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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Yitskhok Zhelanek, where did you go?

yiddish theater songs from WarsawIt's a long story, but as part of a cd project focusing on Polish and Yiddish language theater, revue, vaudeville, tangos, kleynkunst, I spent a month trying to wheedle a copy of this book (along with three other similar ones) out of the National Library in Jerusalem. Like the others, this one is a random collection of song texts and monologues famous in the mid-1930s in Warsaw.

I was kind of crushed after paying so much for the book (which only cost a few groshen when it came out) that there were no tunes, just words. I felt punched in the solar plexus when I saw somewhere near the end of the book:

A C H T U N G! (Attention!)
If you want to learn the melodies to these songs, come to Yitskhok and he'll teach them to you.

Yitskhok is my guy. Or rather, I'm him, I'm the one who puts together little books and offers to teach people the tunes. This book was only about five inches high. Did he print it in his basement? Did he make this wonderful picture? What happened to him? Warsaw, in the 1930s. Yitskhok, did you run? There are lots of songs from those days making fun of America or worrying about what it would be like to leave home for parts unknown. Yitskhok, did you make it to Miami Beach, by some miracle... or are your bones in a pit in the forest?

I want to go to Yitskhok and have him teach me the tunes. Failing that, I want to know his children and grandchildren, though probably he never got to have any. In fact, I'm afraid he's really completely lost. Hard to know; hard to look up people from their Yiddish names. Often the name is quite, quite different in its English or Polish equivalent. I don't know how to look for him. Maybe he became Isaac Zelanek, or spelled his name with some of those odd Polish letters... or maybe he just got murdered in a gas chamber before he could ever have a family and maybe nobody who knew Itskhok, who sold the cheapest songs (as he boasted elsewhere in this book) survived to remember him.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

I'm thrilled with the Google docs spreadsheet program

Most of my other obsessions have been utterly cast aside in favor of the cd project that Beth, my band buddy (and professor of slavic languages at Duke), has proposed: a collection of songs composed and performed in Warsaw, Poland, between the World Wars, some in Polish and some in Yiddish, almost all Jewish. I'm going to the archives at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and at the New York Public Library later this month to work on this project of forgotten people and "shlagers" (hits) and wanted a way to organize the information I have already. I asked Ezra if Google spreadsheet program would work for me and he got me started (basically by going to my gmail account and clicking "Documents" in a row I never noticed at the top of the page)

Example of google doc spreadsheet use as a database

I've been putting the "forgotten" musicians into Wikipedia (I'm up to almost four dozen now) and so I was able to dump that information into separate Google docs which I then link to the cells in this spreadsheet. The hyperlinks make it easy to keep track of the data. And I can access it from anywhere! This way I can see what I haven't got yet. I just need to figure out if I can also store a "to do" list for each musician in this same spreadsheet.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Leo Fuchs: like Michael Jackson but in 1937

Leo Fuchs, who amazed and delighted us last night in the dvd short "Ikh vil zayn a boarder" (I want to be a boarder), was a fine singer, a phenomenal dancer and not afraid to make a fool of himself. He was breakdancing and moonwalking in a top hat. When he wears his clothes properly he looks like Fred Astaire. And all in Yiddish, imagine.
Leo Fuchs, Yiddish singer actor and breakdancer