The Black and the Jews (And In This Case, the Greek-Norwegians and the Nazis)


So, one of my best friends from college got engaged last weekend.  In addition to this being a happy event, involving tears and champagne and really battered roses being bought off the street in fits of elation (for once, one of those guys hawking bouquets came in handy!), it also lead to a great musical discovery.  Did you guys know that there's an entire genre of Yiddish Swing?  Perhaps you did, but it was news to me.

The quintessential song in the genre is "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" ("To Me You Are Beautiful").  Written in 1932 as part of a Yiddish-language opera , the legend is that the song took off after Sammy Cahn heard the African-American duo Johnnie & George performing the song, in Yiddish at the Apollo Theater.  Cahn got his employer to buy the rights, translated and rearranged it, and the rest is history.  Benny Goodman performed it in his legendary Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, and got such an enormous response that the audience temporarily drowned out the orchestra:

But it was the Andrews Sisters who really took "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" and ran with it.  They were largely unknown until they recorded the song for Decca and saw it become a monster hit:

And here's where things get really strange.  Their recording of the song got pirated in Germany and put on an album titled "Hitler's Marching Songs."  "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" became a hit with Nazis, until they discovered the tune's Jewish origins.  At that point, the song was basically reclaimed by inmates in some concentration camps.  I just love the arc of the story: the Yiddish song written by Jews, performed by African-Americans, popularized on the rising tide of Jazz, that launched the careers of three nice Greek-Norweigan girls from Minnesota, bootlegged by Nazis, finally gets reclaimed by Jews themselves.

There's far more to Yiddish Swing than just this song, though.  My friend got proposed to in the midst of her now-finacee's rendition of "Sheyn Vi Di Levone" ("Pretty Like the Moon"), which is mostly known as a slower love song:

But the Barry Sisters (real name, Bagelman) recorded a rare swing version of the song that's largely and sadly inaccessible today.  They also starred on Yiddish Melodies in Swing, a New York radio program that ran for almost twenty years: there are great audio recordings from the show available online.  You've got to wonder, though, with the revival of swing dancing as a hobby, wouldn't it be smart for the folks who own the rights to these songs loosen up a little bit and encourage some new recordings and compilations?  It's a shame this stuff is lingering in libraries rather than out on Amazon and YouTube and iTunes.  I just got to know the swing version of "Sheyn Vi Di Levone," but unlike a lot of other music, I can't listen to it over and over again, really get to know it, and decide how I feel about it.  If I'm lucky, I'll get to hear it again at my friend's wedding.  Genres with this kind of journey and trajectory shouldn't be allowed to get lost.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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