Friday, December 23, 2005

Prophets, Fiddlers and Fools

Got out of work today at about 2:10 pm with a yen for Old Navy. I thought I’d give it a go, and if the traffic was a breeze I’d do a little shopping for myself, if it got too congested and crazy I’d turn around and head home. So as I’m driving along 3rd Street towards the Beverly Connection the traffic’s not too bad and I’m listening to KCRW, playing Yiddish songs. And this really lovely old 40’s song is playing, sung in Yiddish, I turn up the volume.

I’m told by the host that I just heard The Barry Sisters and that I’m listening to the “Prophets, Fiddlers and Fools” program.
I never did make it to Old Navy. The traffic got way too crazy the further west I travelled on 3rd, so around I turned and made it home just at 3 p.m. when the show had ended. I went to KCRW's website and I discovered that the radio program host is Ruth Seymour and this was the 27th Annual 3-hour Chanukah salute to Yiddish music.

In my quest to find out more about this music and The Barry Sisters I discover that evidently there was a Yiddish radio program broadcast out of New York that ran for nearly two decades from 1938 to 1955 called "Yiddish Melodies in Swing." This is real New York, Lower East Side-in-the-40's stuff and it's fascinating to me. Not being the least bit Jewish this is of course all new to me. Ruth also tells me there’s a record store across the street from Cantor’s on Fairfax (that is apparently being forced out of business by mid-January. Have to try and find out more about that) called Hatikvah Music International that is a treasure trove of Yiddish music. The Barry Sisters, pictured above, (Photo from the site) performed a mixture of traditional Yiddish klezmer music and popular American swing of the 40’s and 50’s. Here’s a sample of the transcripts from the "Yiddish Melodies of Swing" show:

Ms. MERNA "PERT" BARRY (Daughters of the Downbeat): We take a tune that's sweet and low...
Ms. C. BARRY: ...and we rock it solid and make it gold.

Ms. C. BARRY: The song was written for an obscure 1932 Yiddish musical, which just opened and closed. Fast forward a few years. Composer Sammy Cahn was catching a show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. A pair of black performers took the stage and started singing "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" in Yiddish. The crowd went wild. Cahn couldn't believe his ears. The tune got some new English lyrics, and in November 1937, three sisters, just in town from Minnesota, recorded it: Patti, Laverne and Maxine, The Andrews Sisters.

THE BARRY SISTERS: (Singing) Ooh, Mamma, am I in love? Ooh, Mamma, heaven's above. He's the third assistant to the guy who says yes to the boss. Ah, but when it comes to making love, he gets the point across. YIDDISH SUNG

Ms. C. BARRY: "Yiddish Melodies in Swing" ran for almost 20 years, one of the longest-running shows ever on Jewish radio. We outlived the swing era, the heyday of radio and practically Yiddish culture itself. When we premiered the show in 1938, we had a huge orchestra and a live audience of more than a thousand. By the end of the run, it was just me, my sister, Merna, and a little, four-piece band in a tiny studio on West 44th Street; forgotten.
Now Merna is gone, and everyone else involved with the program, too. But you know what? I'm not going to think about that. I'm going to think about those couple of years when Old World and New World smashed together and we created a beautiful sound that washed over New York; those years when a couple of sisters from the Bronx had the time of their lives, singing their hearts out on "Yiddish Melodies in Swing."

Will might laugh and roll his eyes as I tell him that I’m looking for CDs of Yiddish music from the 40’s and that we might have to make a trip over to Hatikvah’s on Fairfax (before mid-January), but this is some great stuff.

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