Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Vi a foter kumt tsu eyn king (Der alter foter), Yiddish diatribe written or stolen by Elyokum Tsunzer...

... on the theme, "getting old is not for sissies." Especially in the days before social security.

My favorite part of this song: the singer's final, most dreadful grievance is that he can't get a cup of tea at the proper time.

Long as this recording is, it's two verses shorter than what was on the songsheet (see below).

And speaking of complaints, this is how I had to record this song yesterday: Sing a couple verses, start coughing, stop the recorder, cough and blow my nose, start it up again. I think it adds the correct old and querulous tone. There was a mountain of tissues at my feet by the time I was done. Click here to listen:

Referenced below as the actual composer of this song is Berl Broder - born Berl Margolis, he's called the father of Yiddish theater. He had a little troup, the "Broder Singers," the first Jews in Middle Europe to perform plays outside of Purim. They played on stages the size of card tables in the backyards of taverns in the town of Brod, a mercantile crossroad. Tellingly, while Eliokum Zunser himself (who had his own printing business) printed it as Der alter foter, on the broadside, is the older title - the title used by Broder. Hmm.

Now, back to Eliakum Tsunzer. I translated an article about him by Shmuel Leyb Tsitron and found the following: Tsunzer|Zunser, originally a destitute lace-maker, went into the wedding biz and then wrote songs and poetry. While he did indeed become beloved by Jews all over Europe, Tsitron and his intellectual cronies, however, were annoyed with him, because he'd sit in the corner while they were spouting their elevated ideas (especially about Zionism and emigrating to eretz Israel) and then the next day he'd turn their blathering into songs which redounded to his own glory. Also, Zunser got quite a swelled head from all the adulation and demanded they stage a glorious celebration of his jubilee. Face it, they were jealous.

In an article called "Popular Poetry of the Russian Jews" in the Americana Germanica Quarterly (Volume II Number 2, 1899) Leo Weiner says of the song here: "Zunser's Der alter foter in the Hamnageyn is nothing else than a different form of Berel Broder's Vi eyn tate kumt tsum kind. [Or as Weinter spelled it, Wi ajn tate kumt cum kind.]

Naturally I looked this up. Harvard has a copy but there are no melodies in it despite the title.
Hamnagejn. Fir naje herlixe lider mit melodien. Wilna, 1875
Fir naye herlikhe lider mit melodien. You can also find this as HA-MENAGEN: FIR NAYE HERLIKHE LIDER MIT MALODYEN (המנגן)

I was not able to find any trace of Beryl Broder's version.

Weiner wrote of Zunser that he "possessed an excellent voice and had received a good musical training, and his songs and tunes spread with astonishing rapidity through the whole breadth and length of Russia... and became also popular in Galicia and Roumania." At the time of the writing Zunser had already left for America and was proprietor of a printing house.

Leo Weiner also write in this article of Zunser's career in Europe, and this interesting description of the badchen in general:

Parallel with the German school ... ran the class of the poetry that had for its authors the "badkhns" or "marsheliks," the wedding jesters. In medieval times the jester's function was to amuse the guests at the wedding, while the more serious discourses were delivered by the Rabbi and the bridegroom. In Russia he has come to usurp all these functions: he improvised verses upon the various stages of the marriage ceremony, delivered the solemn discourses to bridegroom and bride, and furnished the wit during the banquet. His improvisations were replete with Biblical and Talmudic allusions and Cabbalistic combinations of the Hebrew letters of the names of the married couple; his verses were mere rhyming lines without form or rhythm, and his jests were of a low order and even coarse. The name of badkhn came to be the byname of a coarse, uncultured jester.

A change for the better was made in the second half of the fifties by Eliokum Zunser, then but in his teens, who had conceived the idea of making the badkhn a singer of songs rather than a merry person. He was, no doubt, led to this innovation through the many new folksons of Gordon, Ehrenkranz and Berel Broder... In 1861 he published eight of his songs which he had been singing at weddings. One of these at least, "Der zeyger," is merely a differently versified form of Ehrenkranz's "Di goldene Ur" which must have reached him in its oral form3 as the same was printed only in 1865.
A bayshpil ken ikh aykh mentshn gebn dem sof fun mir batrakht atsind
Es iz beser af der velt nit tsu lebn
Eyder ontsukumen tsu a kind
Ikh hob opgelebt yorn mit koved un mit gelt
Gehandlt un geforn gefirt gants sheyn mayn velt
Fardint kosher mayn gildn mit kredit mit erlekhkayt
Gelozt kinder bildn zey zoln vern layt.
Mayn gvireshaft mayn gantse kraft durkh mayne kinder ver ikh on
Haynt iz far mir farshpart di tir
Ikh hob zikh nit vu ahin tsu ton.

Mayne mebl hot vi sheyn gold beloykhtn, mayne betgevant iz geven mit zilber fayn
Di tsimern oysgemolt mit sheyne frukhtn, ikh hob gemeynt es vet eybik azoy zayn,
Un haynt, shlof ikh mit doykhek (scarcity)
Baym zun in der kalte kikh
Tshadne iz dort un roykhik, az der hust dershtikt shoyn mikh
In hoyz vu es shteyt di shtiln, lozt di dinst mikh nit arayn,
Er vet aynrikhtn di brikn, ot der alter shvayn
Ikh shtey bay der kikh, un varem mikh, kumt arayn di shnir un makht mir mayn kop dul
Zi shrayt shoyn bald, mit koyles, gevald, in ale tep iz shoyn der alter ful.

