Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Sunday, March 1, 2020

All kets look alike to me: written by Hyman Meisel, commissioned by Bessie Thomashefsky, ragtime tune by Ernest Hogan, 1895

This song was truly scary to delve into.

This Yiddish parody, and the underlying song, could be the subject of a PhD thesis. Together they are so rich, they deserve a lot more than I can deliver.

I hesitated half a year before making this recording. My daughter said, when I told her about it: "Ma, you're standing on the edge of a vortex." I was just discovering the horrifying genre called "Coon Songs." The first coon songs were written in 1897 by African-Americans to ragtime tunes, for a white audience, so they were full of leering, menacing, absurd stereotypes. Subsequently many composers, mostly white, piled on the bandwagon and by the time the craze expired more than 600 such songs had been written. When later in life the successful African-American composers were asked how they could have served such an evil master, they pointed out that no other avenue of success was open to them. Black vaudevillians often performed in black face.

Lider magazin, published by Judah Katzenelenbogen, contains many Yiddish lyrics written to these ragtime melodies. (There are TWO different Yiddish versions of today's song in his collection.)

Nobody would consider performing the original songs in this day and age (I hope). But I consider the charming melodies to have been somewhat laundered by the Yiddish lyrics.

Another reason I didn't record this song earlier is, I can't sing it adequately. The range is too much for me, and I couldn't play the piano part. But finally I did it anyway because the song is so interesting. My videos are no more than blueprints - I wish more competent folks would come along and adopt the songs for their own repertoires.

The underlying song was "All Coons Look Alike To Me," written by African-American vaudeville star Ernest Hogan. Here's enough about Ernest Hogan to wet your whistle; read more online at and in the lovely book "Spreading Rhythm Around."

He was born Ernest Reuben Crowdus in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1865, son of former slaves. As a teenager he worked in traveling minstrel shows as a dancer, musician, and comedian, changing his name to Hogan because "Irish performers were in vogue."

In 1895 he wrote "All Coons Look Alike to Me", with lyrics stolen from a pianist in a Chicago brothel. The title then was "All Pimps Look Alike to Me". Hogan changed the words slightly and added a cakewalk syncopation to the chorus. It was one of the very first published ragtime songs.

Hogan's use of the racial slur "coon" in the song infuriated many African Americans. Some black performers made a point of removing the word "coon" from the song whenever they sang it.

While Hogan was considered one of the most talented performers and comedians of his day,[3] his contribution to the racist "coon song" craze haunted him. Before his death, he stated that he regretted using the racial slur in his song.
Fellow black musician Tom Fletcher said Hogan was the "first to put on paper the kind of rhythm that was being played by non-reading musicians."
He was also the first African-American entertainer to produce and star in a Broadway show (The Oyster Man). In January 1908 he collapsed onstage while performing in it and died from tuberculosis in 1909.

Here's my living room version from this morning. I left out a lot of the interjections because I couldn't figure out how to fit them in. How I wish there were a period recording! I sang only the 3rd and fourth verses, and reversed their order. Yiddish transliterated text and translation after the jump.

Ver veyst dos nit, nu zogt ir, zolt ir lebn,
Ven es makht zikh aykh kholile ir vert krank,
Eytses heybt men aykh on bald tsu gebn.
Der heyst aykh loyfn bald tsum Doktor Shlang.
Der tsveyter heyst aykh: "Geyt tsum Doktor Yakeh!"
Der driter shrayt aykh: "Geyt tsum Doktor Knoyt!"
"Feh!" shrayt der ferter, "Knoyt farshteyt a make!"
Un der finfter shikt aykh op tsum Doktor Broyt.

"Mir hot Broyt geretet fun toyt
Un der Doktor Shlang
Hot mikh gemakht erger krank!"
Doktor Shlang, Doktor Broyt,
Es meg af zey ale kumen a toyt!

All kets look alike to me.
Ale doktoyrim, hert zikh tsi:
Ale doktoyrim farshteyn a krank.
Di krankhayt fartsien vos merer in der bank.
Dervayl makht er a toler un der khoyle darbt.
Vos art im az der khoyle shtarbt?
Doktoyrim vos zogt ir dertsi?
All kets look alike to me.

Ven es kumt der tog fun prezident tsu kloybn
Batrakht nor gut, vos tut zikh dan in land
Far groys gepilder klingen azh di shoybn
Men loyft, men flit, men shlogt zikh kop in vant.
"Vote for me!" shrayt der Republikaner
"He is no good" shrayt der Demokrat
Der driter zogt, "McKenzie iz der fayner!
"Far im," zogt er "vet zayn a gute tsayt!"

Un der zogt, "Far im vet zayn shlekht umetum!
"Vote far Bryan, vet zayn gut un fayn!"
Un veyst ir khevre vos ikh zog? Ikh zog, az:

All prezidents, they are the same to me,
For they are all alike, you see.
Kabtsn blaybt kaptsn bay yedn prezident;
In strit ligt er alts eyns, ven er hot nit af keyn rent.
Ale prezidentn zaynen fayne layt tsuglaykh,
Di make iz, vos ZIKH hobn zey beser lib vi aykh!
Prezidentlekh, vos zogt ir dertsi?
All kets look alike to me.

When the day comes to choose a president, consider carefully what's happening in the country.
There's such a racket, it rattles the windows. Folks are running, flying, knocking their heads against the walls.
"Vote for me!" the Republican shouts.
"He is no good!" the Democrat shouts.
The third says: "McKenzie is better!
He'll bring the good times!"
And that one says: "With him it'll be terrible everywhere! Vote for Bryan, things will be good and fine!" You know what I say, friends? I say:

All presidents, they are the same to me,
For they are all alike, you see.
A pauper is still a pauper with each president;
He lies in the street just the same when he can't pay rent.
All politicians are equally fine people,
The plague is, they love themselves more than they love you.
You cute little presidents, what do you say to that?
All cats look alike to me.

Who doesn't know when, God forbid, you get sick, people start giving you advice.
The first says, "Run quickly to Dr Snake!"
The second tells you: "Go to Dr Yakeh!"
The third shouts at you: "Go to Dr Wick!"
"Fey," shouts the fourth, "Wick understands nothing!"
And the fifth sends you to Dr Bread.

"Bread saved me from death, and Dr Snake made me sicker!"
Dr Snake, Dr Bread, they can all go to hell!

All cats look the same to me, all doctors, listen:
All doctors understand sickness - sickness sucks more into the bank account!
While the doctor makes a dollar, the patient wastes away.
What does he care if the patient dies?
Doctors, what do you say to this? All cats look alike to me.

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