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Monday, December 10, 2018

Ikh vil mer keyn skeb nit zayn (I don't want to be a scab any more) Yiddish theater song about labor organizing

This is from the 1909 show "A mentsh zol men zayn," One should be an honorable person. It was sung by Berl or Bernard Bernstein.

I have found that many younger people in my state of North Carolina don't know what a scab is (somebody who works while the union is on strike). They hardly know what a union is. The Republicans destroyed the unions here, we are now what is called a right-to-work state, which really means right-to-fire-you-for-no-reason-at-all and right-to-pay-the-barest-minimum-wages. Republicans busted the unions because union people tended to vote against them. Now there is no job security, jobs don't pay a living wage, and people think unions are the devil. But back when this song was written, unions were brave people putting their lives and livelihoods on the line for each other. The struggle got brutal but we had unions to thank for shorter work days, higher wages, and benefits. Jobs like that hardly exist any more. Oh well.

Let's talk a little about the original singer, Bernard Bernstein. He was born around 1860 in Warsaw. His father traded in geese. It's written that he was a funny, jolly singer and dancer and people called him Berele Hotske. He worked in a cigarette factory and sang on the side. He wanted to be an opera singer, but ended up touring with as a quartet in which everybody's name ended with "stein". At 17 he was in London, a comic, then to Paris and then to Lemberg where he acted with Gimpel. Adler brought him to America, where he became very popular. He was a first-class burlesque comic with many charms and had a fine career, but later in life his kind of comedy went out of style. He died in 1922.

I didn't find any recording so I made my own this morning.


Text and translation after the jump



Ikh vil mer keyn skeb nit zayn

Arbeter her oys mit kep vos dertseyln gey ikh
Gevesn bin ikh a skeb a partner tsum tayvl, tsum riekh.
Vi arbeter hobn nor gemakht a strayk, tsu farbesern zeyer lebn
Bin ikh glaykh aroyf un gezogt Mister Ike:
Ikh arbet, azoy zol ikh lebn
Un ven ikh dermon mikh az a skab bin ikh geven
zol mikh khapn der riekh oyb s'vet nokh amol geshen!

Ikh vil mer keyn skeb nit zayn vayl dos iz a heslekhe zakh
mies nor in shrek un in payn men vert derfun keyn mol nit raykh,
men yogt dem arbeter tsu noyt, men traybt im yung in keyver arayn
ikh zol zogar shtarbn far broyt shver ikh mer keyn skeb nit zayn.

Aroys in strit bin ikh amol Dos iz geven zuntik fri
Ze ikh arbeter on tsol gey ikh un her mikh tsu zey tsi
Derher mikh az men straykt nor dort un dort, vayl men hot zey di veydhzes farshnitn
Loyf ikh glaykh aroyf un farnem zeyer ort un leb mir a tog zeyer a gitn
Nor ven ikh dermont zikh in dem arbeters noyt plogn zikh mayne gevisn un ikh vintsh mir dem toyt.

Policelayt zenen nor geven mit clubs mikh imer bavakht
Ober ven ikh fleg aheym geyn oy klep hob ikh gekhapt yeder nakht
vi di arbeter hobn nor getsetlt dem strike geven bin ikh der ershte kapore
"Gey aroys fun mayn shop!" hot geshrign Mister Ike
"Ikh broykh mer keyn skeb nit, keyn tsore!"
Un ven ikh dermon mikh in di shreklikhe klep,
shray ikh oys az fun yetst on bin ikh mer nit keyn skeb!

Workers, use your heads and hear me out, what I'm telling you.
I was a scab! A partner to the devil, to the demon!
When the workers went on strike to improve their lives,
I went straight to Mister Ike and said: I'll work so I can stay alive.
And when I remember I was a scab... may the Devil take me if I do it again!

I don't want to be a scab any more because it's a horrid thing.
It's just ugly, in terror and pain you don't ever get rich from it.
The worker's rushed into deprivation, he's driven into his grave too young.
I'd even rather starve for lack of bread, I swear I won't be a scab again.

I was out in the street once early on a Sunday,
I see a ton of workers, I go listen to them,
I hear there are strikes here and there because wages were cut.
I run straight up and take their place. And I live well.
But when I remember the worker's plight my conscience gnaws at me and I wish for death.

The police guarded me everywhere with their clubs,
But when I'd go home, oy! I got beaten up every night.
As soon as the workers settled the strike, I was the first sacrifice:
"Get out of my shop!" shouted Mr Ike, "I don't need any more scabs or misery!"
And when I remember the terrible blows, I shout out that from now on I won't be a scab again.


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

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