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Billie Holiday’s Cover of ‘My Yiddishe Mamme’

Remembering the legendary singer on the 100th anniversary of her birth

Elissa Goldstein
April 07, 2015
Billie Holiday in 1947. (Wikimedia Commons)
Billie Holiday in 1947. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary songstress Billie Holiday, who left this world too early, at the age of 44. A couple of years before her death, Holiday recorded a gorgeous, impromptu cover of the Jewish classic “My Yiddishe Mamme,” which was composed by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack and popularized by vaudeville star Sophie Tucker in 1925. The song has been covered many times, by everyone from the Barry Sisters to Neil Sedaka to—improbably—Tom Jones, who apparently learned it from his father, a Welsh coal miner. (Also noteworthy: this rendition by Ray Charles on the set of The Nanny.) But Holiday’s version is something else entirely: with a simple piano accompaniment, it’s nostalgic but not kitschy, full of sentiment without being sentimental, evoking both strength and vulnerability.

According to the liner notes of the Idelsohn Society’s 2011 compilation “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,” the song was recorded at the New York City home of clarinetist Tony Scott, in an effort to coax his baby into ‘talking’ into the microphone. Another version of the story, by musician Jack Gottlieb, has it that the child was the son of William Dufty, who co-authored Holiday’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues.” In any event, Holiday’s crooning is successful—how could it fail?—and the child can be heard cooing toward the end of the recording. It’s a delightful, candid moment.

Here she is:

Elissa Goldstein is Tablet’s director of audience development. She also produces Unorthodox. Follow her on Twitter here.

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