Jesse Waldman was inspired by his great-grandmother Adele Waldman to reimagine the Yiddish song “Papirosen.” (photo from Jesse Waldman)
Several weeks ago, I was offered a commission by the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts to do a musical piece for their Covid Chronicles series. A Jewish musician living in Vancouver, I made a video of the classic Yiddish tune “Papirosen.” It has special significance, and it’s something I want to share with others.
As far back as I can remember, my family has been into taking photos, videos and recordings – I have at least three huge albums and a bunch of VHS tapes from birthdays, bar mitzvahs, etc. As well, there was a piano in my grandparents’ living room and music was always part of our lives. Before my grandmother passed away, she gave me a cassette that had been made on a reel-to-reel tape machine in Toronto in 1958. It included my mom at 2-and-a-half-years-old singing nursery rhymes, interviews with other family members, and my great-grandmother, Adele Waldman, singing traditional Yiddish folk songs.
Adele was my grandfather’s mother and she died before I was born. The quality and soul of her voice is absolutely stunning – some of the most moving singing I’ve ever heard, both haunting and soothing at the same time. I could listen to the recordings a million times and still be amazed by the off-the-cuff performances she did in the kitchen of my grandparents’ house.
I recently went through my storage closet and found a binder of sheet music that used to live in my grandparents’ piano bench. It was mostly big band and jazz tunes, but also a handful of Yiddish songs, including “Papirosen,” which was one the songs Adele sang on those tapes. As I put the sheet music on my music stand and began to study it, I was transported back to Eastern Europe in the 1920s.
Written by Herman Yablokoff in that decade, this song has the most dark yet beautiful melody, and I absolutely adore it. I looked up the lyrics (translated into English) and was struck again by the powerful storytelling about a young boy selling cigarettes, or papirosen, on the streets, offering an introspective look at his inner world.
For the Shadbolt-commissioned piece, I combined Adele’s recorded performance of “Papirosen” and a reimagined rendition of the song that I performed on guitar. After trying a few different things, I landed on the idea of sharing the first segment of her performance (her rendition is five minutes long) followed by a one-take performance by myself. The video can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=RWAVr2W0vvo.