shum bagrif
az mayne vundn zenen tif.

In shtot Niuyork a raykhe hoyz
mit hertser on gefile
Dort voynt ir kind er lebt gor groys
a gliklekhe familye
A sheyne froy un kinder tsvey
mit likhtike geshtaltn
Un vi er zist un kvelt fun zey,
hot er eyn brif derhaltn
Dayn muter toyt, es iz geshen,
Un lebn hostu ir farzen
Dos iz ir letster vunsh geven:

A kadishl der mamen
zolstu nit farzamen
Zog geshvind, libes kind,
shenk ir di nekhome
Di mame vet ir kadishl hern
in ir keyver gern
Heylst ir shmerts ir biter herts
Derkvikst ir di neshome
Mein kind mein treist, du forst avek,
seh sei a suhn a guhter
Dich beht mit trehren un mit schreck
dein treie liebe muter
Du forst mein kind, mein einzig kind
ariber veite Jahmen
ach kum ahin nor frisch gesind
un nit farges dein mamen
Oi for gesund, un kum mit glik
seh jeide voch a brivel schick
Dein mames hertz mein kind derkvik

A brivele der mamen,
oi solstu nit fersamen
jo schreib geschwind liebes kind
Scheink ihr die nechome
Die mame vet dein brivele lehsen
Un sie vert genesen
Heilst ihr schmerz ihr bitter herz,
erkviket ihr die neschome

Das achte yahr, ich bin alein,
mein kind is veit ferschwumen
Sein kindersch hertz is hart vie schtein
kein einzig brief bakumen
vie ken mein kind, gor huben muht
vie geht ihm ein das leben
es mus ihm gehn dort seher gut
veil er kein nachricht geben
'chob ihm geschickt a hunderd brief,
un er hot noch kein schum begrif
As meine schmerzen senen tief.

In schtat New York a reiche hous,
mit hertz er ohngefiele
Dort wohnt ihr kind er lehbt gur grousz
a glickliche famile
a schöne frau un kinder zwei,
mit lichtige geschtalten
un wie er sitzt un kvelt for sei
hot er ein brief derhalten
Dein mutter toit, es ist geschein,
in lebben host du ihr fersein
Das is ihr letster wuntch gevein

A kadishel der mamen,
oi solstu nit fersamen
sug geschwind liebes kind
Scheink ihr die nechome
Die mame vet ihr kadishel ehren
in ihr kehver gehren
Heilst ihr schmerz ihr bitter herz,
erkviket ihr die neschome

(Click for a larger view of the songsheet.)

My child, my consolation, you travel away.
See, be a good son.
Your faithful, dear mother begs you with tears and terror
You travel, my only child, across the broad ocean
Oh, get there fresh and healthy and don't forget your mother.
Travel healthy and arrive happily
Send a letter every day, my child,
To delight your mothers heart

Don't forget to send a little letter to mother
Write quickly, dear child, give her this consolation
Your mother will read your letter and be heartened.
Heal her aching, her bitter heart,
Refresh her soul

I've been alone for eight years, my child has sailed far away
His childish heart is hard as a stone,
I haven't gotten one letter.
How can my child still have strength? How is his life going?
He must be doing very well, because he hasn't sent any notification
I sent him a hundred letters, and he still hasn't got any idea that my wounds are deep

In New York city, a rich house with pitiless hearts
That's where her child lives very well, a happy family,
A beautiful wife and two children with bright faces
And while he sits and beams at them, he receives a letter
Your mother is dead, it happened, in life you neglected her.
This was her last wish:

Don't forget to say kaddish for your mother
Say it quickly, dear child, give her this consolation
Your mother will hear her kaddish in her grave
Heal her aching, her bitter heart,
Refresh her soul

For sheet music and/or performances contact me:

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