Please let me explain “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”

Here’s something I’ve had brewing for a while. I’ve had this fascination with the song “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” since I heard it in some WWII-inspired contemporary dance piece my sibs were in back when they were with Boston Ballet. (I unfortunately can’t remember the name of the piece, and the BB website has no archive). It totally got under my skin, and the more I learned about it, the more interesting it became.

It was written in 1932 by Sholom Secunda with Yiddish lyrics by Jacob Jacobs, for the Yiddish musical “I Would If I Could”. Five years later, two black performers named Johnny and George (last names lost in the mists of time) performed what was apparently a pretty rockin’ version of it (still in Yiddish!) at the Apollo. Songwriting team Sammy Cahn and pianist Lou Levy were in the audience, saw the way the crowd went crazy, and bought the rights for $30 from Secunda and Jacobs. Cahn and Levy shopped it around to performers like Tommy Dorsey, but didn’t get much interest in a Yiddish song. They translated it to English (and sort of de-Yiddish-ed the German), and got the then-relatively-unknown Andrews Sisters interested in recording it in 1937. It was released as the B-side to the 78 of “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, but it was what made the single their first huge hit, selling 350,000 copies.

It was also big hit in Germany; I think it’s apocryphal, but Hitler himself was supposed to be a fan until he found out that it was written by two Jews from New York (the only source I could find for this was a 1959 interview with Secunda). Another entertaining anecdote (I’m guessing also propagated by Secunda) was that his mother thought his failure to profit from his song was a punishment from God:

Mrs. Secunda, who speaks no English, does not understand about contracts and the law. She only knows that her son five years ago wrote a song called “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”, which today is making a fortune for its publishers, J. and J. Kammen. Secunda yielded his rights in 1933, Sammy Kahn and Saul Chaplin put English lyrics to it and revised it into swing tempo early this Summer and the rest is making tin pan alley history…

But his mother believes that somewhere along the years of her life, which began in Russia, she has sinned against God, and her son is being punished. Sholem, who lives at 86 Avenue A, Manhattan, this morning tried to explain laws of copyright to his mother because she planned to go back to the synagogue today and he fears her frail body may not withstand the fasting.

So. Let’s break it down. The song is written by two children of Russian Jewish immigrants, re-invented five years later by two last-name-less black musicians, bought by two enterprising Jews who frequent the Apollo, performed by three squeaky-clean-sounding sisters from Minnesota. In sort-of Yiddish. On the eve of World War II.

If I had to pick one single perfect pop song from the first half of the 20th Century, this would be it. It is just this compact, concentrated fusion of everything that was going on musically, socially, and politically in America at the time. It’s also incredibly catchy.

It’s perfect pop: it takes in all these crazy chaotic influences and reflects them back as this totally new and shallow and perfect thing.


Offline update

OK, so I didn’t really mean to actually go offline and get busy with Real Life stuff after that last post, it just sort of worked out that way.

In no particular order, and with no particular attempt at completeness, Terri and I have

  • gone to Virginia to visit Terri’s sister and fam, including Adorable Niece the Elder
  • had a visit from Marco and Tim while Marco was up from Austin for a wedding
  • gone to see DC band The Beauty Pill at Great Scott with Editrix and Summervillain last Friday. When they rocked they were great, but overall, I think there was a little too much “look how smart I am, look how many chords I know, look how many times we can change tempo” for my usual tastes.
  • gone to the Boston Vegetarian Food Fest on Saturday with a friend. I am neither vegan nor vegetarian yet. Important tidbit learned: unlike marshmallows proper, Fluff is actually not made with gelatin, so it is actually vegetarian. It is made egg whites, though, so not vegan.
  • ordered a ton of paper and other supplies for the stuff we’re making to sell at the Bazaar Bizarre.
  • went to see Now, Voyager at the Harvard Film Archive, one of Terri’s favorite movies, with Amy & Colin

Solo, I have

  • sent the PowerBook into AppleCare for the third time to fix the same issue, which recurred. I’m hoping at this point that they’ll just replace the whole stupid thing.
  • read Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, which was as fantastic as advertised.
  • read some of the neat little zines I bought on our trip to LA and SF

Being offline

I am coming around to the line of thinking that someday in the future, people will pay a premium to be disconnected and offline. I heard it first articulated in Brian Eno’s 2003 seminar at the Long Now foundation (audio & pdf available here):

Q: David Battino: 50 years from now when we all have broadband
receivers embedded in our skulls, will we be paying for silence instead of

BE: Yes absolutely right.
I’ve done my best actually in that respect in making music that has less
and less sound in it. I’m getting there. Actually in the 1950s I heard
there used to be jukeboxes in America that had one silent disc, so if you
wanted a bit of peace, then you put your dime in and you dialled that
number and you got three minutes of silence. I’d love to get a collection
of those records wouldn’t that be fantastic! A jukebox where that’s all
you had on, different varieties of silence.

