Among the immigrant composers of artistic Yiddish songs with wide popular appeal in America during the first half of the 20th century, Solomon Golub was one of the most beloved figures. He was also a kind of performing bard, who sang his songs in formal classical concert format (with piano), where the audiences—often familiar with some of the songs from radio broadcasts, recordings, or previous concerts—were encouraged to sing along and did so with a kind of loving, nostalgic enthusiasm rare for art songs—even songs with Golub’s direct and simple flowing lines.
Golub was born in Duveln [Dubelen, Dobele], near Riga, Latvia, where his father was a local ba’al t’filla (lay cantor) and ba’al k’ri’a (Torah reader). His mother was a singer, known for her attachment to the songs of the famous Jewish bard Eliakum Zunser (1836–1913), who was perhaps the most celebrated Yiddish folk poet and singer as well as elevated badkhn in the northern part of the Czarist Empire. But Golub’s mother was equally versed in the canon of German lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and other classical composers; and she passed this Western cultural heritage on to her son. At the formal, modern-leaning Great Synagogue in Riga he sang in the choir of the esteemed and learned cantor Borukh Leib Rosowsky (1841–1919). That experience was a large part of the young Golub’s vocal and musical training, and it introduced him not only to the liturgical melos and spirit that he would later incorporate into his secular songs, but also to general Western musical awareness that Rosowsky had acquired during his own studies in Vienna and St. Petersburg.
Golub immigrated to the United States in 1906, where he continued his musical studies. By about 1915 he had become involved in the musical life of educated and cultured Yiddish-speaking Jewry in New York, participating in early Yiddish choral ensembles and beginning to compose. He was active in the United Hebrew Choral Societies of America and Canada—a short-lived North American federation of Yiddish choral groups of various political and cultural shades. It was founded in 1921 at a conference convened expressly for that purpose, initiated by the Paterson (New Jersey) Singing Society, which had been founded in 1913, largely by Jewish silk weavers who had immigrated from Łódź, in Russian Poland. Beginning shortly afterward, it was directed by Jacob Beimel (1880–1944), an immigrant cantor and conductor originally from Minsk province in Belarus who had studied and held cantorial and conducting posts in Berlin and Copenhagen. Golub became the secretary of the federation during its early planning stages, and he was one of the performers at the opening concert of the conference—at New York’s Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA). In a competition for an original anthem of the new organization, Golub’s entry was unanimously adjudged the winning entry.
The Yiddish musical culture that Golub encountered on his arrival in America and during the ensuing decade was dominated largely by the songs of popular Yiddish musical theater and vaudeville—the so-called Second Avenue variety—which constituted a form of immigrant-oriented mass entertainment. With his background in serious synagogue music and Western classical lieder, he was disappointed in—even repulsed by—the coarseness and primitive pandering of much of that music, which, outside the comparatively smaller circles of more highly cultured Yiddishists in America, passed generically as “Yiddish song.” He later recounted that he resolved then, on his own, to create an alternative Yiddish song repertoire on a higher literary as well as musical plane—one that would espouse taste and dignity while having popular emotional appeal and resonating with Yiddish-speaking audiences of the day.
Before he was able to search out and find sufficient poetry of the type he felt would be suitable for his mission—and before the corpus of that kind of poetry had yet to be expanded—Golub wrote his own poems for his songs. And he continued to do so even after he had embraced a wide array of verse by others. Eventually he turned to the work of a broad spectrum of Yiddish poets who were making significant and increasing contributions to American Jewish literature. That spectrum ranged from such poets as Avraham Reisen (1876–1953) and Morris Rosenfeld (1862–1923), often associated with politically and socially left-wing sentiments, to those whose collective oeuvre expressed universal and human as well as Jewish sensibilities—poets such as H. Leivick [Leivick Halpern] (1886–1962), Mani Leib [Mani Leib Brahinski] (1883–1953), Zishe Weinper [Zishe Weinperlech] (1892-1957), Shimon Shmuel Frug (1860–1910), Aliza Greenblatt (1885(8)?–1975), Yehoash [Yehoash Solomon Bloomgarden] (1872–1927), Joseph Rolnik (1879–1955), A. Almi (1892–1963), Benjamin Jacob Bialostotsky (1892–1962), and Moshe Leib Halpern (1886–1932). Inasmuch as his songs often introduced such poetry to a wider public than might otherwise have come to know it, he was sometimes also considered ipso facto an advocate for Jewish literature. “Many of poems would have remained unknown or become forgotten,” wrote the Jewish music publisher (and songwriter) Henry Lefkowitch in his introduction to a 1936 collection of Golub’s songs, “if Solomon Golub had not written music for them.”
