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Yiddish Melodies in Swing
1 The Rise of Yiddish Swing
2 "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen"
3 Tarras and Brandwein
NPR Documentary
Yiddish Melodies in Swing, the documentary about the birth of a Jewish-American musical fusion. (16:00 min.)

A musical montage of various recordings of "Bei Mir"  

The artists who turned "Bei Mir" into a hit  

"Boro Mother Prays for Son Who Sold Song Hit for $30," from the Brooklyn Eagle, Dec. 24, 1937

"If it hadn't been for me, George Gershwin might never have written Rhapsody in Blue," from the Brooklyn Eagle, Dec. 30, 1959

"Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen"

The story of this tune's stratospheric rise is as unlikely as that of Yiddish swing itself. “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” was composed by Sholom Secunda for a 1932 Yiddish musical that opened and closed in one season. Fast-forward to 1937. Lyricist Sammy Cahn and pianist Lou Levy were catching a show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when two black performers called Johnnie and George took the stage singing "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" -- in Yiddish. The crowd went wild. Cahn and Levy couldn't believe their ears. Sensing a hit, Cahn convinced his employer at Warner Music to purchase the rights to the song from the Kammen Brothers, the twin-team music entrepreneurs who had bought the tune from Secunda a few years back for the munificent sum of $30.

Cahn gave "Bei Mir" a set of fresh English lyrics and presented it to a trio of Lutheran sisters whose orchestra leader, oddly enough named Vic Schoen, had a notion of how to swing it. The Andrews Sisters' debut 78 rpm for the Decca label hit almost immediately. The era of Yiddish swing had begun.

"Bei Mir" would soon be covered by virtually every pop and jazz artist of the age, and was even retranslated into French, Swedish, Russian -- and German. (The song was a hit in Hitler's Germany until the Nazi Party discovered that its composer was a Jew, and that the song's title was Yiddish rather than a south German dialect.)

The song's success also sparked frenzied searches for other Yiddish crossover hits. Some attempts, like "Joseph, Joseph" ("Yosl, Yosl"), by the team of Chaplin and Cahn for the Andrews, and "My Little Cousin" ("Di Grine Kuzine"), by Benny Goodman, found modest success. But no Yiddish song would ever hit it as big again.

Sammy Cahn claimed that he bought his mother a house with money earned from "Bei Mir." For her part, the mother of Sholom Secunda visited the synagogue every day for a quarter century to ask God for forgiveness, certain that he was punishing her son for a sin she had committed.

Next Page: Tarras and Brandwein »


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