'All the boys will envy me'
It's been 70 years since the song 'Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,' made world-famous by Pete Seeger and many other singers, was composed. Even today, there's still argument about who should get the credit.
Issachar Miron wrote many songs, and pieces for piano and other instrumental works, but there's no doubt that he's best known for writing "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena." This year the song will celebrate its 70th anniversary, and Miron will be turning 91. Today he lives in Manhattan and happily confirms that the royalties from this song alone make his life there quite pleasant.
Miron was born in Poland as Stefan Michrovsky. His father was an Orthodox rabbi and a popular violinist; he made sure his son had a musical education. Prior to World War II, the son told his father that the time had come to get out of Poland. The father said that the Michrovsky family had been living in Poland for over 700 years and that there was no reason for them to leave. But he didn't oppose his son's going to Palestine on his own, and that's what happened. Other than Stefan, the entire Michrovsky family died in the Holocaust.
Issachar, who was about 19 years old on his arrival, enlisted in the British Army, where his commanders immediately discovered his musical talent. They told him to sing. Eliezer Lubrani, one of the directors of the Voice of Jerusalem radio station, invited him to appear on the air together with a choir of soldiers. He received many other kinds of invitations, and one day, in the spring of 1941, someone brought him a bunch of charmingly naive rhymes written by a young Jerusalem teacher named Yehiel Haggiz.
Miron liked "Soldiers are Coming," which is the official name of "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" - and in less than an hour he had put the words to music. That same evening, "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" was played for the first time, at a canteen of Company 2 that was deployed at Bat Galim in Haifa. Today "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" ("Go out, girls, and see soldiers in the moshava," reads the first line ) remains one of the most famous Israeli songs in the world (together with "Hava Nagila," "Erev Shel Shoshanim" and "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem" ).
It seems that no other Israeli song has been sung in as many renditions in as many countries, first and foremost the United States. Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Judy Garland, Connie Francis and Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole - all of them, and others, sang and recorded the song, perhaps 600 different renditions in all, apparently including a lost recording by Frank Sinatra.
The story with Sinatra is as follows, said Miron: "Gordon Jenkins, the greatest musical arranger at the time, was also Sinatra's arranger. One day he heard 'Tzena, Tzena' sung by Pete Seeger. That was in the legendary Village Gate nightclub. After the performance Jenkins approached Seeger and told him: 'Do you know that you have something phenomenal there?' Seeger said that he knew. 'In that case,' asked Jenkins, 'why are you singing it in a language you don't understand?' - because Seeger had sung it in Hebrew. Seeger said that he had no other words. Jenkins went down to the nightclub kitchen, sat among the pots, and an hour later returned with words in English."
The Jenkins English words went: "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena/ Can't you hear the music playing/ In the city square/ Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena/ Come where all our friends will find us/ With the dancers there/ Tzena, Tzena, join the celebration/ There'll be people there from every nation/ Dawn will find us laughing in the sunlight/ Dancing in the city square/ Tzena, Tzena, come and dance the hora/ One, two, three, four/ All the boys will envy me for/ Tzena, Tzena, when the band is playing/ My heart's saying/ Tzena, Tzena, Tzena."
The Weavers continued to sing "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" in English and Hebrew even after Seeger left.
The American Jewish Internet magazine Tablet included "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" in a list of the 100 greatest "Jewish" songs of all time; in first place was "Over the Rainbow," which was composed by two Jews, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg; "Hava Nagila," which was sung by Elvis Presley, among others, came in second. "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," which has apparently been sung in more versions than "Hava Nagila," placed 47th; "Jerusalem of Gold" came in at only 72nd place.
After statehood, in 1948, Miron began serving in the Israel Defense Forces; his job was "chief officer for art and entertainment." In Israel, there were many people who identified the song with the period of austerity ("austerity" is one meaning of "tzena" in Hebrew, although in the song its meaning is "go out, girls" ) in the 1950s.
