Saturday, September 20, 2014

Down Yonder and Tsarist Russia

I never thought I would find any connection between a popular American song, and the Czar of all the Russia's. But perhaps I am too naive because I find that there are least three composers of the American songbook, and God knows there are probably a lot more, who were born in Russian lands and raised in Tin Pan Alley.

George and Ira
Todays song-in-my-head is "Down Yonder", or perhaps better known as, "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee". with melody by Lewis Muir and L. Wolfe Gilbert, born in 1886 in Odessa in what is now known as Ukraine  but back in the day was part of the vast Russian Empire.

Irving Berlin was born a few years after Gilbert in 1888 in Tyumen Russia.  His original name was Israil Isidore Belin and he along with Gilbert was among the many Jewish immigrants at the begining of the last century who wrote what would become nation defining music.

This mighty amalgamation of American music also includes another who left Russian Jewish footprints in the duel genius of the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, who's grandfather, Jakob Gershovitz,  was a mechanic for Czar Nicholas' Army, thus earning him the right of free travel as a Jew in this increasingly growing intolerant country.

Jakob retired to St. Petersburg and it was there his son, Moishe, who worked as a leather cutter fell in love with 19 year old Rosa Ruskina and they immigrated to New York in the late 1800's where they were later married, giving us two sons who in turn gave us some of the best songs ever written.

"Down Yonder" was used and recorded by Al Jolson, the great black-faced performer who, while performing as a racially infused and stereotypical African American,  brought sound to the movies in 1929 in "The Jazz Singer" and, down on one knee, carried this song along with him.

The words were composed while Gilbert watched stevedores unloading a steamboat on the Mississippi and brought it to Muir who added the tune.

Gilbert later wrote words to "Ramona" and "The Peanut Vendor."

"Down Yonder" was recorded by many folks over the years, including Judy Garland, Louis Jordan, Dean Martin and two guys known as Chas and Dave ,an English pop rock duo who created a musical style known as "rockney" which mixes pub singalong, Boogie Woogie, pre-Beatles rock and roll and humor.  They are quite well kown and opened for "Led Zeppelin" in 1979.

Who knew?

Here are the words:

L. Wolfe and the sheet music to "Down Yonder"

Railroad train, railroad train, hurry some more;
Put a little steam on just like never before.
Hustle on, bustle on, I've got the blues,
Yearning for my Swanee shore.
Brother if you only knew, you'd want to hurry up, too.

Down yonder, someone beckons to me,
Down yonder, someone reckons on me.
I seem to see a race in memory
Between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee.
Swanee shore, I miss you more and more;
Ev'ryday, my mammy land, you're simply grand
Down yonder, when the folks get the news,
Don't wonder at the hullabaloo.
There's Daddy and Mammy, there's Ephram and Sammy,
Waitin' down yonder for me.

Summer night, fields of white, bright cotton moon ?

My, but I feel glad I'm gonna see you all soon!
'Lasses cakes mammy bakes, I taste them now.
I'll see my sweetie once more,
There's lots of kissing in store ..

American popular music owe much of its hubris; it's value as a national treasure, to the many men and women newly planted on this shore, either of their own volition or, sadly, those brought over here in chains.

Through them, a rough seed was planted. A seed that contained hard work and perseverance and a fierce determination  that would pull them up by their bootstraps and see them through. To many it was true, such as Gilbert, Berlin and the Gershwin's.

Someday soon I will devote a blog or two to the eastern European Jew and his vast contribution to The Great American Songbook.

I looked on YouTube to find a good representation this song and I almost immediately unr this gem. I don't know the names of these three gentlemen. Couldn't find them any where. But their fingers should be cast in gold!
There isn't any vocalizing on this - what I consider one of the finest versions of this song I've ever heard.

No comments:

Post a Comment