What is this song quoting?
September 5, 2022 5:48 PM   Subscribe

I believe that the seven notes played by the violins at 2:08 in this recording are quoting a "stock" piece of Russian music that would have been known by a radio audience in the 1920s or 30s. But I don't know what piece it is and I can't find it! Can you help?

I believe this to be the case because my aunt sings a different parody Russian song from her summer camp in the 70s whose melody starts with that same phrase. Elsewhere in the linked piece the melody directly quotes the Volga Boat Song (of course) so I'm thinking something in that vein but I have searched to no avail. Appreciate any leads! Musipedia hasn't been helpful.
posted by goingonit to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Here's a clue -- and a lead! The tune is known among klezmer musicians and wedding celebrants as "Choson Kalleh Mazal Tov" (Oshkenozzish Yiddish), or חטן-כלה מזל תוב in Hebrew. It's celebratory, and often played right after the ceremony, often to joyous dancing. I'm a n00b with links, but even my crappy transliteration of the Yiddish should give you a leg up on searching for examples. I commend to you any recording of Dave Tarras.
As to why it's quoted there, haven't a clue. But it would have been very well known among musicians in the 20's and 30's. Which raises another question, of course: Where does it come from? And what was that Russian parody about? Inquiring minds, etc..
Have fun going down this musical rabbit-hole!
posted by Citizen Cane Juice at 6:49 PM on September 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: That's it all right -- thanks! Indeed, with the klezmer instrumentation it's very familiar but I wasn't expecting that at all given the context.

I recommend listening to the whole recording -- this was a song introduced to me decades ago by my extended family. It turns out that there is a whole genre of Russian-emigre-parody songs that were initially written in the twenties for the vaudeville circuit and then repopularized and added to by folk-revivalists in the '60s. Certainly by that point the emigre nostalgia and shtetl nostalgia had blended into a single soup of "Russia stuff" -- you have like the Limeliters doing "Those Were the Days" in the same set as "Rumania, Rumania" -- but I would have thought that in 1937 the two would still be pretty separate. The narrator of "I Played Fiddle for the Czar" was after all a marquis ("but what's a marquis over here? A sign on a theatre!") and so clearly a gentile.

This is all of course separate from the origins of Chosson Kallah Mazel Tov which could absolutely come from a Russian folk song original!

My next step is probably this monograph on the topic of Russian emigre music in New York.

I am not sure this is the best use of my time but it's so fun!
posted by goingonit at 7:02 PM on September 5, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: No less an august authority than the Disney fandom wiki suggests the origin of the song is the operetta Blimele, by Sigmund Mogulesko and Joseph Lateiner.
posted by zamboni at 7:59 PM on September 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

Cool! glad to lend a hand.
The recording is indeed great! Evidence of a thriving, lively diaspora, if not a unified one (listen to the dialect joke at the end -- didn't sound affectionate)
There were/are so many different kinds of Russian emigres in New York (including some small number of relatives). I'd guess that there was a core of musicians who played parties for all of them, making a common musical language despite the differences (Bolshevik vs Menshevik vs White Russian tsarist, vs the Communist Yiddish- speaking crowd). Clearly not one big happy family, but if you were a working musician at the time, copping an attitude about playing gigs for the wrong sort of people was probably not helpful if you liked to work.
That monograph looks fascinating too!
A couple of lives ago, I used to pay the rent with this stuff -- more a statement about my rent than anything else. I have stories...
Then I played in the "orchestra" of a world folk dance troupe, playing tunes from Serbia, Austria, Hungary, Macedonia, Egypt, and the like. That's where I learned about the amazing Goran Bregovic, who knows more than a thing or two about crossing borders and cultures. Check him out, if you have time to chase yet another rabbit.
posted by Citizen Cane Juice at 8:24 PM on September 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

All Hail! A great find, Z. Now, off to find a recording :)
posted by Citizen Cane Juice at 8:32 PM on September 5, 2022

Zamboni is right! The origins of this song came up for me a few months ago and I was so surprised to hear that it was not 'traditional' (and that the Disney wiki was the best source on the topic) that I did a little bit of extra research. Mogulesko originated the role of Schmendrik, too, he was a fascinating guy. If he was quoting a popular song it doesn't appear on the sheet music. You can see a reprint of the sheet music here, and a sample cover here-- lyrics and music by Mogulesko! (I think Laitener wrote the libretto, but that's just a guess for me, I can't read Yiddish.)
posted by peppercorn at 8:36 PM on September 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Lemmy bless Citation Needed. The Disney wiki article cites Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon, which goes into more detail on Khosn Kale Mazel Tov, in turn citing Klezmer!: Jewish Music from Old World to Our World:
The last two, scored by Stalling, both use the same melody for their "Jewish" gags: "Khosn, Kale Mazl Tov" ("Congratulations, Bride and Groom"), a song from the operetta Blimele, written (in America) by Sigmund Mogulesko and Joseph Lateiner in 1909. The song thus came into the hands of popular (and Yiddish) performers in the midst of vaudeville's heyday, a circumstance that may help explain its popularity; moreover, Yiddish popular music was then a thriving business. The klezmer scholar Henry Sapoznik has shown that "Khosn, Kale Mazl Tov" was a huge hit among the Jewish and gentile communities alike in New York, and before long it was known "'as "the' clearly identified Jewish tune."

