Thursday 11 December 2014

Bei Mir Bistu Scheyn - a Yiddish musical classic

Before the Second World War there were as many as 13 million Yiddish speakers. About 5 million of these were murdered during the Holocaust and following emigration to and assimilation in the USA, the strong preference for Hebrew in Israel and cultural suppression in the former Soviet Union, use of the language continued to decline. More recently, this trend has begun to reverse, primarily due to its use by many Orthodox Jews and to a lesser extent through revived interest in other Jewish communities with classes being available in several major cities. 

Many English speakers will have used yiddish words in their day to day speech, possible without knowing their origin. Schmuck, schlep, nosh, nudge, schmooze all having found their word into daily use. As well as surviving as a spoken language, Yiddish also lives on through music, in particular with Klezmer festivals around the world, celebrating the music and language of the pre- war world. One of the best known songs from the Yiddish cannon is Bei mir bistu scheyn, or To me (or more literally, by meyou are beautiful. 

Written in 1932 for a Yiddish musical comedy, I wish I could, with lyrics by Jacob Jacobs (Born Yakov Yakubovitsch in Hungary in 1904) and music by Sholom Secunda (born in the Russian empire in 1894), the lyrics are a paean to the charms of the singer's beloved who is described as lovely, charming, the only one in the world and more precious than money! It has become one of the most enduring songs of its time with at least 100 known recorded versions. The musical itself was less successful, closing after just one season, perhaps reflecting the original Yiddish version of the show's title which translated to You could live but they won't let you.

That might have been the end of it, if, at least according to legend, one Jennie Grossinger, owner of a hotel in the Catskills had not taught the song to Johnnie and George, two African American performers who had worked at her Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel. Grossingers was one of many well-knwon hotels in this part of New York State that catered almost exclusively to Jewish guests taking summer and other holiday vacations, providing kosher food, organised activities and entertainment at a time when many hotels in the USA were off limits to Jews. A little later, in 1937, lyricist, songwriter and musician Sammy Cahn heard Johnnie and George perform the song at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, got his boss to purchase the rights to it and with partner Saul Chaplin re-wrote the song with English lyrics, adding a swing rhythm. Secunda is said to have sold the rights for just $30 which he shared with Jacobs.

The rest as they say is history. Cahn persuaded the Andrews Sisters to record the re-worked song in November 1937. It became a worldwide hit and earned them a gold record. Since then it has continued to be a recording favourite with some very big names having put their stamp on it, including Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, June Christy, Glenn Miller, Eydie Gorme and more recently Joss Stone and Bette Midler on her 1914 album, Its The Girls. I love Ella's version (which you can listen to here), with that silky voice and great arrangement and of course the Andrews Sisters version is a classic and widely known. However, my favourite is that of the Barry Sisters, Minnie and Clara, born in the United States to Jewish immigrant parents and popular from the 1940's until the 1970's. Click on the link at the top of this post to hear it. There has also been a Swedish version and a number of Russian songs were put to the musical score in the old Soviet Union whilst it has also been featured in films, TV shows and used as the sound track for various advertisements. I especially like the Shasta root beer advert - It's root beer Mr. Sheyn...

Over the years the song grossed several million dollars in royalties making Secunda and Jacobs' $30 look like a bad deal. However, in 1961, copyright expired and ownership reverted to the songwriters, allowing them to secure proper recompense. Secunda was an interesting character having fled Russia's pogroms, traveled in steerage to the United States and been held briefly at Ellis Island before becoming a noted child chazan. He later studied music and worked in several capacities, included conducting, in New Yorks' Yiddish theatre world, continuing to write songs but never producing work of such popularity as Bei mir bistu scheyn

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