“Di Fayer Korbunes” and “Mameniu”: Yiddish Triangle Fire Ballads

Guest post by Eve Sicular

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory near Manhattan's Washington Square, after the 1911 fire

The 1911 Yiddish ballad “Di Fayer Korbunes” (The Fire’s Sacrifices), an almost immediate response to the Triangle Fire tragedy, is a complex and contradictory piece: earnestly poignant yet bitterly ironic; barbed with references to an ancient Jewish cultural-religious past as well as to dystopic modern immigrant times; and critiquing the catastrophic results of exploitative capitalism from within its own competitive commercial sheet-music packaging. The song’s powerful title and final refrain have an alternate translation, with biblical undertones: the word korbones (plural of korbn) is used in the Torah specifically to describe those animal sacrifices roasted at the Temple altar. Hence the song’s terrible, none-too-implicit political meaning superimposed on liturgical understanding: those who died at Washington Place were burnt offerings, sacrificed in a land worshipping the Dollar.

The sheet music for "Di Fayer Korbunes"

“Di Fayer Korbunes” and its apparent rival “Mameniu” (Mama Dear) were two contemporary Yiddish-language examples of the widespread “disaster ballad” genre, as heard for centuries in far-flung cultures. This type of song, chronicling gripping topical events, is found in Yiddish music certainly going back to Eastern European minstrel traditions. But mass print publication of such Yiddish material was primarily a New World phenomenon, and New York’s Lower East Side was its hub in the early 20th century. The sheet music industry of this place and time usually centered on selling current hits from lively, contentious downtown Yiddish theaters, as well as nostalgic and novelty songs and laments, all to be played and sung by the buying public. So speedy production, as well as certain promotional styles, were already ingrained in the business. “Di Fayer Korbunes” shows tension between these standard forms designed for profit and the cultural expression of grief, horror and fascination surrounding a most stark, massive and local tragedy. The song’s lyrics are full of Yiddish/English vocabulary (“pey/pay,” “fektori/factory,” “fayer/fire,” etc.), reflecting the transitional language of a fast-paced immigrant generation adapting to American ways.

Metropolitan Klezmer performs “Di Fayer Korbunes” at the March 2011 Memorial held by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.

The melody for "Di Fayer Korbunes" came from an older piece of music, "Boir Choro Wiachperehu"

“Di Fayer Korbunes” was an entirely original text written by lyricist Louis Gilrod (1879-1930) and set to a 1905 melody composed by David Meyrowitz (1867-1943). This earlier song, entitled “Boir Choro Wiachperehu” (quoting Psalms 7:16), was published with piano and vocal arrangements credited to Jac. Kamenetzky (later known as Jack Kammen, whose instrumental folios of klezmer and international music became perennials). Gilrod and Meyrowitz had already jointly created such songs as “Got un zayn mishpet iz gerekht” (God & His Judgments Are Just) for famed actor/producer Jacob P. Adler’s 1903 play Tsebrokhene Hertser (Broken Hearts) and 1904’s “Yisrolik kim aheym” (Yisrolik Come Home) for star Boris Thomashefsky. Gilrod was himself an immigrant who had arrived from Eastern Europe at age 12, and by 17 he was an actor founding a dramatic club in Newark. His 334 Broome St. letterhead from the 1910s reads, in English: “Character Comedian & Song Writer.” While we do not know whether the notion of a ballad addressing the Triangle Fire originated with Gilrod, clearly the rights to the earlier melody were already owned by Theodore Lohr Publishers, who issued “Di Fayer Korbunes” in print as well. The enterprising Mr. Lohr also operated a music storefront at the same business address, 286 Grand Street, purveying not only sheet music but also violins, bows, strings, cases, instrument repairs, and lessons of all kinds: “All the latest Yiddish Music always in stock. Music Teachers and Students will always find our prices the lowest.” Continue reading