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.