I first came across a reference to American Yiddish Penny Songs by Morris Rund and others in WorldCat while working on my last book, Yiddish Songs from Warsaw 1929-1934: The Itzik Zhelonek Collection. It turned out American Yiddish Penny Songs was not actually a book, but a unique box of songsheets, printed in New York around the turn of the 20th century, now housed at Hebrew Union College's Klau Library in Cincinatti, Ohio.
The collection is available on microfilm. I indexed it and sent the index back to the Klau; a year later they sent me improved new scans of the song sheets.
It took me hundreds of hours to prepare the sheets for publication because, like most Yiddish publications, they were printed on cheap, acidic paper now darkening and crumbling into illegibility. Those weeks of photoshopping had me meditating on the delightful world of Jewish New York's small time entrepreneurs -- for instance, Rund and his publisher Shapiro themselves, trying to make a buck selling songs for 5 cents each (15 cents for 20), or their loyal advertiser Professor Jacobs offering his customers palmistry, mind reading, and the casting of lots. What a world Morris Rund and his ilk were chronicling!
Though Rund was a very enthusiastic user of the United States Copyright Office (in the Heskes "Yiddish American Popular Songs 1895-1950" one finds Rund has 141 copyrighted songs), he is today a shadowy figure. Google him and, as of now, all you will find is this from Professor Bob Rothstein: "The Mloteks were unable to find any published information about Morris Rund, but report that he was supposed to have been a street-singer in New York in the years before World War I."
In Tenement Songs Mark Slobin describes peddlers standing outside the Second Avenue theater houses, singing the very songs they were selling as lyrics sheets. I guess Rund did this in his off hours, and he also advertised, on the song sheets, his availability as a folksinger (with partners J. Kimelman and L. Bezante) for weddings and other occasions. He was in business with David Berkowitz, the man in charge of wholesaling the broadsides: "Peddlers receive songs at the cheapest prices."
At Ancestry.com I found Morris Rund to have been born in 1880 in Austria (later he claimed 1884). He emigrated in 1895. He is in the 1900 census, a bread baker, living with his cousin Bernard Wiesner (he proudly announces his membership in Local 100, the Kosher Bakers' Union, on two of the penny songs). He must have married around 1907; in 1912 he's listed as a baker at 42 Ludlow Street; in the 1915 state census he's living at 88 Attorney Street with wife Fannie and kids Joseph, Isidore (later Leo), and Rose. In city directories he's listed variously as baker, peddler, and book seller. In 1920 he was living on East Third street and there was a fourth child, Selig (later Sydney). He'd moved to 189 Rivington Street by 1925; his last copyrighted song was registered in 1938. In 1940 he was living with Fanny and Sydney in Brooklyn and he died that same year.
As for Sani Shapiro, publisher of most of these songs: he was born in Romania in 1861, had a wife Rebecca and a son John (born in Romania in 1892), and a second wife, Sophie. He died 11 Feb 1931 and is buried at Mount Hebron cemetery.
These songs range up to about 1920. Most were set to the tunes of more famous Yiddish songs or, more frequently, American popular tunes of the day, often sweet songs in major keys which these days are sung by barbershop quartets if they're heard at all. Almost none of Rund's songs are currently performed: turn of the century Yiddish songs have yet to be revived. Why? The tunes aren't sexy, the lyrics are Germanic, melodramatic, full of Yinglish, composed with cheesy predictable rhymes. The themes are often didactically patriarchal. Still, they're part of the historical record and worthy of examination.
Like broadsheets of earlier centuries, these songs recount sensational stories of the time (The Titanic, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the Turkish-Bulgarian War, the deaths of Franz Joseph, William McKinley, and prima-donna Sophia Karp) and the concerns of newly arrived Jewish immigrants of the day: workers' suffering, bankrupt banks, "Biznes in Amerike," the omnipresence of steam powered engines. There are quite a number of songs with nostalgic views of Old Country yiddishkeyt, religious and social. Subjects include perennial favorites: wives, mothers-in-law, poverty. Anti-semitism is lamented, particularly at historic moments: the Dreyfus Affair, the sacrifice of Leo Frank and the freeing of Mendl Beilis are narrated. Finally, there are silly knockoffs of American novelty songs like the Hawaiian Love Song. (Many of the tunes can now be found online at the Library of Congress website.)
Researchers of Lower East Side culture will enjoy the ads. The major advertisers were mind readers (a profession with low start up costs). The most famous was Professor Hochman, who in addition to personal readings offered a book on prophecy and dream interpretation in three languages (for 25 cents) and rented out a hall where brides and grooms could get married AND get a picture of the happy day.
These are Rund's earliest songs; in later years he partnered with famous composers including Lebedeff, Olshanetsky, Jaffe, Wohl, Rumshinsky, and Burstein.
I thank the librarians at Hebrew Union College, who generously shared these broadsides with me.