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Shabbos Frivolity: My Greenhorn Cousin

Your Humble Blogger happened to hear a recording of Di Grine Kuzine today, this one with Moshe Leiser singing, Gerard Barreaux on accordion and Ami Flammer on violin. It’s quite a good version, although not my favoritest ever. Neither is this one, a Danish band on Mexican television:

Not only was this song a standard in the American Klezmer repertoire, it was the canonical example of a particular type of song about the immigrant experience. Like a fair amount of klezmer, it’s a rather terrible story with a rather upbeat tune; I prefer the versions that play it upbeat throughout, although the more soulful versions can be good as well.

The first two or three verses (there are substantial variations, of course) are just about the beauty of the cousin who arrives fresh off the boat. The singer calls her Greenie, but is clearly fond of her. He (or she, one supposes, but I think it works better if the speaker is a male cousin, even if the singer is female) gets the new singer a job with a milliner who lives next door; this part of the song ends with a line that became a Yiddish catchphrase: az lebn zol di goldene medine!, long live the Golden Land. America, you know. The Golden Land that everybody wanted to come to. Freedom, yes, but also the Land of Opportunity, the land of hope.

Then, of course, there’s an instrumental interlude, and time passes. Years pass. The Cousin isn’t such a greenhorn anymore, but then, she isn’t such a beauty anymore, either. There are black circles under the blue eyes. The green now is not her fresh arrival but her sallow skin. And more than that—her hope is gone, too. She says az brenen zol kolombuses medine!, let it burn, this land of Columbus. There was no goldine medine, there was just long hours of piece work in horrible conditions, an eternal round of exploitation and exhaustion. Some song, eh?

Now, here’s a thing about the song that I like. In addition to crossing the miserable disillusion with a perky melody, the lyric crosses its rejection of the American Nightmare with acceptance of the American Language—it’s full of what my Dad called Yinglish. The lady next door is the nekst-dorke, who runs a millineri-storke, offers the Greenie a dzhab. When time passes, it’s measured out in paydes. The speaker-cousin is no greenhorn, and while he is clearly upset that his beautiful young cousin has been so thoroughly ground down by the American job market, he isn’t going to let it keep his own feet from dancing. In fact, there can be a faint whiff of gloating here; is it possible that the singer is relieved that the young greenhorn has so quickly greyed out? It is possible that the singer is drinking with money from the nekst-dorke who profits from the trade? It’s not that I think it is in the song, it’s that the possibility of it colors the whole sound of the song to me. A whiff of danger, of unknown vulnerability, of the potential for distressing discovery beyond the disillusionment, poverty and malnutrition we get to actually sing about.

As I was puttering around the web looking for versions of this song, I found it interesting that like Klezmofobia version up there, this is a song that (it seems to me) has become more popular outside the US than in it. I don’t think that American Jews have rejected this story of the Goldine Medine; we tend to (many of us, enough to say it as a culturally probably truth) maintain our sympathy for the illegal immigrants that our parents and grandparents were, and we don’t (I think) fool ourselves that today’s immigrants have it much better. The stories of Chinatown slavery don’t or shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, nor do the stories about the day laborers cheated out of their pay. Some goldine medine. And yet, we are more likely to sing of the shtetle in Rumania that we are happy to miss so long as we don’t have to live there. And the Romanian klezmorim sing about the Greenhorn Cousin.

Like some other popular klezmer melodies of the thirties, by the way, this one was given English lyrics and recorded by the popular bands of the time, most notably Benny Goodman’s with Peggy Lee singing. The song is called “My Little Cousin”, but it’s not about an immigrant any more. Here’s Cilla Owens singing a version with the Paul Shapiro’s Ribs and Brisket Revue:

For those interested, there’s a pdf with the lyrics in transliteration and translation at the Milken Archive site, and an early and popular version of Abe Schwartz and his orchestra is at YouTube, and I’ll leave you with one more version that I happen to like.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,