Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Kolumbus mit zayn golden land (Dos goldene land) - Eliakum Zunser's diatribe against life in America

This song appears twice in the American Yiddish Penny Songs collection, once under the name Kolumbus'es Golden Land, but it was published commercially in 1897 (by the Katzenelenbogen publishers) under the name Das Goldene Land.

Eliakum Tsunzer wrote about 600 songs, of which perhaps a quarter have survived. I've seen them in print, with turgid accompaniments, for years and just didn't get it - they seemed kind of awful to me.

I feel fortunate to have found a recording from 1902 of this song as sung by Frank Seiden, about whom I can find no information at all. It's the first time one of Zunser's songs has made sense to me as music. The singer and pianist both have such a deft approach! Have a listen:


Eliokum Zunser, 1836-1913, was initially an indigent lacemaker. He changed profession, becoming a badkhn (wedding rhymer and declaimer) and songwriter; his grumpy, wordy, moralizing songs actually made him rather wealthy - and wildly popular - in his homeland, Lithuania, and throughout Yiddish-speaking Europe.

His wife and all his children died. He emigrated to America in 1887 and never was successful again. He wrote very little after coming to New York and the few songs that survive are dark and dour, like this one. Here's the translation. The song sheet follows:


Ever since I was a kid I heard about America
How people used to talk together:
"How happily one lives on Columbus's earth, it's a golden land."
I came here to have a look in the book:
Tears and sorrow are printed on every page.
In the narrow streets where the masses stand packed together
Unhappiness lies on the dark faces.
They stand from morning till night
The lips burnt, exhausted,
Someone abandons a child for a penny
They throw you from your house for the rent
Many new immigrants with heavy hearts
They fall in the street from hunger
So much poverty and sickness together
And they call this a golden land!

The worker's life floats away
In a river of his own sweat
He slaves away when it's busy and goes hungry when it's slack
He's always in terror of losing his job.
When a new machine suggests a project
Hundreds of workers are soon sacked.
Just read the statistics, you'll see every time
There are more and more homeless people on the streets and cripples
The worker here is worth
exactly as much as the horse that pulls the streetcar
He runs, runs until he falls.
No workers here live to be old.
This one starts the machine
And somebody loses his leg
This one blind, that one without a hand...
And they call this a golden land!

A person's head is worth a lot here, he's never secure for a minute
A train suddenly goes off its track, blood gushes
In street cars, factories lives are lost, the ambulance and hospitals are busy
There, one is buried, shots suddenly explode, hundreds of families are ruined,
New York has made many offers, from the great fires at night
Many jump from high up on the third floor, many are suffocated by the fire
Many fall from fire escapes to the street, children burnt to ash
How hard life is here, and they call it a golden land.

Just look down in the New York streets, how the air is a regular pestilence
People lie in the houses head to head, like herring pressed into barrels
All sorts of food that the worker enjoys are mixed with falseness and swindling
The child in the family is the breadwinner in destitution,
He has to eat harmful things and sickens onto death
Who can see the misery, how little children jump from a car
With many newspapers in their hands, risking their lives to earn a penny
There is so much poverty in the home, one tears the children from school
They remain ignorant, mired, and this is called a golden land.

Here are all four verses of "The Golden Land," click for a larger view.




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

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