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Interview ‘It's true people's music’

ALAN DEIN tells Chris Searle why he's just brought out a unique compilation of East End Yiddisher jazz

MANY of the finest and most memorable records have been defined by their sleeves and that’s strikingly exemplified with Music is the Most Beautiful Language in the World: Yiddisher Jazz in London’s East End, 1920s-1950s.


While pedestrians pass by and locals watch on, a couple waltz on the pavement of Whitechapel High Street in the late 1940s outside Levy’s record and radio shop — a true cultural centre of East London music.


East London historian and BBC documentary-maker Alan Dein, renowned for his programmes illuminating working-class history, has compiled this unique album and it’s a true labour of love.


It’s composed of long lost expressions of the early fusion of many cockney-Jewish genres, of ballroom dance, klezmer, hokum, jazz, orchestral swing, balladry, crooning and Jewish folk song in Yiddish and English. “It's true people’s music, secular music of the street and the soul and of people whose lives have been in constant movement,” he says.


The tracks stretch from 1929 when The Plaza Band recorded their Petticoat Lane Foxtrot to 1951 when Johnny Franks’s Kosher Ragtimers recoded Wilhemina and his celebratory ditty Festival of Britain.


It begins with Max Bacon’s marvellous Beigels of 1935, cut at the apex of east Londoners’ struggles against Mosley fascism. When Bacon sings of Whitechapel being “so cosmopolitan” to a Caribbean rhythm, it looks directly forward to the 1948 arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury and calypsonian Lord Kitchener’s chorus of London is the Place for Me as he disembarked.


Key moments of history — Cable Street, Windrush and the growth of a new London cosmopolis — seem eternally interlocked in the very hearts of this record as the beigel man sings out his welcoming words: “From Aldgate East to Aldgate West/I work and never complain./I laugh and I sing/And they call me the king/Of the beigels in Petticoat Lane.


Dein declares that his objective is to “rescue this beautiful music from oblivion,” and the Yiddish words — an amalgam of German and Slavic — and his excellent and educative sleeve notes are a powerful complement to the music.


There are tracks by celebrated Jewish-led orchestras like those of Ambrose — Bacon was his drummer — and Lew Stone, whose recording A Letter to My Mother is sung in Yiddish by the Mozambique-born guitarist and vocalist Al Bowlly, killed by a nazi parachute mine in 1941.


Stepney-born Rita Marlowe, who learned to sing in synagogue choirs, delivers the 1949 ballad Why Be Angry, Sweetheart and Stanley Laudan mines a 1950s groove with his Rock’n’Roll Kozatsky, at a time when Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Little Richard were providing the US stimulus.


But time and communities were moving on. In what is perhaps the album’s most singularly moving track and Dein’s favourite Chaim Towber, a Ukrainian-born writer, lyricist and singer who had performed in the Soviet Union, sings his reflective lament Whitechapel.


“It’s an older man looking at the world around him and seeing it disappear,” says Dein. As Jewish families moved northwards to Stamford Hill, Golders Green and Edgware, Towber pleads for the people, the buildings, the cafes of Whitechapel and the flesh, blood and sounds of life that it held: “Whitechapel, my Whitechapel,/You brought me up here./I stand with my bowed head,/I want my/Mother Whitechapel back./Whitechapel, my Whitechapel/I yearn for you so.”


While dhal, curry and samosa are replacing the gefilte fish, schaltz herring, beigels and salt beef from Bloom’s, and despite the scourge of gentrification, Whitechapel continues to thrive. If music is the food of struggle and change, as it was all though these evocative recordings, then play on.


Music is the Most Beautiful Language in the World is available on CD (£10) and vinyl (£18) from


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