Songs of the Polish-Jewish Thieves and Prostitutes

In 2019, at the University of Manchester, I have defended a PhD thesis in Ethnomusicology entitled:

‘Singing Songs of the Polish-Jewish Underworld: Between Pre-World War Two Street Music and 21st Century Performance’

My thesis discusses songs of Jewish thieves and prostitutes from pre-World War Two Poland – a little known repertoire originally sung in the deprived neighbourhoods of large cities such as Warsaw or Lodz. It demonstrates that these songs are a particularly useful source for exploring the history and culture of the Jewish urban poor. It assesses the processes of collecting and re-discovering these songs over the twentieth and at the beginning of the twenty first century. 

The thesis shows different levels of interconnectedness: of people who sang these songs, of those who tried to collect them at the beginning of the twentieth century, of those who collected them later, and of the songs themselves. It also shows, through the analysis of songs, that they testify to the interconnectedness of many different Polish and Jewish cultures (lowbrow and highbrow, religious and secular, urban and rural, local and international). The thesis also focuses on contemporary performances of these songs and their modern-day
incarnations in order to analyse today’s Polish-Jewish music scene beyond the most often studied klezmer and the Jewish Festival of Kraków.

Finally, taking as a point of departure the well established in ethnomusicology tradition of musical practice with the communities studied, this thesis explores the opportunities and rationale for individual ‘singing-the-archive’, a practice as research when the community studied no longer exists. It argues that such practice allows to better explore the researched material while ‘giving it back’ to the people to whom the studied music is the closest, consequently empowering them in explorations of their own, often complex, histories and herstories.

You can listen to some of the recordings which I produced as part of my PhD research on my vimeo profile and on soundcloud.

Here is just one example:

The song is a story of a girl who was cheated by who she thought was her fiancé and is being taken to a brothel in South America. The lyrics say:

‘I have no fear of my father. I took a thief as a husband. He promised me great future but at the end… he is taking a great ship and a pretty girl, and I am left with a boat and tuberculosis…’