Golub’s songs and song recitals met with accelerating acceptance during the 1920s, and by the 1930s and 1940s—when he brought his programs on tour to a number of American cities as well as to Canada—his popularity reached its zenith. His 1932 European tour included London and Berlin, among several other cities.
He also attained popularity in Zionist-oriented circles—not only among those whose language was still Yiddish, such as the Labor Zionists, but also among modern Hebraists. Some of the Yiddish poems he set reflect, obliquely or directly, Zionist sympathies and sensibilities. But he also set some poetry by modern Hebrew poets, including the two most familiar names in America: Saul Tchernikovsky and Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, who is regarded as Israel’s poet laureate and “the National Hebrew poet.” Golub created Yiddish versions of such Hebrew poetry, too, and at some point he began providing alternative singable versions in modern Hebrew (many of them written by Meyer S. Cohen) for songs whose texts were originally Yiddish poems. (The latter applies more to his later published collections than to his most successful songs, which were published individually in folio.) He also addressed some of the texts of the quasi-folk ḥalutz songs of the Jewish settlers in Palestine. “For the first time,” Lefkowitch observed in his introduction to the 1936 volume, “two Jewish languages (Hebrew and Yiddish) are merged in the music of one composer.” Lefkowitch was obviously not aware of the work of certain serious composers associated with the New National School in Jewish music who, during the first two decades of the 20th century, had addressed both Hebrew and Yiddish poetry in their art songs and often published Yiddish and Hebrew versions of the same song. Nonetheless, his compliment was well-meant.
“He doesn’t come to us with much pretension as a self-anointed writer or composer,” acknowledged Leo Low, a celebrated choral conductor and dominant personality in the serious Yiddish music world of that time, in his forward to one of Golub’s published collections:
Golub is first and foremost a man of “the folk,” but one with an artist’s soul and an artist’s intuition. When Golub beholds an image of Jewish folk life, he feels the people’s pain and joy, and he clothes it in a song. And, characteristically, it [the song] comes to him spontaneously…. Golub set his songs simply, without much involved harmony or counterpoint in the accompaniment.
Without attempting to alter the vocal lines, many of Golub’s songs might indeed benefit from editorial revisions of the piano parts, and even some judicious harmonic as well as subtle pianistic improvements—still, of course, consistent with their simple spirit. Low, however, hinted at Golub’s resistance to any such suggestions, quoting Golub’s response to a colleague’s having broached the subject: “This is how I feel. This is how I put it together, and this is how it will stay.” With some reservations, and while conceding the “naivete and clumsiness” of some of the piano writing, Low is inclined to defend that attitude: “Perhaps he [Golub] may be right from a certain perspective. Why seek what was never there in the first place? Better to wear one’s own simple kapote (kaftan; robe) than the fine silk one of another.”
For commercial recordings, Golub appears to have deferred to others with more star quality and more nationally recognizable names in the Jewish music world. His songs were recorded (during his lifetime and after) by such leading exponents of Jewish song as Emma Shaver, Mascha Benya, Sidor Belarsky, and even the revered and world-famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt—undoubtedly the most familiar cantorial name of all time—who included Golub’s song Tankhum among his most frequently sung encore numbers. (There are references to Golub’s having accompanied Rosenblatt on his last European concert tour.)
