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

Ikh bin a geler (I'm a redhead) - 1901 Yiddish vaudeville gangster song

I AM A REDHEAD   by Isidor Lillien
To sing with the melody from

This song is found in Judah Katzenelenbogen's Lider Magazin, from 1901. It's a parody written by Isidor Lilien to the English language popular song He Was a Sailor. I only found the cover to He Was a Sailor, not the inside pages with the printed music, but on youtube you can hear it as sung by the famous vaudeville duo Collins & Harlan, so I transcribed their version.

Maybe this song sank into even more obscurity than usual because the lyrics depend on slang we don't understand any more. For example, here is the first verse. It seems "sailing" has something to do with drinking:

Bill Perkins was a sailor boy, a sailor of renown.
From morn 'til night his one delight was sailing 'round the town.
If you should go to buy a drink and William was in view,
It's safe to bet this sailor boy would sail in after you.

He was a sailor, I'm sure you will agree,
Though he never sailed upon a ship that sailed upon the sea.
He was a sailor, he knew the ropes at that,
I know he was a sailor for he wore a sailor hat.

Maybe Isidor Lilian chose his title simple because it sounds like the English - geler, sailor - who knows? Here's my living room recording from yesterday:

The redheaded hero of the song is blat - the word came from High German "leaf or page" for instance a blat gemora. The word came to mean corruption, the kind of guy who arranges exchange of illegal services, using his contacts and black market deals to get ahead. In Russian blatnoy refers to a member of a thieves' gang.

There is a fair amount of English in this text. Our little crook calls himself a son of a gun. The British Navy used to allow women to live on their ships. Any child born on board would be listed in the ship's log as a "song of a gun" - later the expression was more describes (sarcastically or sincerely) a fine fellow who is well regarded.

I'd never heard the expression "ikh bin below," probably meaning I owe more money than I've got. It was also interesting to find out that just as Vegas casinos now provide cheap or free food to lure the gamblers, the saloons evidently used to provide a fresh lunch to the denizens.

I asked around to find out why our hero wearing a red tie would be considered strong. The consensus was that gangsters are flashy dressers. Ours talks a good game, but when it comes to action, well, he's still just all talk.

Translation from the Yiddish and transliteration after the jump.

Ikh bin a geler

Ven ikh bin gekumen do aher a griner in dem land
Dan hob ikh zeyer shver gearbet, vayl gefelt hot mir farshtand
Nor atsinder arbet ikh shoyn mer nit, gloybt mir vos ikh zog:
Ikh lakh yetst fun der gantser velt un leb a gutn tog

Ikh bin a geler, a bokher vos iz blat
Ikh leb mir gut un arbet nit un ikh bin shtendik zat
Ikh bin a kluger, a gembler nomber von
Ikh bin a halber khokhem un a gantser son of a gon

Pishe peyshe shpil ikh mit mayn kolner in a shlekhter tsayt
A yedn tog drey ikh im iber af an ander zayt
Ikh es sponsh keyk un ikh trink shempeyn ven ikh hob geld a bontsh
Ven ikh bin below lig ikh in saloon un es frishe lontsh

Yeder eyner heybt zayn het far mir vi ikh gey farbay
Un men meynt ikh bin a shtarker, vayl ikh trog a royte tie
Mitn moyl bin ikh a gantser held, a giber gor a shrek
Un ven es kumt tsu shlogn zikh, khap ikh oys ale shlek

I'm a redhead

When I came here, a greenhorn,
I worked very hard because it pleased me to understand
But now I don't work anymore, believe what I say:
Now I laugh at the whole world and live well

I'm a red-head, a bachelor of the underworld
I live well, I don't work, and I'm always well fed
I'm clever, a number one gambler
I'm a loony son of a gun

I play pishe peyshe with my collar in hard times,
Every day I turn it over to the other side
When I have a bunch of money I eat sponge cake and drink champagne
When I'm in the red I hang out in the saloon and eat the fresh lunch there

Everyone lifts his hat to me when I go by
Folks think I'm strong because I wear a red tie
When it comes to talking I'm a hero, a strong man,
And when it comes to hitting, I get the wrong end of the stick.

For sheet music and/or performances contact me:


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