The power of song in the making of human history is often underestimated. Way back in 1382, a British preacher, John Ball, wrote a short song that inspired the peasant revolution of the time. It ran: “When Adam dug and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” The melody was repeated in the German peasant revolution of 1525, to the words: “Als Adam grub and Heva shpan, wo war dan der edelman?”
In the American revolution, a simple song called “Yankee Doodle” played the same role, as did Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the Civil War. And for the world’s radical working-class movement, “The Internationale” affected many in countless languages.
In this genre is a song by David Edelstadt (1866-1892), addressed to Jewish workers in the United States. The song calls upon workers to “Wake Up.” The lyrics and music appear in Ruth Rubin’s treasure trove of “Jewish Folk Songs.” Rubin was a singer, a recording artist, a musicologist and a gifted translator of Jewish songs. What follows is her transliteration of the Yiddish and her very own English translation.
Vi lang, oy vi lang vet ir blaybn nokh shklafn
Un trogn di shendlekhe keyt?
Vi lang vet ir glentsende raykhtimer shafn
Far dem, vos baroybt ayer broyt?
Vi lang vet ir shteyn, ayer rukns geboygn
Derniderikt, heymloz, farshmakht?
Es togt shoyn! Vakht oyf un tse-efnt di oygn!
Derfilt ayer ayzerne makht!
Klingt umetum in di frayhayts-glokn!
Farzamlt di laydnde knekht!
Un kemft bagaystert, un kemft undershrokn
Far ayere heylikhe rekht!
Un ales vet lebn, un libn un bli-en,
In frayen, in goldenem may!
Brider! Genug far tiranen tsu knien,
Shvert, az ir must vern fray!
How long, oh, how long will you suffer in bondage
In slavery still to remain?
How long will you toil to create all the riches
For those who reward you with pain?
How long, oh, how long, will you carry the yoke
Of oppression and sorrow and fear?
Awaken! And see the new day that is dawning
A free song is ringing mighty clear!
Ring out, bells of freedom! Let’s gather together
The suffering slaves in all lands
Let’s struggle for life and for love and for beauty
Created by hard-toiling hands
Then all things will live and will love and will bloom
In a free and a golden-bright May.
No more will we suffer a miserable doom
Now swear that you’ll bring forth this day.