UKULELE MUSING 44, 9 NOVEMBER 2019: “BEI MIR BIST DU SCHON (Means That You Are Grand),” A Culture Shifting Song
As we poke around our Yellow and Blue Books in our Saturday strum sessions, there are some songs we tend to overlook. “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” is one of them. It’s only four chords in the key of D minor and our book has the English version, but the German title probably throws most of us off and we quickly move on. Actually, this is a “Germanized” title that—believe it or not—became a world-wide hit when recorded by the Andrews Sisters back in 1937.
Andrews Sisters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe2UXccid40
The song is a couple of years older than that, however. It was originally written in 1932 by Jacob Jacobs (1890-1977), lyrics,
and Sholem Secunda (1894-1974), music,
for a New York Yiddish theater musical comedy—“I Would If I Could.”
Alas, the musical was a flop and faded away quickly; but the song lives on and on in a serious shift of cultures, to say the least!
Original Yiddish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUVEq6NC7mM
In the 1930s, Yiddish theater in New York was big as Yiddish was the at-home and street language of much of the huge Jewish population of the city.
Publications, plays, and sheet music published in Yiddish were everywhere and many Tin Pan Alley composers, as well as New York musicians and performers, had their start in this popular medium. In fact, our song, is considered by many as the “the world’s best-known and longest-reigning Yiddish theater song of all time.” How about that!
Modern Yiddish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TI4CzA7Gzhs
The story goes that Secunda, a well-respected Yiddish musical theater composer, rejected the young upstart George Gershwin as a co-writer in favor of his pal Jacobs. Ah, the fluidity of New York’s music scene in those days! Later, Secunda tried to sell the song to Eddie Cantor who rejected it as being “too Jewish for him.” He finally sold the song to a publisher, for $30, and a pair of black singers picked it up and added it (in Yiddish, no less!) to their comedy act at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
There it was heard by Sammy Cahn, an up and coming young Tin-Pan Alley and Broadway songwriter who then collaborated with Saul Chaplin to rewrite it with English lyrics and a more “swing-style” rhythm.
Then, for a fee of $50, a little-known, close-harmony trio—calling themselves The Andrews Sisters—recorded Cahn’s swinging English language rewrite.
In one of those “rags to riches” stories, the sisters’ recording, with their fast-paced harmonies, catapulted the relatively unknown trio to fame. Within thirty days, a quarter of a million records had been sold, as well as two hundred thousand copies of the sheet music. Their first recording turned to gold and their recording stars shone through the 1950s. Wow!
Another Andrews Sisters’ tune from our Blue Book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8of3uhG1tCI
In another bit of irony, in 1938 the song became a surprising smash hit in Germany under its Germanized title. Initially assumed to be an uncontroversial song in a southern German dialect, an uproar occurred when its Yiddish provenance was discovered and pounced on by the press.
German Recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imvDoeY7vEg
Following this embarrassing discovery, music by composers of Jewish ancestry was forbidden under the Nazi regime and the song was promptly banned. A sad bit of history in our songbook, but there it is.
Of all the “players” in the back-story of this song, the only ones who were not Jewish New Yorkers were the Andrews Sisters—Lutherans from Minnesota. Go figure!
Aside from the iconic version by the Andrews Sisters, many performers have covered the tune. Here are just a few—from old to new!
Benny Goodman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZO5kaEZ-0s
The Hot Sardines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4-XIKt-ADs
And, of Course Ukulele: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laTR3tHotTU
So, here we have a song that has moved from one culture to the next, and to the next, and to the next. Who knows what’s next!