I’ve been thinking about it this evening because of this column by Shalom Auslander I saw mentioned in the Bookslut blog:

I wonder if the one who came up with the term “Information Age” was being sarcastic, as the information it has come to refer to is not simply a burden and a chore—though that would be bad enough—but a lie, a distraction. This information that leads to knowledge, it is not information about the nature of man, new theories of existence, fascinating insights into our own tortured human ways that will allow us to become a deeper, more whole species. It’s about mudslides in India, bombs in Sri Lanka, diseases in Africa, child molesters in Florida. Jack drinks heavily, and doesn’t want to talk about it; he maintains destructive relationships with family members who hate him, and doesn’t want to talk about it; he knows which issues were discussed at the G8, and is closely monitoring the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Those things he wants to talk about. He is not the exception. Most people would rather look outward than inward, but it seems to me this Information Age bullshit has cloaked avoidance in virtue and made the distraction an obligation. I went cold turkey five years ago. No news—no television, no magazines, no newspapers, no blogs, no op-eds, not even, sadly, The Onion. I’ve never been happier. This is the headline I hope to see on the Drudge Report one day, the day before the blessed end of the Age of Pseudo-Information, just below Matt’s Flashing Red Light Of Pseudo-Importance: GO ON WITH YOUR LIVES! STOP WORRYING ABOUT THE TRAINWRECK IN BANGLADESH—YOU’RE THE TRAINWRECK… YOUR WIFE IS HAVING AN AFFAIR AND YOUR SON HATES YOU… THERE ARE NO ANSWERS HERE… DEVELOPING…

Biting the hand that feeds, I know.

The Boston Globe: shit-free

Last week, the Dig noted The Globe’s comically priggish circumlocutions in printing the title of the new Yo La Tengo album.

The one that stood out like a sore thumb for me this week was this one, in a story about Kelley Link et. al.:

Like many genre categories, this one is a shape-shifter with an array of aliases, including “slipstream,” “new weird,” and even a variation that combines “weird” with a common scatological term.

One one hand, it feels like taking them to task for this is a little like trying to get the prissy kid to swear during recess. But really, the only reason that’s fun is because the kid is so prissy. Just saying “weird shit” somehow sounds far less offensive than “even a variation that combines ‘weird’ with a common scatological term.”

Extreme Fried Food

In case you missed your local autumn county fair of choice, like we did, you can live vicariously through the descriptions of food creations in this LA Times article

At the State Fair of Texas — known for introducing the first corn dog in 1942 — a vendor who won the best taste category last year for his deep-fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches has stolen headlines again this year for inventing deep-fried Coke.

Other items making the rounds include deep-fried macaroni and cheese, deep-fried spaghetti and deep-fried cosmopolitans — a pastry filled with cheesecake and topped with cranberry glaze and a lime wedge. And served on a stick.

Everything that’s wrong with the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine in one handy graphic and one quoted paragraph

I guarantee you, that no one, not James Taylor’s most rabid fan, wanted to see that. And, the article is pretty much six pages of this:

“We’re eating a lunch of poached salmon, soba noodles, bok choy, and spring rolls in the dining room of his large, unfussy hilltop house. The meal was prepared by Taylor’s wife of six years, Kim, a longtime executive with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The couple’s 4-year-old twin sons, Rufus and Henry, are hurling themselves onto their father’s lap and biting my nose with a snapping turtle made out of a paper plate. Taylor feeds them chunks of fruit and sings “Kumbaya” with new words about honeydew melon until Kim manages to shepherd them into the family minivan for a trip to Seiji Ozawa’s pool.”

Make fluff, not war

Overheard at Fluff fest:

“I can’t believe there’s a war on, and here we are watching the Flufferettes. I guess it’s better than, I don’t know, caring about what Angelina Jolie is doing.”

I guess a little apertif of smugness helps numb the sense of guilt over not doing more to end the war?

War on Terror, 1933-style

FDR’s first inaugural address. Now, there’s plenty of his legacy to not admire, and you could certainly argue that in practice, he exploited fear to consolidate executive power. But still, the goal seemed to be to end the fear.

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.


The Globe reports that the Boston area’s two biggest dairies are going to stop using growth hormones. This is good, but it should be noted that they don’t seem to be going for organic certification, which would actually require them to really officially not use them, and to have it verified. Another thing that jumped out at me was that some “guy on the street” they interviewed at Whole Foods said “Organic to me means they let the cows out of the pen,” which they let pass without comment. That’s actually not really the definition, and it’s not at all true.

Personally, I’ve recently developed a very visceral distaste for milk, totally aside from any moral considerations. It’s really actually pretty vile-tasting, and really weird to think about. Killing and eating animals doesn’t really seem odd to me, but putting them in pens and extracting their secretions to drink is bizarre. No wonder we have collective nightmares about being used for fuel.

At any rate, soy milk has started tasting better to me.