Perhaps because I was born midway through the US involvement in World War II, I’ve always felt an affinity for popular music from that era: We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn (1939), In the Mood by the Glenn Miller Orchestra (1940), The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by the Andrews Sisters (1941), The White Cliffs of Dover also by Vera Lynn (1942), and many more.
The Andrews Sisters
A particular favorite was an Andrews Sisters swing-jazz song, which I grew up calling My Dear Mr. Shane. I’m sure most of you have heard it at one time or another sung as: “My dear Mr. Shane, please let me explain/ My dear Mr. Shane means you’re grand./ My dear Mr. Shane, again I’ll explain/ It means you’re the fairest in the land.”
But as I discovered while reading about the song not long ago, many of us have had it all wrong. The line isn’t “My dear Mr. Shane” but rather “Bei mir bistu Shein,” which is Yiddish for “To me you’re handsome/beautiful.” It was the first major hit for the Andrews Sisters, who used Germanized spelling in the original title, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” In singing it, however, the Sisters used the Yiddish pronunciation Shein for the word meaning “handsome/beautiful.”
As the story goes, Jacob Jacobs (lyricist) and Sholom Secunda (composer) wrote the song in 1932 for a quickly forgotten Yiddish musical comedy, I Would if I Could. In 1937, the American songwriter Sammy Cahn heard a black group sing it in Yiddish at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and was intrigued by the melody and impressed by the audience’s reaction.
Cahn bought the rights to the song for $30 from Secunda, who split the money with Jacobs. Cahn gave the song English lyrics, and composer Saul Chaplin jazzed up the rhythm. Later that year the Andrews Sisters recorded it, earning them a gold record for more than one million sales.
Soon various versions of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön were being performed throughout Europe, including in Nazi Germany. The song was a hit there too until its Jewish origin was discovered and it was banned.
Ultimately the song grossed $3 million, of which Secunda and Jacobs got very little. In 1961, the copyright expired, and ownership reverted to them. Finally, they began receiving appropriate royalties.
The Star Sisters
The best video I’ve seen of Bei Mir Bistu Shein being performed features a Dutch group, the Star Singers, who included it in a 1983 medley of Andrews Sisters songs. Check it out. It’s good theater as well as good music.
My initially mishearing Bei Mir Bistu Shein as My Dear Mr. Shane is, by the way, a phenomenon called a mondegreen. As I wrote here a year and a half ago, the word mondegreen comes from people misunderstanding a line in an old Scottish ballad, “Thou hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green,” as “Thou hae slay the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen.”
Another notable mondegreen is a line from a hymn, “the cross I’d bear,” being heard as “the cross-eyed bear.”
In other linguistic matters, researchers from Stanford University have been studying the accents and expressions of residents in various regions of California.
When I was a student at Stanford half a century ago, we were told that in comparison with accents in such places as the Deep South, Boston, and New York, Californians have a neutral accent. We supposedly sound like typical television anchormen. In fact, we Californians don’t all speak English the same way.
The ongoing Stanford study has been taking note of how people in the Central Valley, for example, pronounce various words. Is it wash or warsh? Greasy or greezy? Do they pronounce pin and pen the same way? Significantly influencing Central Valley English, the researchers found, were the “Okies,” who migrated to California during the Dust Bowl.
The researchers also spoke with people in Shasta County, according to a Stanford news report. In Redding, the report noted, they found “a phenomenon called ‘positive anymore,’ where the word ‘anymore,’ historically used only in negative sentences (‘I don’t shop online anymore’), is used in a positive sentence (‘I shop online anymore’).”
I showed the Stanford report to a friend in Inverness who wasn’t impressed. “Seems like a waste of resources to tease out differences which really don’t matter,” he responded. “Who cares about the small differences of white people in California?
“I just don’t see any value in it, except to the linguists who probably received grants. Hard for me to think of anyone outside that narrow field who would applaud the research.”
To me, on the other hand, the research amounts to linguistic anthropology. By their use of language, we can tell where various families came from, even when the current generation isn’t sure. But then, I studied English and Communications at Stanford, so the research probably seems more fascinating to me than to others.