All about the gonifs CD: Fishelekh in vaser

I learned this song from Michael (Meyshke) Alpert, who learned it from Isaac (Tsunye) Rymer.

Michael Alpert knows that the best way to learn Yiddish songs & dances is
to hang out with the old folks who grew up with them. Some things just can’t be conveyed in writing, or  on a recording, or over the internet; you have to be there in person to hear the intake of breath, to see the gleam in an eye, to feel the shift of weight from one foot to the other. Direct transmission: what’s the Yiddish for darshan?

I remember being at a klezmer music camp on a Friday night, when the cafeteria tables were pushed out of the way, & the bottles of vodka came out, & all the men formed tight little circles with their arms around each other’s shoulders, dancing & singing, fast & loud. It was a sweaty, ecstatic scene, like a mosh pit made up of nerdy reedy guys with glasses & receding hairlines. I couldn’t break into any of the dancing circles; it seemed like the men just tightened their arms around each other when I came near.  So I slipped away into the night & walked by moonlight up to the darkened classroom building, looking to cop a cup of hot water for another little glass of tea to take to my very damp tent.

It turned out the classroom I entered wasn’t empty. The coffee machine was turned off for shabbes, the lights were out, & by candlelight I saw a circle of white-haired folks sitting in children’s classroom chairs. A man was just finishing a recitation in Yiddish, complete with gestures & rolling phrases, greeted by quiet applause. A bent old lady with iron-grey hair, thick glasses & a green polyester pantsuit gestured imperiously at  me to join the circle. Another lady got up & sang, & the blunt-cut lady leaned over to ask if I had a song, or a poem, or a story.

I realised I’d walked in on something much older than I was. For centuries, Yiddish speakers have gathered to entertain each other on a Friday night, without musical instruments or electricity (forbidden on the Sabbath), with just their wits & their voices & a flame.

I knew this kind of entertainment existed. I had (still have) a great thriftstore LP of  Noah (Noyekh) Nachbush singing songs & reciting stories, acting out fragments from the Yiddish theatre. He was a professional actor from the Vilner Trupe, the theatre group that first staged The Dybbuk, in Yiddish, in 1920; but I knew it wasn’t just professionals who stood up alone to entertain in this way.

I knew that amateurs also used to get together to sing songs unaccompanied, tell stories, recite poems. I knew because I’d read about it in books, heard about it in lectures, met people who’d seen it, though I never had. I was like the prince in the fairy tale who falls in love with the portrait of a princess, without ever meeting her in person. Until now…

The scene I’d stumbled into was quiet, seemingly drab, definitely unhip; a scene of candlelight glimmering on bifocals, doubleknit leisure suits & sensible shoes. I never would have found it unless I’d been wandering around alone in the dark, desperate for a bit of warmth.  But as soon as I walked into the room, the old folks opened up their circle to welcome me in.

The iron-haired lady was clearly in charge. She announced my name, & where I was from, & what I was singing. I got up & sang in a shaky voice, with my very bad Yiddish accent, a song about going away to war. People clapped kindly, & then a little man with his pants pulled up to his armpits launched into a comic story of which I understood not one word. I vowed to myself to learn more Yiddish, & to find some funny songs, & to quit hanging around with people who didn’t welcome me.

Next morning my friend told me I hadn’t missed much at the mosh pit: she got so drunk she couldn’t find her tent, & threw up in the woods, & wished she’d left when I did.

I wish I’d known this song, “Fishelekh in Vaser,” that night.

the gonifs: Fishelekh in vaser

It’s a long story (five verses!) of rebellious youth, unrequited love, klezmorim, & fish. After I heard it from Meyshke, I turned it around in my head for a few years, trying to find an arrangement that would capture the homespun folky feeling of traditional singing, without seeming to go on & on forever, the way so many love ballads do.

I sang it in the subway, I sang it at Yiddish song workshops, I tried it with various bands. I sang it for Meyshke, & he slowed me down, & made me change the key. He showed me how the vocal ornaments are like ribbons unfurling on a breeze, & how Yiddish singers typically stretch one word over three or four notes, then cram a long phrase into one beat. I heard Mayshke sing it in concert, accompanying himself just with violin played segund style, keeping the rhythm upbeat. And last year, when the members of Veretski Pass (Cookie Segelstein on fiddle, Josh Horowitz on accordion, Stu Brotman on bass) agreed to be guests on the gonifs album, I realised that this was my chance to sing this song with a great band & I had better get it together.

In a nod to the old folks, I sang the first verse unaccompanied. It’s a short verse, repeated: “Oy fishelekh in vaser, zey iz fil beser, bay zey iz nit keyn untersheyd fun kleyner biz tsum greser.” Now this is a funny thing to say, if you think about it: that little fishes under water have it better because with them there’s no difference between smaller & bigger. Everybody knows that the big fish eat the smaller…so how is that better?

I pictured this being sung by a rather naive young girl, leaning over the railing of a bridge, watching the fish dart around in the river below. She’s in love with someone above her class — a big fish — someone she can’t possibly get close to. Smalltown shtetl life was strictly striated, & a girl from a working-class family would never have a chance of getting close to someone richer.

The next two verses are a dialogue: the mother worrying, telling the girl to come inside before her dad gets home: “Kum-zhe shoyn in shtib arayn, es vet dir gornit shatn.” That is, “Come on in the house already, it won’t hurt you any.” It’s the voice of the old folks, worrying; so we start with old-style traditional fiddle keeping the beat.

The teenage girl answers brutally: “Oy vey, mama, fartsap mir nit mayn blit/ loz mikh mit im redn oy, nokh a por minit.” Mama, quit sucking my blood! Let me talk to him, oh,  just a couple minutes more! The whole band is in here, dancing along to the irresistible rhythm of love. She goes on to say that she’s a girl with “farshtand, seykhl un gedanken:” that is, understanding, good sense, & ideas. Uh-oh.

We pause for an accordion interlude, borrowed from  a fast Ukrainian circle dance. I just love, love love to play the fast happy songs slow & sad. It’s a trick I learned from a ukelele player who always wants it slower, with more feeling. Here the fiddle takes over from the accordion & everything slows to a violin cadenza climax; then the accordion comes back with a relentless riff that I ripped off from a Veretski Pass tune, “Lid fun dem Shvartsen Yam.”

Sure enough, in the next scene she’s crying: “Oy, fil muzikantn shpiln, mama, afn frayen feld.” Musicians are playing in the open fields (that is, outdoors); this must mean a wedding; & I don’t think it’s hers. No, her next line is: “Ikh hob farshpilt mayn lebn mama; ikh hob farshpilt mayn velt.” I’ve gambled everything away; in other words, I went all the way with him, I’m probably pregnant, & he’s marrying somebody else. (Probably a rich girl with a good dowry.) The song ends with her moaning to her mother about the diamond she can’t find: “Vi ikh gey, un vi ikh shtey, ikh ken im nit gefinen.”

The great thing about this song is what’s left out. Leaning over the bridge, the illicit sex, the wedding to someone else, the pregnancy, are all implied, never spelt out. All you get from the song is: Little fishes have it better; Daughter, come in the house; Mother, quit bugging me; Mother, musicians are playing; Mother, I can’t find the one I want.

The traditional way to sing a song like this is understated: no drama, no acting out the different voices, no sentimentality.

Well, maybe someday. If I hang out with the old folks long enough.