Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Ven ikh volt gevezn president: a Yiddish parody to the tune of Pretty Little Dinah Jones



Here's our recording of Ven ikh volt gevezn prezident, from the cd Yiddish Ragtime.Randy Kloko is singing, Glenn Mehrbach is playing keyboard.


Isidore Lillien (Isidor Lilien etc) later had a very respectable career writing for the Yiddish theater, but here he put his hand to the work of writing Yiddish lyrics for currently popular American songs, in this case a gentle ragtime number by J. B. Mullen, published in 1902.

The original song is about a little maid in Florida's sunny clime. The parody is a fantasy based on complaints about life, problems that would be remedied by the speaker if he were to become president.

Lilien was born in Rzeszow (Reyshe), Galicia in 1882. He came to America with his family at the age of ten, joined a dramatic union at 16 and at 17 was working at a vaudeville house. Of interest to me: Zylbercweig wrote that Lillian's comedy "Gimpel Beynish der Shadkhn" was staged in 1911. I hadn't thought Gimpel was even invented until a year later.

The lyrics here give a rich detailed overview of immigrant life on the lower east side.

Oddly, the fourth verse is about Nicholas II and the pogroms. The song was long already so we decided to skip that verse.

Transliteration of the yiddish and translation after the jump.



Ven ikh volt gevezn president

Mentshn hert mikh oys:
Denkt aykh iber git ven es kumt di elekshin tsayt.
A plan hob ikh derklert, shlekht iz er gor nit,
Hert aykh nor tsu, libe layt!
Nu, vilt ir ale as di regirung zol yetst zayn in gite hent?
Ven ir vilt visn fun a gite tsayt veylt mikh oys far prezident.

Gloybt mir, ikh volt di regirung nit firn shlekht.
Gezen volt ikh az yeder zol do krign zayn rekht.
Russell Sage volt dan geven mayn messenger boy.
Vanderbilt volt ikh gemakht far mayn shabes goy.
Mister Morgan volt gemuzt mir putsn di shikh.
Ale groyse trosts volt ikh tsebrokhn gants gikh.
kh'volt mer nit geshlofn af a soda vaser stend
Ven ikh volt nor gevezn prezident.

Far di arbeter volt ikh oykh getrayt,
Dos volt zayn mayn ershte zakh.
Nor far aykh volt ikh farbrengt mayn gantse tsayt,
Hert vos ikh volt tuen far aykh!
Ikh volt aykh ale oysgeputst gants sheyn
Az men volt aykh nit derkent,
Ir volt shoyn nit mer arbetn zo shver
ven ikh volt zayn prezident.

Ersht volt ikh nor eyn gants nay gezets ayngefirt,
Az ale sheper muzn vern sheyn oysmeblirt.
A sho in tog in shop zolt ir farbrengen, nit mer,
Git bay der mashin gor dort af a rocking cher.
Kenen zolt ir dortn shpiln poyker a geym,
Peyde zol der boss aleyn aykh brengen aheym.
Es volt aykh keyn mol nit gefelt in poket a sent
Ven ikh volt gevezn prezident!

Lendlers voltn mer nit gehat keyn makht
Tsu fodern a sakh rent
A naye gezets volt ikh bald arayn gebrakht far yedn tenement
Di lendords voltn dan gehat a plog
Di hoyt volt zey gebrent
Ale hayzer volt ikh naye ufgefikst
Ven ikh volt zayn prezident

Hert nor mentshn vos ikh volt far aykh ufgeton
In yedn bedroom volt gemuzt zayn a beer salon
Vaser, veshtep un nokh epes af yedn flor
Oykh volt geven af yedn roof a grocery store
Baym butsher zolt ir kenen nemen ales in kesh.
Di lendledi zol muzn vashn yedn meners vesh.
Der lendler volt aykh nit gefregt "Vos hert zikh mit rent?"
Ven ikh volt gevezn prezident.

If I Were President


People, hear me out. Think it over carefully when elections roll around. I've thought up a plan, it's not bad at all, just listen, dear people. Well, if you want the government to be in good hands, If you want to know good times, vote for me for president.

Believe me, I wouldn't do a bad job of running the government. I'd make sure everyone gets what they deserve. Russell Sage will be my messenger boy, I'll make Vanderbilt my shabes goy. Mr Morgan will have to shine my shoes. I'll break up all the big trusts very quickly. I wouldn't have to sleep by a soda water stand if I could just be president.

I'd try hard for the workers, it would be my first priority. I would spend all my time working for you, listen what I'd do!
I'd dress you all up so beautifully folks wouldn't recognize you. You wouldn't have to work so hard if I were president.

First I'd just carry out one new law: that all the shops must be beautifully furnished. You'll just spend one hour a day in the shop, no more. There'll be a rocking chair next to the sewing machine. You'll be able to play a poker game there. The boss himself will bring your pay to your home. You'll never lack a penny in the pocket if I were president.

Landlords wouldn't have the power to demand a lot of rent any more. I'll have a new law for every tenement. The landlords will really complain! Their hide will burn! I'd fix up all the houses like new if I were president.

Listen what I'd do for you: there'd be a beer saloon in every bedroom. Water and washtubs and other stuff on every floor, and on every roof a grocery store. You'll be able to afford to pay cash at the butcher's. The landlady will have to do every guy's laundry. The landlord won't be nagging you about the rent if I'm president.

Below is the verse we didn't record:


Hert nor vayter oys vos ikh volt geton ikh meyn dos volt zayn rekht
Dort in rusland vu es hersht a min sonim me shlog di yidn teg un nekht
Fil blut vert dort farsamen taykhegvayz men matert un brent
Rakhe volt ikh dan genumen far dem yid
ven ikh volt zayn president

Di yidn fun gants Rusland volt ikh brengen aher
Gezen az keyn pogrom zol nit geshen mer
Khotsh ikh bin an ektor un bin nit keyn star
Volt ikh gezorgt az Fonye zol hobn a tsar
Nikolay dem kazak im hit ikh on a shir
Ikh volt im avek geshikt gants vayt nokh Sibir
Ale antisemitn volt ikh bald farbrent
Ven ikh volt gevezn prezident.


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

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