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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Fifty-fifty: a 1917 Yiddish theater song of scheming by Louis Gilrod and Joseph Rumshinsky

Louis Gilrod wrote the lyrics and Joseph Rumshisky (Rumshinsky) wrote the music for the show Uptown-Downtown. (The eponymous song was featured on this blog here.) 

I've loved this song for years but had to table it until I could play diminished chords on the keyboard. Here's yesterday's living room version:


Condensed from Neil W. Levin's wonderful synopsis at the Milkin Archive:

Fifty-fifty was sung in the 1917 four-act musical comedy "Uptown-Downtown." Boris Thomashefsky starred as Khayim Yosi Plotkin, a poor cabinetmaker who invents a “combination bed” for which he gains a patent. Khayim’s brother Abie is a downtrodden fruit peddler.

By the second act, the Plotkin family is wealthy, and Khayim is now Gustav Plato, banker and businessman. They move uptown to a mansion. When Abie comes to visit, the family is uneasy at being reminded of its former downtown circumstances. Khayim Yosi adopts the newly acquired arrogance of “if I can make it on my own, so can you”. Abie has come to think of himself as a bit of a Socialist.

Khayim Yosi has a nightmare, dreaming his company is threatened imminent strike. He awakens a transformed and enlightened man, vowing to move back downtown and become a philanthropist for the benefit of Jews. In the end, the entire family realizes that it is more comfortable living “as themselves” without pretensions, in their old neighborhood.

After it debuted in the show, Fifty-fifty was popular for years in vaudeville routines, music hall revues. Comedian Sam Kasten (Sem Kestin etc) is cited as the performer on the sheet music. Jacob Jacobs recorded it in June of 1917.

You can hear Bruce Adler and Joanne Borts sing Fifty-fifty live.

The plot of the second verse was stolen and turned into a whole song a generation later: Dir a nickel, mir a nickel.

Transliteration and translation from the Yiddish after the jump. 

Ikh hof, mir veln nokh derlebn, kumen zol di tsayt,
Ven es veln mer nit zayn keyn bosses un keyn arbetslayt;
Di sotsialistn veln makhn a sof tsu orem un raykh,
Di bosses mit di arbeter veln zikh teyln glaykh af glaykh!

Fifty-fifty, Fifty-fifty, oy oy oy, fifty!
Vanderbilt vet vi an oks
Zitsn un shvitsn un neyen cloaks;
Lomir trayen umetum,
Keyn tsayt farlirn un shnel aynfirn
Dem Fifty-fifty skim, oy oy oy!

Mayn bruder iz arumgegangen gebrokhn a lange tsayt.
Keyn zakh iz im nit gelungen, vos er hot getrayt.
Af eyn mol kumt er aheym mit gelt un zogt tsu mir; you see,
Ikh bin conductor af a kar un teyl zikh mit der company—

Fifty-fifty, Fifty-fifty, oy oy oy, fifty!
Ikh kling di bel gor on a shier.
A nickel far zey un a nickel far mir;
Fifty-fifty! es geyt bay mir af stim.
A tsi dos shtrikl, s'iz do a nickel
Mit fifty-fifty-skem!

Charlie der opreytor hot farlibt zikh in a moyd,
A finisherin fun zayn shop, er krigt far ir dem toyt;
"Reytshele, ikh hob dikh lib," zogt er tsu ir in shop,
"Lomir makhn fifty-fifty un vern man un vayb."

Fifty-fifty, Fifty-fifty, oy oy oy, fifty!
Reytshl iz yetst shoyn Charlie's froy,
Un altsding bay zey yu no, es geyt bay zey af stim:
A yedn friling kumt a tsvviling,
Mit a fifty-fifty skim!

Doktoyrim in Amerika hobn a gut gesheft,
Di drog-stor un di onderteykers shtupn zey unter greft;
Zey makhn ales fifty-fifty-shvindl in kompani,
Biz der kranker muft avek af vashingon semeteri!

Fifty-fifty, Fifty-fifty, oy oy oy, fifty!
Ir tsolt dos gelt far meditsin,
Un ir krigt eks-laks un vezelin;
S'a blof arum un arum;
Der opteyker un der onderteyker
s'a fifty-fifty skim!

A gengster shtelt aykh op un tut aykh oys di vatsh-un-tseyn
Far toyzend dolar a polisman kent ir dan nit zen;
Un bald vi ir loyft nor avek, in tsvey minut arum,
Kumt on a polisman un teylt zikh bald mit im!

Fifty-fifty, Fifty-fifty, oy oy oy, fifty!
Der polisman nemt zayn teyl geshvind,
Vos er hot nebekh erlekh fardint
Di biznes iz nit krum,
Ganovim shtaygn polislayt shvaygn,
S'a fifty-fifty skim!



I hope we'll live long enough to see the day when there are no more workers and bosses, when the socialists have made an end to "poor and rich", when the bosses and the workers share equally!

Fifty fifty! Vanderbilt will, like an ox, sit and sweat and sew cloakds.
Let us try, everywhere! Let's not waste time, let's quickly establish the 50-50 scheme!

My brother's been going around broke for a long time. Nothing he's tried has been a success. Once he came home with money and told me: "You see, I'm conductor of a trolleycar and share with the company: Fifty-fifty! I ring the bell endlessly, a nickel for them and a nickel for me! It's going gangbusters. A tug on the string, there's a nickel, with the fifty-fifty scheme!"

Charlie the sewing machine operator was in love with a girl
A finisher in his shop, he was mad for her;
He said to her "Rachele, I love you" in the shop.
"Let's go fifty-fifty and become man and wife."

Fifty-fifty, Fifty-fifty, oy oy oy, fifty!

Doctors in America have a good business. The drugstore and the undertakers bribe them. They make a 50-50 swindle in company, until the patient moves away to Washington cemetery.

Fifty-fifty! You pay the money for medicine, you get Ex-lax and vaseline. It's a bluff all the way around. The druggist and the undertaker, it's a 50-50 scheme!

A gangster stops you and takes your watch and chain
For $1,000 a policeman turns a blind eye
And as soon as he runs away, two minutes later,
A policeman comes and takes his share quickly

Fifty fifty! The policeman takes his cut swiftly,
That he had, poor thing, earned fair and square
The business isn't crooked,
Thieves prosper, policemen keep quiet,
It's a 50-50 scheme



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

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