Far kinder hob ikh mayn haldz geshnitn, ikh bin gevorn gro un oysgedart,
Brider! Got zol aykh bahitn, azoy an elter vi ikh hob zikh dervart,
Eyder ikh hob dertsoygn mayn kind, mayn eltsten aleyn, hob ikh farfoylt mayne oygn, fun trern fun geveyn,
Dollers iz geshvumen, un kreftn vert men on,
Eyder zey hobn bakumen, in moyl dem ershtn tson
Di pokelekh, di mozelekh, der tate shtelt zayn lebn eyn in kon,
Haynt traybt men mikh aroys fun kikh, ikh hob mikh nit vu ahin tsu ton.

Mayn zun az ikh gib avek in kheyder, mit fargenign bin ikh geven zat,
Mayn tokhter az es vet onton naye kleyder, vos far a nakhes der tate mame hot dos gehat
Flegt zey vey ton eyn eyver, tut mir nokh merer vey,
Gevuntsht zikh dem keyver, nor an oysbaytung far zey,
Gelofn tsu doktoyrim vi a farsamter fish,
In besoylem af di kveyrim dervekn dort a zkhus
Zunenyu! Oy tokhterinu! Vi kent ir zayn tsu mir azoy fil fremd,
Zet farshteyt, vi der tate geyt, on a pitsl shukh un on a hemd.

Mayn friling hob ikh farbrakht vos frayer, un mayn zumer hot mir oykh di zun geshaynt
In mayn harbst breng ikh arayn in shayer. Oh! vi shlekht mayn vinter geyt mir haynt
Mayne taykhn iz farfloyrn, di blut in di eyvrim shteyt
Di feld fun mayne yorn, iz gro un veys farshneyt
Di bleter fun mayn elter, iz gel vi vinter a blat,
Mayn kind iz tsu mir vos kelter, vi a frost fun tsvantsik grad,
Ir yunger dor! Barekhent nor, ir vet oykh a mol vern alt
Der frost es brent, ir vet hoykhn di hent,
Un ayere kinder veln oykh zayn tsu aykh kalt.

Mayn zun shikt mikh tsu der tokhter, nor baym eydem bin ikh oykh nit koyne-shem
Dem gantsn tog zidt er un kokht er, oh! Vi iberik ikh bin bay im,
Di yungen oykh mir haltn vi der eydem halt dem shver,
Mi varft zikh mit dem altn, der ahin un der aher,
Fartrikent iz mayn gimen, farkhalesht biz zeyger tsvey,
Shver iz tsu bakumen, fun di kinder a glezer tey
Ikh bet got! Dikh, derbarem zikh, nem shoyn mayn neshome tsu dir arayn
Shik dayn toyt, tsu mir in noyt. Ikh zol nit darfn bay di kinder zayn.

I can be an example to you, look at how I've ended up
It's better not to be alive in the world
Than to go live with your child
I lived out my years with honor and money,
I had a business, I traveled, my world was beautiful,
I earned my money honestly with credit and honor
I had my children educated so they would be respectable people.
All my riches and my strength lost through my children.
Now the door is locked against me, I have nowhere to go.

My furniture shone like gold, my bedclothes were wrought with fine silver thread,
The rooms were painted with lovely fruit, I thought it would always be that way
And now, I sleep with scarcity in my son's cold kitchen
The charcoal fumes and smoke choke me with coughing
The maid won't let me in the house where the chairs are:
"He'll dirty the floor, that old pig."
I stay in the kitchen and warm myself,
Then my daughter-in-law comes and makes me crazy
She shouts and howls, "Gevald, the old fool is getting into all my pots."

For my children I cut my own throat, I became gray and thin,
Brothers! May God preserve you from the old age I've lived to see.
Before my eldest child was educated my eyes were already
ruined through tears and laments,
The dollars swam away, my strength was destroyed
Before they got the first teeth in their mouths.
The pox, the measles, the father put his own life at risk
Now I'm driven out of the kitchen, I have nowhere to go.

When I gave my son to the school I was so full of pleasure
When my daughter put on new clothes,
what pride and joy the father and mother felt
If the children's limbs hurt, it hurt me more,
I wished myself in the grave in exchange for their lives,
I ran to the doctors like a poisoned fish,
In the cemetery I begged my good ancestors to intercede.
Son, oh, daughter! How can you be such strangers to me,
Seeing how your father goes without shoes or a shirt

I spent my spring so freely, and the sun also shone on my summer,
In my autumn I filled the barn. Oh, how badly my winter is passing now.
My river is frozen, the blood congeals in my limbs,
The field of my years is gray and white with snow.
The pages of my old age are as yellow as a leaf in winter
My child is colder to me than a frost of twenty degrees
You younger generation! Just consider, you too will grow old,
The frost burns, you'll throw up your hands,
And your children will be cold to you, too.

My son sent me to my daughter,
but my son-in-law didn't think much of me either,
The whole day he seethes and cooks, oh, how superfluous he finds me,
The young ones treat me as he does,
I'm thrown around with the old, here and there,
My palate is so dry, I'm fainting until two o'clock,
It's hard to get a glass of tea out of the children.
I beg you, God! Take pity on me, take my soul to you already,
Send your death to me in my deprivation so I don't have to
live with the children.

For sheet music and/or performances contact me:

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