Polish Jewish Cabaret: a library of wonderful but forgotten Yiddish songs of the 1920s - 1930s. Have a listen!

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Video from first Cabaret Warsaw performance: "Der Dales" and "Nikodem"

Beth Holmgren, chair of the Slavic Languages Department, and I have been singing together for a long time with our world music band Mappamundi. Last summer Beth suggested that, in conjunction with a book she's now writing on the cabaret scene in Warsaw between the world wars, we do a cd of the music of the period, half in Polish and half in Yiddish. We're calling it "Cabaret Warsaw - Yiddish and Polish hits of the 1930s."

In preparation for recording (which will begin next weekend), we did a house concert of material we were just learning and I'm only now beginning to get the videos online.

This first one is called "Nikodem" in Polish; the music's by composer Alexander Olshanetsky and the Polish lyrics are by Ludwik Starski (born Louis KaƂuszyner). We were wondering which came first, the Polish or the Yiddish version, but in the YIVO archives I found a folder in the Benzion Witler boxes which contains the printed sheet music of Nikodem and the hand-written lyrics of "Der Dales," along with the orchestra parts for Benzion Witler's recording of the song. Score! Evidently Jacob Jacobs wrote the Yiddish lyrics.

For this show we projected subtitles (captions) on the wall over our heads; I've duplicated the captions on this video, which is rough but gives you the general idea.

Nikodem is a much-praised man about town. "Der Dales" means poverty, and in this song it's treated like an unpleasant guest, present day and night, casting a pall over everything - but you learn to live with it (him). Michael Wex, in his famous Born to Kvetch, writes:

p. 205-206 "... poverty was the basic condition of life for most Yiddish-speaking Jews, and poverty therefore looms large in Yiddish. The main word for poverty is dales, from a Hebrew root meaning "to become weak, to be brought low," and there are dozens, maybe even scores of idioms in which dales figures.

You can talk about a dales vi in posek shteyt, poverty that would fulfill every requirement listed in the Bible, if the Bible listed requirements for poverty. Less scripturally, there is a dales vi a kurfirsht, "a poverty like a prince of the Holy Roman Empire," positively regal in the extent of its deprivation, in the degree to which you - the pauper - are nothing but its hereditary tenant. Note how close dales comes to being personified, to taking on the traits of a real, living person...

Der dales fayft fun ale zaytn, poverty whistles from every side, in yedn vinkl, in every corner...


You can hear the originals on youtube: Ben-Zion Witler singing Der Dales and Adam Aston singing Nikodem

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