Pianist Frank Pelleg, who was the head of the music department in the Ministry of Education at the time, invited Miron to be his deputy. In 1950 Miron discovered that "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" had become a hit in America and that a young composer named Julius Grossman was taking credit for several bars of the melody and demanding royalties as though he were the composer. Miron hastened to the U.S., sued Grossman and he has been there since. His wife Tzipora, a pianist, received a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School, in New York, and the recording company that was eventually known as EMI made him an offer that he couldn't and didn't want to refuse: a salary for three years in exchange for exclusive rights to anything he wrote. And so Issachar and Tzipora remained in America. They've been together for 72 years.
Last week Miron insisted that he won the trial against Grossman and all the rights to the melody are his and his alone. Eliyahu Hacohen, the greatest historian of Hebrew song, has a different version. In an article he published on the Internet newspaper of writer Ehud Ben-Ezer, Hacohen said that the legal battle between Miron and Grossman ended with Miron being recognized as the composer of two parts of the song and Grossman as the composer of one part, and that the two share the royalties accordingly.
Hacohen explained: Before Grossman's addition to the song it had two parts: the opening in which the first stanza is sung (starting low ) and the second part that begins one octave higher, in which the words of the first stanza are repeated. Hacohen is relying among other things on a creaky recording of the song by singer Sarah Ya'ari, which too can be found and listened to on the Internet.
Miron rejects Hacohen's explanation: "It's true that at the time there were still several versions of the song and Sarah Ya'ari insisted on singing a version other than the one that everyone later became accustomed to singing. My wife, Tzipora, who accompanied her on the piano, told her that she wasn't singing the entire song, but Sarah Ya'ari insisted. In any case, all the parts of the song as it is known at present were in it from the start; I composed all of it."
At least in legal terms he's right, but in historical terms, Eliyahu Hacohen tends to believe the late musician Moshe Bick, a veteran composer and choir conductor. Bick was the first to arrange Miron's melody for voice and piano, and also conducted its debut performance at the time in the military canteen.
Bick said that it was he who composed the first stanza of "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" as it is sung today. He said that when he conducted a rehearsal with the choir a young soldier named Issachar Michrovsky approached him and asked him to listen to several songs that he had set to music, that maybe he would like them and write an accompaniment. Bick listened to the songs and decided to include three of them in the choir's program. One of them was Haggiz's "Soldiers are Coming." First Bick wrote counterpoint, and that was played together with the melody, but later the two parts were separated, and the counterpoint became independent, and became the opening of the song.
Bick wanted his share of the royalties. First he tried to avoid a lawsuit and to base his claim on the testimony of the soldiers who were present that day. One of them was Baruch Kaminer, who afterwards changed his name to Kamin and served as a Mapai MK (Mapai was the forerunner of Labor ). "You were all amazed at how without secluding myself, with all the noise in the room, I composed the accompaniment, part of which eventually became part of the melody," wrote Bick to Kamin. "You in particular were amazed!" MK Kamin claimed that he didn't have a precise recollection of the event. One of the members of the choir, Tuvia Levy, recalled it exactly like Bick: He said that his conscience bothered him. If he didn't stand on the side of justice, he wouldn't have peace of mind to the end of his days. From New York came a cool response: "For seven years he had no complaint," said Miron this week, as though the issue were still pending. "He asked me whether he could arrange the song as a round and I said, please do. That was all."
In 1955 Bick filed a lawsuit in the Haifa District Court. No fewer than 17 witnesses were called. "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" was played repeatedly in the courtroom in order to prove Bick's fingerprints. Among other things he claimed that Miron had based his song on a Russian soldiers march. According to Eliyahu Hacohen, three composers were involved in composing the song.
Bick's estate is preserved in the municipal archive in Haifa. Hacohen found a letter there that Bick sent to the Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music in Israel, in which he wrote that he wasn't interested in money; he wanted his share of the glory: "Take the rights and give me recognition of my contribution," he wrote. Hacohen summed up: "In the end Bick didn't win the lawsuit."
Miron, in a phone conversation from Manhattan: "What do you mean he didn't win? He lost!" After a short pause he broke out in a victory song: "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena." His voice does not reveal his age.