Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In a shtiler zumer nakht - 1902 Yiddish version of "Under the Bamboo Tree" - the only truly romantic Yiddish love song of this period

UPDATE: Here at Trip to Yiddishland 2019, I had a conversation with Yiddish tango expert about this song. I had said in my concert "it was one of the earliest tangos in America." Lloica Czackis corrected me, saying tango did not exist as early as this song (1902) and that what is heard here is a habanera rhythm, I see it online called a "Cuban form of syncopation." I also saw this:
When Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton, spoke of the “Spanish tinge” as a necessary component of jazz composition, he was referring to “la habanera."

I also saw that in Argentina at the turn of the twentieth century there was a strong African element to the mongrelized music which became tango. There are experts on this - look them up!



Here's another one we recorded on our Yiddish Ragtime album. Randy Kloko sings lead. It's the predecessor to the similar (but darker) song of a year later, Ven ikh ze dikh farbay geyn.



Louis Gilrod was a very young man when he wrote these Yiddish lyrics, I think he was in love with an actress at the time (a year later she had dumped him and he wrote her a bitter love song and that was his last romantic moment).

I also think that, seduced by the amazingly beautiful and languid melody of "Under the Bamboo Tree," his writing was simple, lovely, and un-Jewish in its unguarded sentiment. Also, it's succinct, unlike most songs of the time which were very long and very wordy.

So now to that beautiful, languid melody. It was written by the African-American composing team of Robert Cole, James Weldon Johnson, and J. Rosamond Johnson.

They were simply so talented that racism did not stop them from selling songs to top stars of American vaudeville. In particular, Marie Cahill, whose career was based on singing stereotyped songs about blacks, bought and made famous several of their songs. When I learned about the era's predilection for such songs I nearly fainted, but I can't erase history.

Later in life some of these African American composers were asked "How could you do such a thing, write songs like that about your own people?" The answer was: by doing so they kept their families afloat and they supported entire black vaudeville companies. It was their only avenue to success at the time. I urge you to read the fine book Spreading Rhythm Around if you'd like to learn more.


The Yiddish lyrics in transliteration and translation after the jump.



In a shtiler zumer nakht

Es treft amol ven ir dershpirt
Dos ayer blut shnel sirkulirt
Der gedank blaybt vi farvirt
Dos iz a sibe, vos ruft zikh libe
A naye gefil in herts dervakht
Ir filt es, tsit es, noent un shmakht
Der bester fraynd blaybt dan di nakht
Ven ir kent troymen fray

A shtilinke nakht ven libe dervakht, a shmertslikher ziser vey
A zi un an er, farlirn a trer. Dos herts derlangt zikh a frey
Ven du libst mikh azoy vi ikh dikh dan iz libe undzer nakht
Shmerts iz farbay, troymen iz fray in a shtiler zumer nakht

Ven di levone blikt fartrakht
Ven yeder shtern glantst a prakht
Dan vert der libes bund gemakht
Dan kent ir hern gelibte shvern
"Mayn gantses lebn bistu mir,
Dikh eybik libn, shver ikh dir!"
A libes kus shenkt er dan ir
Dan zingen zey dos lid:

A shtilinke nakht ven libe dervakht, a shmertslikher ziser vey
A zi un an er, farlirn a trer. Dos herts derlangt zikh a frey
Ven du libst mikh azoy vi ikh dikh dan iz libe undzer nakht
Shmerts iz farbay, troymen iz fray in a shtiler zumer nakht


On a Quiet Summer Night

It sometimes happens when you sense your blood racing.
The thought remains as if bewildered. This is what is called love.
A new feeling awakens in your heart. You feel it, it draws you, close and languid.
Then your best friend is the night, when you can dream freely.

A quiet night, when love awakens a painful, sweet anguish.
A "she" and a "he," a lost tear, the heart presents you with joy.
When you love me as I love you, then our night is beloved.
Pain has departed, dreaming is free on a quiet summer night.

When the moon pensively observes, when every star shines so pretty.
Then the bond of love is created, then you can hear lovers vowing:
“You are my whole life! I swear I’ll love you forever!”
He gives her a loving kiss. Then they sing this song:

A quiet night, when love awakens a painful, sweet anguish.
A "she" and a "he," a lost tear, the heart presents you with joy.
When you love me as I love you, then our night is beloved.
Pain has departed, dreaming is free on a quiet summer night.



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

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