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Lebn zol kolumbus
Long Live Columbus!

 
 
 
 
 
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Lebn zol kolumbus (Long Live Columbus!), which expresses a primitive platitudinous side of immigrant enthusiasm for the “new land” and its supposed beckoning socioeconomic opportunities, has remained an adjunct of the genre of humorous American Yiddish popular songs ever since its introduction and immediate success in 1915. The song is from an early staged musical comedy, Der grine milyoner (The New Millionaire), produced in New York in 1915 with a book by Abraham S. Schomer, who claimed to have based it on an actual 1894 incident. Boris Thomashefsky played the role of the hero, Zalmen Puterknop, and he also wrote the lyrics for Lebn zol kolumbus, for which the songwriting team of Arnold Perlmutter and Herman Wohl provided the music. (The song was first published in 1915 with those attributions, but a 1918 publication claimed Louis Gilrod as the lyricist. No satisfactory explanation has been offered, since only the first few words differ.) Authorship of other songs in the show, or even their titles, has yet to be established. The plot is a bit coarse and transparently stereotypical, as are some of the characterizations. Zalmen is a poor immigrant who has come to America in advance of his wife and family. Back in his hometown, Motol, a son of the wealthiest Jew there, Reb Zimel, is in love with Zalmen’s daughter. But Reb Zimel will sanction no such marriage to an indigent young woman. Then Zalmen’s wife receives a letter from Zalmen with the generous sum of fifty dollars and a picture of himself in a borrowed suit. The letter leads her to infer, and then to boast, that he has become prosperous in coal, lumber, ice, and related businesses—when in fact he lives with a roommate in a tiny coal cellar and only works as a deliveryman for these commodities. Reb Zimel quickly changes his tune and facilitates the marriage.

Zalmen and his roommate are visited by a huckster who offers them a “get rich quick” land scheme, and as they consider the scheme, they reflect on how easily other immigrant Jews have succeeded in business and they praise America’s openness, opportunities, mobility, and (with no idea that the United States would enter the war that had begun in Europe) its freedom from wars and conscription. While drinking a toast to America—“Columbus’s land”—they sing Lebn zol kolumbus. Meanwhile, Reb Zimel liquidates all his holdings and brings his and Zalmen’s family to America, where he assumes he can increase his fortune many times by participating in Zalmen’s business ventures, only to discover the ironic truth. Later, Zalmen emerges triumphant. Having lost his modest investment in the land scheme, he wins a lottery prize of $24,000—an unimaginable sum in 1915.

The lyrics in the earliest extant typed script (1914) contain an additional strophe that was eliminated by the time the show opened. It refers to the infamous case of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman in Atlanta, Georgia, who was framed and falsely convicted on trumped-up charges for the murder of a fourteen-year-old non-Jewish female employee, and who was then lynched by a mob after his death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment by the outgoing governor. The lyrics, obviously penned before the lynching, assert: “It will turn out alright: an innocent Jew will never be hanged in America.” Lebn zol kolumbus was also updated periodically with additional topical strophes. They allude to such current issues as Henry Ford’s virulently anti-Semitic diatribes, anti-Semitism in Poland, an American bank failure, a Jewish candidate in a New York gubernatorial election, an anti-immigration bill vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, Prohibition (joking that if a Jew ran the government, there would be plenty to drink), and papal silence on anti-Semitism.

The tune of the chorus (refrain) as printed in the original 1915 folio contains a raised 4th degree in the first phrase, which creates an augmented interval (C sharp to B flat, within the key signature of G minor), although the song is rarely if ever heard that way now. Nor is that interval contained in later published versions. But this detail mirrors a perceived stereotype of eastern European “Jewish” modality (although it is equally related to Gypsy and Ukrainian scales) that the public welcomed then as “authentic.” Lebn zol kolumbus soon became popular as an independent rendition whose strains wafted from vaudeville houses, music halls, cabarets, floor shows, and bandstands, sung as often by female as by male soloists.


By: Neil W. Levin