In one fell swoop, Sony's Legacy archives have corrected a grave injustice, making available a treasure trove of turn-of-the-century Jewish music heretofore enjoyed only by those endowed with 78 rpm phonographs. The bustling activity in New York's Yiddish theater district, the Lower East Side, birthed some of the finest voices, actors, and writers of the early 20th century, from cantor Yossele Rosenblatt to singer Eddie Cantor
and songwriters Sholom Secunda and Irving Berlin
. Two discs and 50 tracks capture the music's breadth, from the sublime -- Rosenblatt's heavenly hit "V'Hakohanim" -- to the ridiculous -- David Medoff's answer-song "Gevald! Di Bananas" -- with wonders and novelties in between. To novices, this may have all the makings of a trip to Grandma's house minus the ruggelach
, but the range of musical expression here is revelatory, as the busy songsmiths dashed off Yiddish rejoinders to popular American songs and catchphrases such as "Yes, Sir, She's My Baby" and "The Sheik of Araby" (which became "The Sheik of Avenue B"). There was also a vogue for troubling anthems of self-deprecation in the "Hebe songs," a particularly Jewish kind of minstrelsy, documented here as well. But Jewish success in America was mirrored in the music, too, as crossover songs and performers contributed to the Yiddishizing of American entertainment. The second disc revels in such flush material, including the megahit "Bie Mir Bist Du Schon" and the raft of Yiddish-inspired jazz and Broadway hits, from Benny Goodman's "And the Angels Sing" (after an Abe Schwartz
klezmer number) to Cab Calloway's Jewish-jiving "Utt-Da-Zay (That's the Way)" to Xavier Cugat's "The Wedding Samba." Those who haven't heard this music in decades will be thrilled by the selection and fidelity, while those who grew up hearing about Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, and Belle Baker will be able to at last appreciate this chapter in American Jewish experience. Yiddish translations would have been nice, but whaddya want -- everything?