Songwriter, lyricist, bard, actor, badkhn (wedding entertainer), balladeer, and early recording singer Solomon Shmulevitsh [a.k.a. Small] was born in Minsk, Belarus, and immigrated to the United States in 1889. He was one of the most prolific and talented of the early Yiddish composers who fashioned a type of Yiddish counterpart to American popular song around the turn of the 19th–20th century and in the immediately ensuing years. He wrote a profusion of songs (words and music) and many lyrics for other songwriters. His subject matter ranged from immigrant families, labor conditions, biblical vignettes, Judaic observances, Jewish historical incidents, nostalgia, immigration obstacles, and current topical subjects to wedding celebration songs. In the last decade of his life—when, to eke out a basic subsistence, he toured the United States and traveled across Canada from Halifax to Calgary and Winnipeg, entertaining local Jewish audiences with his own and similar songs—he mused on man’s course through life in his song Man shpilt teater (Mankind Plays in a Theater): “We act as if we were all on the stage, each one acting out his little life to a script written and directed by Almighty God.”
Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century Smulewitz recorded his songs in many of the earliest recording studios on a regular basis. Thereafter he continued to turn out melodies and lyrics for others to sing. His legacy comprises about 150 known or traceable songs and song lyrics—of which A brivele der mamen is now unquestionably his most famous—although in a letter to the press he once referred to twice that number with his own tunes, in addition to 200 sets of words to melodies by others.
By: Neil W. Levin