Special Features

Bay mir bistu sheyn

A Brief History of Yiddish theater's most enduring song

THERE IS A POPULAR MYTH that when the Andrews Sisters released their hugely successful recording of Sholom Secunda's Bay mir bistu sheyn in 1938, the composer's mother was so distraught, she fasted for a week to expiate her sins.

The reason for her distress? Only two months earlier, her son had sold the rights to the song for a mere thirty dollars!

While the extreme reaction of Secunda's mother, perpetrated by a sensational article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, is most likely an exaggeration, the amazingly low amount of the sale is true. Written in 1932, Bay mir bistu sheyn was part of a Yiddish operetta called I Would If I Could, written in 1932 by to a book by Abraham Blum, with music by Secunda and lyrics by his writing partner, Jacob Jacobs.

Excerpt from the Milken Archive's "One People, Many Voices" concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2006.

The three had attempted to sell the show to Hollywood, with no success. Even Eddie Cantor, who years later would feature the song and its composer on his radio show, originally turned the show down. With no greater prospects in sight for their song, Secunda and Jacobs decided they might as well sell the rights to a publisher.

“At the time, it was considered good publicity in Yiddish theater circles to have your songs published," said Secunda in a 1961 interview with The New York Times. "Most of the time we would publish our songs at our own expense. If you could sell it to a publisher later on, you were that much richer. I had sold hundreds of songs for thirty dollars and was happy to get the money for this one. Jacobs and I split 50–50.”

Stranger than Fiction

Within two months of the sale, a then-little-known musical trio called the Andrews Sisters recorded a newly adapted English-language version of the song, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn (and possibly Saul Chaplin). The only Yiddish that remained was the title, which appeared in each chorus with a loose translation: "Bay mir bistu sheyn means you're grand." Released by Decca Records, it became the Andrews Sisters' first major hit record and won the ASCAP award for most popular song of 1938.

Americans unfamiliar with Yiddish bought the song in droves. Undaunted by the title, they requested the recording or sheet music using such approximations as "Buy Me a Beer, Mr. Shane" or "My Mere Bits of Shame." The song quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Bay mir bistu sheyn received airplay in Germany, where listeners mistook the Yiddish for a southern German dialect, while in the Soviet Union it was expropriated for an anti-German propaganda song. Cahn's English-language version has been translated into dozens of languages, and the song still receives airplay on radio stations today.

During the 28 years that the copyright of Bay mir bistu sheyn was owned by Kammen and other entities, it is estimated that the song grossed $3,000,000. Many illustrious musical stars shared in its success, including Ella Fitzgerald, Guy Lombardo, Nelson Eddy, Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Rudy Vallee, and Bette Midler. It was even included in a medley performed by the Jackson Five on the Carol Burnett Show in 1975.

Remarkably, Secunda was not bitter about losing out on more than $350,000 in royalties throughout the years. As he told The New York Times, "It bothered everyone else more than it bothered me. I've been more interested in my symphonic music." In 1961 Secunda and Jacobs regained a portion of the rights and used it in a new musical titled after the song.

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