The song's easily recognizable melody (see music example 3) even showed up in semi-secular songs- as Sapoznik points out, Eddie Cantor's 1920 vocal version of an Original Dixieland Jazz Band hit, "(Lena Is the Queen of) Palesteena", featured "a four-bar paraphrase of Mogulesko's 'Khosn, Kale Mazl Tov' plopped into the middle of the arrangement" as a "Jewish mile-marker"; a reference to it also appears in the 1942 song "The Sheik of Araby" by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. The cartoons Laundry Blues, scored by Eugene Rodemich, and Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, which has no composer credit, use "Khosn, Kale Mazl Tov" as well. The cue sheet for Betty Boop's Big Boss lists the song as "'Mazel Tov-Traditional Jewish Melody" and states that the song is in the public domain. The song's popularity and strong association with the Jewish community probably led the cartoon's composer to believe that it was simply a traditional Jewish tune with no known provenance; as Sapoznik puts it, "'Khosn, Kale Mazl Tov' soon became one of several token Jewish tunes, and its authorship was quickly forgotten.
posted by zamboni at 8:37 PM on September 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

Note: as peppercorn's links indicate, the operetta is usually transliterated as Blihmele.

Goldmark, author of Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon apparently wrote a more detailed paper on Choson Kale Mazl Tov for the 2016 American Musicological Society Society for Music Theory conference. The abstract:
Musical Stereotyping American Jewry in Early Twentieth-Century Mass Media
Daniel Goldmark (Case Western Reserve University)

This paper explores how the music associated with turn of the century American Jewry was cultivated and shaped largely by the evolving mass-media/entertainment industry—vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, theatre, Broadway—and crystallized in early cinema. For a range of reasons, the various entertainment industries developed a more or less unified sound of the music of Jews portrayed via popular music, mainstream cinema, and (as a result) the larger mass culture in America, transforming music that had had historical links with Jewish themes into little more than cultural stereotypes.

Devices of mass culture that seem to have no origin—such as musical tropes—often have their histories effaced, whether intentionally or simply through ignorance; in this case study, the trope began as the melody of the popular song “Choson Kale Mazl Tov,” from Sigmund Mogulesko’s 1894 Yiddish opera Blihmele. By tracing its use as a musical punchline in numerous Tin Pan Alley songs, we see how this song quickly lost its attribution and became a “traditional Yiddish tune.” I show how the musical profiling of ethnic groups that was practiced on stage was perfected among music publishers, who provided Vaudeville, Broadway, and most importantly Hollywood with a ready-made arsenal of musical codes for when the frequent occasion arose for a “Jewish scene” or “Hebrew situation.”

By the time the sound film era began in Hollywood—ushered in by the most famous Jewish assimilation film ever, The Jazz Singer (1927)—the sound of American Jewry had not only become cliché, it was a stereotype. Drawing on scholarship on music’s role in immigrant communities trying to assimilate in America (including W. Williams and Moon) and the transformation of ethnic music into stereotype (Pisani, Garrett, Magee, and Slobin), this paper shows how the mass production and consumption of popular songs and film music that was meant to provide an easy aural analogue for an ethnic group eventually served to codify the sound of a culture into an essence.
posted by zamboni at 11:15 AM on September 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So in The Opry House (1929), Mickey Mouse performs a dance to Chosn Kale Mazal Tov. The dance is what probably would have been called a "kazatsky". So to me the dance reads as Russian but based on the sources above the music would have read as specifically Jewish! So this is more evidence that these are the same thing to Walt Disney. And not just to him! Indeed, in 1910, Irving Berlin wrote a song that called a kazatsky "that yiddishe dance"!

Ultimately I think my original assumption was incorrect and a Vaudeville audience in the 20s wouldn't particularly distinguish between a Czarist-emigre caricature and a Jewish-immigrant caricature, but rather there was a joint stereotype of, like, a poor immigrant who comes from Russia, does a funny squatting dance, and sings in a minor key with violin accompaniment while wearing a funny hat and saying things like "Oy, I should worry!" This also fits with the dialect joke at the end of I Played Fiddle for the Czar.

(I was also sidetracked by another interesting story of the Russian kazachok being introduced into America as the kazatsky by the African-American tap dancer Ida Forsyne, but this is even further off-topic!)

Thanks all for your learned assistance!
posted by goingonit at 5:36 PM on September 8, 2022

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