Many of Golub’s songs were heard on various Yiddish radio broadcasts; and some even were offered on the radio in Palestine and then Israel. For such broadcast performances, the piano parts were sometimes orchestrated for an instrumental ensemble—not because Golub misunderstood the proper dual role of the piano in relation to the vocal lines in the solo or art song genre, but because some program producers assumed that orchestrations raised the level artistically in the perception of radio audiences. In a few unfortunate instances, piano parts were played for radio broadcasts on cheap, flimsy, portable electronic organs (probably in studios where there was no piano), lending to intimate songs an unwanted and almost comical aura more commonly associated with radio mystery dramas. Even then, the song’s power sometimes overcame the accompaniment, especially if it was sung as if it were indeed a proper duo with piano. Mascha Benya’s rendition on radio of Golub’s romantic ballad Baym taykh (At the River; poem by Mani Leib), which, fortunately, has been preserved, accomplishes that feat. So sensitive yet dramatic is Benya’s interpretation, so emotionally evocative and aurally present is her vocal production, and so exquisite is Golub’s musical reflection of the words that after a few phrases, one can almost tune out the insufferable sounds emanating from the instrument.
Golub’s pianist for many years, David Shapiro, estimated that by 1932 Golub had composed some 340 songs; and over the next two decades, or until his fatal illness overtook his energies, he added dozens more, many of which remain unpublished. To raise funds for the publication of new songs, he would sometimes perform them at private musicales organized by sympathetic Yiddishists or Zionists, or by local chapters of cultural organizations, where collections would be taken up discreetly for publication costs.
Among his best-known songs—in addition to the three mentioned above—are Der bekher (The Beeker [Kiddush Cup]); Kholem in khaloymes (Dreaming Dreams), also known by its incipit, In der tifkayt fun der nakht (In the darkness of the night), which the eminent folklorist Chana Mlotek remembered nearly a half century after Golub’s death as routinely (and vocally) demanded by audiences (“They wouldn’t leave without it.”); Toybn (Doves), which became known in Poland, where, according to ethnomusicologist Gila Flam, it was sung by Jews preparing to “make aliya” (emigrate to Israel, or Palestine, as it was known before statehood)—and which was also sung by Bundists (members of the Jewish labor movement in Poland) who arrived in the United States as survivors after the Second World War; Burikhes af peysakh (Beets for Passover); Leyg dayn kop (Lay Down Your Head); Borukh ato zingt der tate (Father Sings Blessed Are You [God]), a Hanukka song; Es bet di velt (Thus Prays the World); and Zol nokh zayn shabes (Let It Still Be Shabbat), also known as Bobenyu (Grandmother)—probably his most frequently performed song today.
Golub also contributed considerably to the Yiddish press—sometimes under the pen names of Zalman Yon or S. Toyb and sometimes under his own name. He was music critic for Der Tog (The Day), one of the most widely circulated Yiddish daily newspapers; and he wrote articles on music for Di Tsukunft, Di Tsayt, Der Yidisher Kunst-Fraynd, Di Yidishe Arbeter Velt, Di Ovnt Post, and others. He also wrote a few articles for English-language Jewish periodicals, such as The Reform Advocate and Renaissance.
So indelible were the impressions made by Golub’s concerts on his audiences that reminiscences more than forty years later abounded with descriptions of the warmth and collective energy they generated. Audiences seemed to know their favorite songs from memory and insisted on hearing—and singing—them as encores if they had not been programmed. Yet unlike the later folksong concerts of the 1960s and 1970s, which—with their informal, club-oriented presentation, interspersed commentary, and reliance on the guitar—were designed deliberately to evoke audience participation, Golub’s concerts appear to have done so spontaneously. And the classical format of a lieder recital with piano seems not to have intimidated the audiences. Recollections of aging informants have corroborated a critic’s 1931 observation (quoted but unidentified by David Shapiro in his introduction to Golub’s anthology):
“As soon as his striking personality appeared on the stage, he pleasantly touched his audience with his tunes; and when he reached his impressive song, Nakht, the listeners were so affected spontaneously that they became a singing ensemble that led to an unforgettable close.”
“It was inspiring to find this contact between the artist and his audience,” Shapiro added. As late as 2001, Chana Mlotek, too, recalled a workshop-recital by Golub at a Jewish resort hotel as electrifying.
