The sweet voice of a woman ... can restore a man's spirit.
Rashi, commentary on the Babylon Talmud, Berakhot 57b (~1100)
For the Jews, singing is a tradition since the biblical period, be it only for liturgical purpose. Nevertheless, in the Diaspora the secular Jewish singing acquired his whole achievement and a huge variety, due to the cultural and musical influences of the nations the Jews were - willy-nilly - in touch with: Slaves, Greeks, Turks, Gypsies in eastern Europe (where Ashkenazim talked and sang in Yiddish); Spaniards for Sefardim (whose language was the Jewish-Spanish or ladino or Khaketia), Arabs and Yemenites for the "mizrakhim" (oriental Jews). The American influence and the Israeli folklore are more recent but not less of lesser importance.
During the past centuries, Sabbath, religious feasts, weddings and circumcisions were good opportunities for the people of the "shtetl" and the ghetto to meet, to rejoice and to forget for a while prosecutions and misery.
The "Hasidim" (pious Jews) considered melodies, like souls, as of divine origin (Eliyahu Schleifer). Music, much more than words, bridged the gap between their religious practice and their very intense community life. The 'nigun' was a simple, often joyful melody, intended to be sung repetitively by all the members of the community and which lyrics were often reduced to onomatopoeia: the Galitzyaner Hassidim (Modzitz, Ger, Bobov) favored the "typical" vocables like Bim-Bam, Ya-Ba-Bam, Dai-Dam (especially Bim-Bom around Moditz and Yadi-Yadi in Ger); Lubavitchers liked the more liquid Na-Na-Na, Ni-Nam, Ma-Ma-Ma or Oy-Yoy; and Hungarian/Carpathians had a more tragic outlook with a lot of Oy-Oy, Doy-Doy... (Henry Sapoznik, Sam Weiss).
The "purimshpil", was the prototype of the European (and later American) Yiddish theater: At Purim, the traditional plays used to commemorate the rescue of the Jews by the queen Esther in Persia. It gave birth to many Yiddish songs. The setting to music of secular Yiddish texts is more recent and due to the very active cultural development in the "yiddishland" since the 18th century.
Most of the old authors and composers are unknown. Their songs - lullabies, songs of faith and piety, moral tales, elegies to the Jewish tradition, evocations of daily joys and sorrows, nostalgic dreams... -were transmitted orally from mother to children and sung publicly only by men because of the religious law "Kol Isha" (woman's voice in Hebrew) that prohibited women to sing for unfamiliar men to avoid distracting them from their duties!
The social et political tendencies like the Haskala and the Bund inspired new subjects: struggles, hopes, claims against injustice and difficult life conditions, yearning for liberty, women's part, etc.
Love songs appeared in the Yiddish repertory but as late as in the nineteenth century, influenced by liberalism: Passion, jealousy, expectation became common themes, but eroticism was mainly not fully expressed... "tra-la-la-la"!
Emigration and the Shoah added some more themes to the Yiddish song patrimony.
Yiddish lyricist and composer
Modern authors and composers are tremendously numerous: Aaron Zeitlin, Mordekhaï Gebirtig (1877-1942), Sholem Secunda, Hermann Yablokoff (1902-1981), Abraham Olshanetsky, Itsik Manger (1901-1969), Abraham Ellstein, Jacob Jacobs, Hirsh Glik (1922-1944), Avrom Goldfaden (1840-1908) or Mark Warshawski (1848-1907) shouldn't relegate to oblivion numberless other creators, even contemporary like Jacques Grober or Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman who could successfully transmit in their production the Jewish soul's emotions with the power of their words and the magic of their music.
To measure the width of the phenomenon, figure that the number of 78rpmYiddish songs recordings in the USA and Europe between 1898 and 1956 was recently evaluated to 14'500! (Mike Aylward)
Because once said (and sung!), the pain is less terrible... Because the song is what remains when everything is forgotten. (Astrid Ruff)