Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Mentshn-freser: What tuberculosis, polio, and war have in common.

UPDATE: Until recently I was very disappointed that nobody was picking up on these fascinating songs. But three years after I wrote this blog post, Daniel Kahn and Sveta Kundish did a bangup job on this one! Have a listen: Mentshn-fresser (1916 Yiddish Pandemic Ballad) Sveta Kundish & Daniel Kahn.

And now back to the original post:

Wow, it's been three months since I put up a song. There was a time I was putting one up almost every day. Truth is, since the election I have been so disheartened I hardly ever talk, let alone sing. There are times I think music is over for me. I just can't bear the world right now. So I sound rusty but it will have to do.

This song has been in the "to-do folder" for a long time. Mark Slobin discussed it in his book, Tenement Songs, thirty-odd years ago. I recorded three of the four verses today: the first about tuberculosis, the second about polio, and the last is about war. All these things are devourers of mankind. Fresn is greedy, insatiable eating - gobbling or hoovering when it comes to food.

Solomon Smulewitz published this song, spelled Menshen-fresser, in 1916. I've given the transliteration used in the sheet music on the video because I think it's important for Yiddish students to know what wide varieties of orthography we have to endure when searching for songs. There was a word here I did not know, laykhes or leykhes. I asked on Facebook and the only two people who answered me both suggested it is a typo for laybes, so that's what I went with. Enjoy the sprinkling of Germanic words used in Yiddish songs around the turn of the century.

Words and translation after the jump


In di lungen tif bagrobn voynt di blase pest
Di batsiln, di mikrobn boyen zeyer nest
Fresn undzer layb un lebn frukhpern zikh pek
Un mir muzn zelbst farshvebn far der tsayt avek
Un mir filn vi mir geyen shtil un langzam oys
Un di shmertsn un di veyen zaynen shreklekh groys
Un di finstere makhshoves gresern dem shmerts
Yorn ligt der malekh hamoves tif bay undz in herts.

Mikrobn batsiln vos vilt ir? Zogt vemes shlikhes derfilt ir?
Ir frest di korbones gor on a rakhmones, in bliyende lebn nor tsilt ir!
Ir bodt zikh in trern fun veyner ir tsit oys di markh fun di beyner
Ir samt di gederem ir krikhende verim, mikrobn batsiln vos vilt ir?

Nokh a shreklikhe mageyfe geyt fun land tsu land
Mit di shnelkeyt fun a sreyfe fun a fayer-brand!
Kleyne kinder nemt es samen, eyfelekh fun brust
Roybt avek fun tatn-mamen zeyer lebens-lust
Makhtloz iz dem mentshns zinen, s'blaybt di khokhme shtil
S'iz keyn mitl tsu gefinen gegn a batsil!
Vos paralizirt di kinder, undzer lebns-shayn
Mir dervartn gotes vunder, s'zol dos mer nit zayn!

Kep gekroynte, diplomatn, um tsu hobn zig,
Tsvingen undz tsu zayn soldatn, traybn undz in krig!
Yunge mentshn in milionen tsoln zeyer prayz
Un es vert far di kanonen zeyer fleysh a shpayz!
Un tsukripelte, un toyte, faln do un dort
naye lebns ongegreyte filn oys dem ort
Un in groyse tife kvorim pakt men laykhes fil
Un di hersher, di keysorim, shpiln shakhmat shpil

The pale pestilence lives deeply buried in the lungs
The bacilli, the microbes build their nest
They gobble us up, body and soul, and multiply a lot
And we must ourselves dwindle/fade away before our time
And we feel how we're expiring quietly and slowly,
and the suffering and crying are terribly great.
And the dark thoughts increase the pain.
For years the Angel of Death lies deep in our hearts.

Macrobes, bacilli, what do you want? Whose mission are you carrying out?
You gobble the victims mercilessly, you aim only at blooming lives
You bathe yourselves in the tears of those who weep, you suck the marrow from the bones
You poison the entrails, you crawling worms. Microbes, bacilli, what do you want?

Another terrible epidemic goes from land to land
With the speed of a blazing fire from a piece of burning wood.
It poisons little children, infants at the breast,
It robs fathers and mothers of their hearts' cheer.
Man's mind is powerless, wisdom is silenced.
Nothing can be found to stop a bacillus.
It paralyzes children, the light of our lives,
We await God's miracle that this should never come again.

Crowned heads and diplomats, in order to be victorious, force us to be soldiers,
They drive us into battle.
Young people by the millions pay their price and their flesh becomes cannon fodder.
And the crippled and dead fall here and there; new lives are prepared to take their place.
And in great deep graves many bodies are packed.
And the rulers, the kings, play chess.

Click the songsheet below for a larger view.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for the wonderful project. Mentshn-freser: One expects 1918. Is 1916 a typo?

July 4, 2020 at 6:42 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The box say "unknown said" but the question about Mentshn-freser is from David Lidov,, and I would be delighted to learn.

July 4, 2020 at 6:44 PM  

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