Golub’s songs are not sophisticated Kunstlieder, with the equality and interdependence of roles for voices and piano that this genre demands; nor are they harmonically or structurally intricate. Rather, they are simple, forthright songs with piano accompaniment whose charm resides in their absence of pretension. Many are folklike in character, but none are folksongs. They are accessible and easily appreciated, but never wanting for taste. And they invite serious artistic interpretation and careful consideration of the poetry.
Harmonically and melodically, these songs are unapologetic echoes of mid-19th-century modes of expression, with no reflection of 20th-century (or even late-19th-century) harmonic enrichment or rhythmic imagination—almost as if nothing further had occurred in the progress of Western music. From the perspective of Jewish art or “serious” music development, any perusal of Golub’s songs would suggest that he was completely unaware of the work of the composers associated with the New National School in Jewish music, which, from 1908 until 1918, had been centered around the Gesellschaft für jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) in St. Petersburg (and its branches in Moscow, Odessa, Riga, and other cities within the Russian Empire)—composers such as Moses Milner, Joseph Achron, Joel Engel, Alexandre Krein, Mikhail Gniessin, and Solomon Rosowsky, the son of Golub’s mentor in Riga, Cantor Borukh Leib Rosowsky. Nor, to judge from his music alone, would it seem that Golub, from the late 1920s on, was anything but oblivious to (or disinterested in) the ever-expanding repertoire of Yiddish songs composed in America by Lazar Weiner. A schooled and brilliant virtuoso pianist who became devoted to Yiddish choral as well as solo vocal composition only after arriving in America, Weiner did manage, unlike Golub and his followers, to absorb much of the technique of those Gesellschaft-associated composers, raising the Yiddish art song to an unprecedented artistic level and becoming its most sophisticated composer and avatar of any period. Indeed, from the standpoint of both artistic aims and intended audiences, and apart from several shared poets, there appears to have been little overlap between Golub’s and Weiner’s different but equally valid cultural worlds.
It is worth remembering that throughout at least the first decade of Golub’s American years, as he delved into writing songs, virtually no one in the Western Hemisphere—nor, for that matter, pretty much anywhere outside the Russian cosmopolitan sphere (with the possible exception of a very small circle in Berlin)— knew the work of the New National School in Jewish music. That school was blazing an entirely new path in cultivated Jewishly or Judaically related music by applying the highest standard of contemporaneous techniques to traditional Jewish material, themes, or languages. (The Gesellschaft itself, although preceded by a series of developments in Russia, was not even chartered until two years after Golub’s arrival in America.) Weiner, too, knew nothing of this phenomenon or its composers until 1919, when music of that New National School was introduced to America with the tour of the Zimro Ensemble—an émigré group of its advocates. But Weiner was instantly and permanently attracted, and he even commenced a correspondence with some of the Gesellschaft circle.
Yet the title of Golub’s 1920 article in the Yiddish periodical Di Tsukunt—“Di Kishnever pogrom un di yidisher muzik; tsu der geshikhte fun yidishe muzikgezelshaftn in rusland”—suggests that he may have had at least some familiarity with the phenomenon of the New National School. Perhaps that acquaintance remained academic for him without interesting him musically; perhaps he intuited (probably correctly) that the sophisticated level of the New National School would not resonate with his audiences. In either case, Golub probably possessed neither the creative gifts nor the honed craft of that school’s principal composers, nor of Weiner—which in no way diminishes the lasting value of his contributions to Jewish culture.
Both Weiner and the Gesellschaft composers before him developed the means to preserve the Jewish character of their songs within the most elevated musical contexts. As different as Golub’s songs are in style and compositional technique, relying conservatively on old-fashioned Western Romantic idioms, their aggregate persona is nonetheless distinctively Jewish. Many of them are infused with melodic and modal elements (and even quotations) of eastern European Hebrew liturgical tradition, which, when fused with the styles of the Romantic-era German lieder tradition, yields a synergy that—in composers’ jargon—“works.” And the poignant sentiments, Judaic references, and Jewish sensibilities of the poems are successfully mirrored in Golub’s opera.