All About the gonifs CD: Teahouse Sher

The Teahouse Sher comes from an old songbook at the Jewish Community Library, maybe the first oral collection of Yiddish folksongs ever published. It’s a hundred years old this year.

Yiddish Folksongs, with their original airs, collected by J. L. Cahan: International Library Publishing Co., NY, 1912

Judah Leyb Cahan, who edited & published the collection, was born
in 1881 in Vilne & died 1931 in NY. He apprenticed as a watchmaker. His life’s work was with the Folklore Committee of the YIVO, the Jewish research institute that started in 1925 in Vilne, Lithuania (at the time a part of Poland). Being a watchmaker (& later a jeweler), he was precise & methodical, knew a treasure when he saw it, & helped establish high standards for Yiddish culture study. Cahan’s collection of more than 400 documents & manuscripts was lost during WWII, but he still managed to publish several books of Yiddish folklore. This one alone is worth a trip to the library, or at least a virtual trip to the Yiddish Book Center.

Oy vey, Brayne!

If you click on the image above, you can read the first verse of the song written under the music: “Oy vey, Braine! Ikh hob tsu dir a tayne. Tu-zhe on dos royte kleydl un kum mit mir in tshay-ne.”

Brayne (almost rhymes with “China”) is a girl’s name you don’t hear much nowadays. It sounds like something you’d put pickles in. But Alexander Harkavy says it comes from the German word “Braune,” brown. So maybe she’s a brown-haired girl or maybe she’s dark-skinned, a Romany girl.

Harkavy’s Yiddish-English-Hebreyish dictionary gives “tayne” (rhymes with “Braine”) as a claim or a plea. So it’s like the kind of plea you might make in court: “Oy vey, Your Honour, have mercy, baby.”  People often use it to mean “complaint.”

And I love that here in Yiddishland, “China” (here spelt “Tshai-ne”) is the place you go for tea: that is, the teahouse.

So the first verse says, literally, “Oy vey, Brownie, I have a plea for you: Put on your red dress & come with me to China.”

Main plot points of the song: She comes to the teahouse, she meets someone else, I meet someone else, we go for a promenade, the new girl walks me home.

Of course I instantly wanted to sing this song. Courtship, a red dress, a teahouse & partner-switching; plus the melody reminds me of one of the Vinnitsya brass band tunes from Ukraine.

Cahan’s note at the bottom right says that the song came from the town of Pereyeslav in Ukraine (Sholom Aleikhem’s hometown). Pereyeslav & Vinnitsya are about 100 miles apart, so you have to wonder how the tune traveled: from Vinnitsya to Pereyeslav? Through a singer’s throat, into the Edison phono-recording machine, onto a wax cylinder, to the YIVO collection in Vilne, to the Cahan book, through WWII, to New York, to the Jewish Library in SF, to me, to you.

Teahouse tk 4

The sher is a Yiddish couples dance – very daring for its time, the XIX century – in which boys & girls hold hands, promenade, prance around, show off, switch partners, then pair up again. The dance tells the same story as the song – love is fluid, it moves from person to person. If one person doesn’t want to walk you home, another one will. So don’t despair. Just keep dancing, & have a glass of tea, & it will all work out.

Michael Alpert teaches a long, beautiful sher that lets every dancer in a group dance with every other person. It takes a half-hour to dance (& longer to teach). So most Yiddish dance teachers stick with the shorter sher that was popular at the New York Workman’s Circle (in Yiddish, the Arbeter Ring). They sometimes call it the WC sher. But since that gets a laugh in Europe, where WC means toilet (water closet), teachers started calling it the Arbeter Ring sher. Bruce Bierman showed it to me, & I spent about a year trying to make an arrangement of the song that would fit the dance. I thought: The Yiddish dance teachers of the world will flock to buy a CD that they could use to teach the Arbeter Ring sher. So that’s four sales, at least.

I took about a year to work out an arrangement, swimming up & down the slow lane at the Berkeley Y. After swimming on Saturdays I’d come home & sing the tune & dance the sher in my tiny shack, bumping into the furniture, toppling piles of Yiddish books.

One night to take a break I tuned in Dore Stein’s music show, “Tangents,” on KALW. He was playing Cuban music & I got the idea that the whole band could chant  “Oy vey, Brayne” as a chorus, the way Cuban soneros chant the names of the orishas. Then to make the music fit the dance, I added a little turnaround from a Ruth Rubin field recording, “A Kadril.”

It’s a Yiddishe mashup.

We asked the musicians from Veretski Pass (Cookie Segelstein, fiddle; Josh Horowitz, accordion; & Stu Brotman, cello) to be honorary gonifs & record it with me. It was just a longshot – but they said yes! They also recorded an instrumental sher, “A zekele gelt,” so people could promenade after the dance.

Josh, Stu & Cookie told me it was the first time they’d ever been asked to sing on a recording. Cookie says her mother, Lilly, will be thrilled.

And someday soon Porto Franco Records will make the instructional Yiddish dance video, with Arthur Murray footprint diagrams, Veretski Pass playing, &  Yiddish hipsters dancing  while they hook up at the teahouse.