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Bay mir bistu sheyn
To Me You're Beautiful

 
 
 
 
 
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Confirming supremacy of fame for any one song is nearly always a dangerous business for the musical-cultural historian, but Secunda’s Bay mir bistu sheyn is an exception. There is little risk in asserting that it is simply the world’s best-known and longest-reigning Yiddish theater song of all time, familiar among non-Jews as well as Jews—in Europe, the Americas, and even Japan. The catch in that declaration, however, is that few who know the song, even its Yiddish lyrics, are aware of its birth in the theater—like so many theatrical songs that later achieved independent popularity. More ironic is the lack of awareness in the general world of its Jewish origins or even associations, since its more famous English version (and its subsequent sister adaptations in languages other than Yiddish) is nearly always perceived merely as an icon of 1930s American popular song, in which the words of its title are most often presumed to be some form of Americanized German.

Together with lyricist Jacob Jacobs (1890/91?–1977), also one of Second Avenue’s most prominent actors, singers, and comedians, Secunda composed Bay mir bistu sheyn (To Me You’re Beautiful) for his 1932 musical comedy M’ken lebn nor m’lost nit (One Could Really Live, but They Won’t Let You)—officially subtitled in English as I Would If I Could. With a book by Abraham Blum, the show opened at the Rolland Theater in Brooklyn, and the song was introduced onstage by the beloved Aaron Lebedeff (1873–1960)—often dubbed the Yiddish Al Jolson—as a duet with Lucy Levin (whose part in the song was minor).

According to one not always reliable account, Lebedeff first suggested the title of the song to Secunda as a leitmotif for the show, after which Jacobs furnished the lyrics once Secunda had written the tune. In that account, Lebedeff then vehemently resisted the song, insisting instead on melodic alterations of his own, and he sang it as written on opening night only on a bet with Secunda over the audience reaction. The ecstatic ovation, however, reportedly required three encore repetitions.

As an instant hit in the Second Avenue milieu, the song was published independently by its composer and lyricist. It sold well in the usual Jewish markets and emanated fashionably from Jewish bandstands. But since such hits usually continued to engage that fickle public only for the duration of the season surrounding a show’s run, Secunda—unable to imagine its future potential ability to captivate, albeit in a different guise, non-Jewish audiences—sold the rights to a publisher four years later for a pittance. Considerable twaddle has accumulated around the succession of events that catapulted the song onto the international scene as an overnight commercial sensation, which, over the years, has generated gargantuan sums in royalties and revenues. And the resulting urban legend has become suffused with apocryphal anecdotes and conflicting, self-serving recollections—one of which even questioned Secunda’s solo hand in the melody.

What is known is that two months after Secunda’s sale of the rights, Sammy Cahn, a well-known lyricist in the general popular music field, wrote (possibly together with Saul Chaplin) an English adaptation of the Yiddish lyrics to Bay mir bistu sheyn. Apart from retaining those four words in the original Yiddish, those English lyrics are not a translation, but more simply a frivolous, almost generic expression of courtship that bears no relation to the particular theme of the original Yiddish words. The English version was then recorded by the up-and-coming Andrews Sisters, who had not quite yet achieved their approaching stardom, and who needed a new song for the B side of their second 78-rpm disc for Decca Records. Its release, and the initial radio broadcasts, detonated an explosive coup beyond anyone’s expectations, and sales exceeded those of what had previously been the biggest American hit recording. Winning the ASCAP award for the most popular song of 1938, Bay mir bistu sheyn was given further new treatments and arrangements in renditions by dozens of singers and orchestras—including Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, the Barry Sisters (still in that English version, even though their repertoire was partially Yiddish), Judy Garland, Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and many others. But the best-known “swing” version was introduced by Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall. And the English version has been translated into dozens of languages.

In 1938, when public performances in Germany of any music by composers of Jewish ancestry was forbidden under the Nazi regime, Bay mir bistu sheyn was enthusiastically received on German radio broadcasts. Inadvertently presumed to be simply a general pop song with a southern German dialect, it caused an embarrassing furor and a round of demotions when its identity was discovered. Conversely, a political cartoon that year depicted Hitler singing the song to a personification of the Netherlands. The tune was expropriated by the Soviet Union for an anti-German propaganda song during the war, under the title Baron von der Spik, credited fictitiously to a Soviet songwriter.

The plot of the show appears to be decidedly weak, even for typical Second Avenue fare—with even less than the usual degree of excitement or surprise; a review proclaimed it superfluous to summarize the story. Jake, a shoe factory worker who is fired for union organizing activity, is in love with the owner’s daughter, Hene. In response to her concern about the endurance of his commitment to her, he sings Bay mir bistu sheyn to her at some point in the first act. Despite a series of predictable attempts to thwart the marriage, they are, of course, wed in the end.

Although it was sung as a duet in the original production, the song became known thereafter as a solo rendition—even in its ensemble arrangements. Hene’s vocal appearance in a recording could be jarring without having been set up by  her preceding spoken lines. The solo performer thus simply echoes her question, “How do you explain it?”

In 1961 Secunda and Jacobs were finally able to regain a portion of the rights, and they recycled the song for a new, unrelated musical built around it, which was produced under the title Bay mir bistu sheyn at the Anderson Theater. But shortly thereafter, following the critical success of Secunda’s classically oriented cantata If Not Higher, he expressed the hope that this serious work might make people forget that he was the composer of Bay mir bistu sheyn. That appears unlikely.


By: Neil W. Levin