Coping with tragedy through song: balladry of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Firefighters try in vain to extinguish the massive fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

On March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out on the factory floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. By the time the flames had been put out, 145 workers, mostly young immigrant girls, had perished. The tragedy sent shockwaves through the immigrant community and became a symbol of the rampant mistreatment of workers by factory owners looking to maximize their profits through abusive practices and neglected, unsafe environments. This essay, a version of which was written in 2011 by drummer and Metropolitan Klezmer bandleader Eve Sicular, explores the Yiddish community’s reckoning with the tragedy through song. We share Eve’s essay today in anticipation of November 14th’s Metropolitan Klezmer concert, which will feature a rarely heard repertoire of Triangle Shirtwaist balladry.

The 1911 Yiddish ballad “Di Fayer Korbunes” [Die Fire Korbunes or The Fire’s Sacrifices] was published as an almost immediate response to the Triangle Fire tragedy. It’s 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 arena of competitive commercial sheet music. 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 animal sacrifices roasted at the Temple altar. Hence the song’s terrible, none-too-implicit political meaning: those who died at Washington Place were burnt offerings, sacrificed in a land that worshipped the Mighty Dollar.

The song burned with an emotional intensity equal to its subject matter and typical of the genre. “Di Fayer Korbunes” and another fire ballad of the time, “Mameniu” [Mama Dear], were contemporary Yiddish-language examples of the already popular ‘disaster ballad’ genre. This type of song, chronicling gripping topical events, is found in Yiddish music going back centuries, as far as Eastern European minstrel traditions. But these songs were among the first to go so mainstream – mass print publication, especially in Yiddish, 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 the time usually centered on selling current hits from lively downtown Yiddish theaters, as well as nostalgic and novelty songs and laments, all to be played and sung by the buying public. “Di Fayer Korbunes,” as an unknown song with sorrowful overtones, was an outlier, and shows tension between these standard forms designed for profit and the cultural expression of grief, horror and fascination surrounding a local tragedy. It’s a hybrid of old world and new, and even the song’s lyrics reflect that; they are full of Yiddish/English vocabulary (“pay,” “fektori,” “fire/fayer,” etc.), reflecting the transitional dialect of an immigrant population adapting to American ways.

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). While we do not know whether the notion of a ballad addressing the Triangle Fire originated with Gilrod, we do know the rights to the earlier melody were already owned by Theodore Lohr Publishers, who issued “Di Fayer Korbunes” as well. The enterprising Mr. Lohr operated a music storefront at 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” boasted ads for the shop.

The federal building on the right is 286 Grand Street, shown here c. 1975, long after Mr. Lohr had closed up shop . Credit: MCNY. 

Around the corner from Theodore Lohr’s emporium — and likewise also about one mile from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building — the Hebrew Publishing Co. of 50 Eldridge Street apparently rushed their own Yiddish Triangle Fire ballad into print. The melody of “Mameniu” was taken from a pre-existing song by one if the publisher’s best-known tunesmiths, Joseph Rumshinksy (here credited as J.M. Rumshisky), and put to lyrics by Anshel Schorr. The song was reissued after the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, with amped up sentimentality, supplementing its two maudlin verses about motherless children with a newly added final verse and reworked refrain devoted to a mother whose daughter has been immolated at the factory. “Mameniu”’s added promotional Yiddish text also uses the phrase Der Troyer oyf di Triangle Korbunes: “Elegy on the Fire-Victims.” Both companies’ Yiddish Triangle Fire ballads sold at the usual first-edition prices: 50 cents for piano and vocal sheet music, 30 cents for the violin parts.

But each publishing company used different promotional strategies. While cover art for “Mameniu” shows a staid portrait of its celebrated composer, the cover art and tag line for “Di Fayer Korbunes” create a strangely stylized, rather outrageous depiction of the Triangle Fire itself. Lohr Publishing sheet music at this time generally used custom cover drawings and, like most such music publications, printed boasts on the cover of the songs’ success and acclaim. In this case, the imagery and word choice become so dissonant and fictionalized as to perhaps defy even the motive of attracting customers. The cover’s top line reads simply, if maybe perversely: THE POPULAR FIRE SONG. Then, following the Yiddish song title is emblazoned a graphically detailed engraving which contradicts the well-known awful truth that fireladders were not tall enough to reach the highest floors. In this illustration, while smoke and flames surround young women desperately crowding the top three floors of a building clearly labeled TRIANGLE WAISTS, firemen are shown climbing to the rescue. It is an unfathomably false picture, despite the terrified expressions on the women’s faces and the lone central figure who seems indeed to have just jumped from the uppermost ledge. It is another example of the song’s dissonance – it vilifies the rampant capitalism that led to the tragedy while using sensationalized and insensitive marketing tactics to cash in on the event.

Both of these Yiddish Triangle Fire songs conclude with the agony of a mother whose daughter has perished. Both evoke the dreadful specter of a child shrouded in death, never to reach a wedding canopy. The woman driven to madness in “Di Fayer Korbunes” voices a fierce final irony: in lashing out at the people around her in the morgue, she uses the adjective ‘klige’ [kluge] — smart, clever — which, besides rhyming with the description of her as ‘meshige’ [meshuge: insane], evokes the fatal paradox of a hyper-rational, technologized system which has trapped and killed so many workers. Enraged and distraught, in this version of the story she not only mourns but falls dead beside her daughter’s body. However overwrought this reads today, both songs are an enduring testament to just how universally mourned the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was. It is not uncommon for collective grief to spill into the musical realm, and New York’s booming sheet music industry was more than willing to play their part in the drama.

On November 14th, you can hear Metropolitan Klezmer revive “Di Fayer Korbunes in the stunning historic sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue – a place where new immigrants likely sat in meditation and reflection, reckoning with the tragedy and injustices of the fire.

Written with thanks to Ruth Sergel: Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, Adrienne Andi Sosin, Ed. D.: Adelphi University, Karen Moses (Music Division Senior Reference Specialist) and Chamisa Redmond Nash (Senior Technical Searcher) at The Library of Congress, Leo Greenbaum: YIVO Instute, New York Public Library: Dorot Jewish Division, Allen Lewis Rickman, Professor Gerald P. Meyer, Martha K. Davis, and The Sparkplug Foundation.

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