Immigrant stories: New world, old songs

May 30, 2011.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Theater Latte Da's new musical documentary finds reflections of the current day in immigrant songs from an earlier age.

The editorial pages reflected prevalent attitudes about immigration: Newcomers were taking jobs, depressing wages, depleting welfare resources. Contrary voices suggested the influx of people helped refresh our perspectives and initiative, and that the nation was culturally enriched.

Ah, the more things change. From about 1880 to 1924, waves of immigrants, primarily from southern and eastern Europe, flooded the United States. Italians, Slavs, Russian Jews, Poles and Baltic peoples were among those who crowded through Ellis Island, searching for cities with gold-paved streets. They found crowded, festering tenements and a population that suspected the worst of these foreigners. So severe was the reaction that the Immigration Act of 1924 imposed restrictive quotas that lasted until 1965.

Theater Latte Da has plumbed the first-generation experience of these Americans in "Steerage Songs," which has its premiere Thursday through Sunday at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul. Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard have stitched together songs and verbatim texts that shed light on this seminal period.

Along the way, Rothstein and Chouinard uncovered great curiosities from the era. Steamship companies and railroads eager for business enticed immigrants by hiring itinerant advertising troupes to sing jingles in small European towns. Some state governments, looking for population, joined in the courtship. "Uncle Sam's Farm," a ditty extolling the available opportunities in America, had this chorus:

"Our lands, they are broad enough, don't be alarmed; For Uncle Sam has room enough to give us all a farm."

Before he was famous

Another song, "Gee! But This Is a Lonesome Town," was included for its place in the history of little Izzy Baline. In 1905, the New York World reported on the doings about town of Adm. Prince Louis of Battenberg. A relative of the British royal family, the prince went slumming one night and stumbled into a chop suey kitchen in Chinatown. Two singing waiters, "Izzy and Bulhead," serenaded Louis with "Lonesome Town" and afterward the prince flipped them a dime. The World reported that "Izzy, the recipient of the ten cents, declares he will have it framed and hung on the wall as a souvenir."

We know Izzy better by the name he would later assume, Irving Berlin.

Rothstein initially thought he would shape the show around composers who came through Ellis Island -- such as Berlin, the man who expressed such love for his adopted country in "God Bless America."

"I felt that if we want to own 'God Bless America,' then we have to own a Russian Jew who came here in a steerage boat," Rothstein said.

The show shifted from its focus on composers as Rothstein uncovered hundreds of songs, some of obscure provenance, about the immigrant experience. "Yes, We Have No Bananas" tells of the peddler culture and "Rose of the Volga" was a Yiddish song about labor and housing conditions. "Oleanna" was a well-known Norwegian folk song that poked fun at the mythology of American greatness. It used the name of the colony formed by violinist Ole Bull in 19th-century Pennsylvania. The lyrics spoof a place where "wheat and corn just plant themselves; then grow a good four feet a day; while on your bed you rest yourself."

Firsthand accounts

Chouinard, who plays piano and accordion in a five-person band for "Steerage Song," originally was brought in for his musical experience. Describing himself as a dilettante historian, Chouinard gravitated more to the journalism of the project. These spoken pieces, interspersed among the songs, comment on the lives of immigrants. The cast includes Sasha Andreev, Erin Capello, Dennis Curley, Dylan Fresco and Jennifer Grimm. Chouinard leads a band of Peter Ostroushko, Laura McKenzie, Dirk Freymuth and Dale Mendenhall.

One source used by Chouinard was journalist Broughton Brandenburg's 1904 book, "Imported Americans," based on his experiences living in New York City at the height of the in-migration. Brandenburg wrote that summer in the Lower East Side slums made life uptown seem like "a seaside resort." With the heat and smells and crowding, the neighborhood in which he was living "was in tumult every evening until near dawn." He booked passage in steerage with immigrants and wrote of "actually counting the half-hours of the twelve-day voyage amid utter wretchedness." Getting food consisted of waiting in line for half an hour for "two messes of macaroni and meat, two tin cups of highly acidic wine and a cup of hot potatoes" for a group of six.

The trip from Europe took 11 to 16 days, depending on the port of departure, Chouinard said. Cunard was the first line for passengers, but by the 1870s, all ships were carrying hundreds in cargo areas that had been converted to third-class accommodations. Iron bunk beds were stacked in open areas, with mattresses made of burlap bags filled with straw or waste. The companies figured they could ship passengers at a daily expense of about 20 to 28 cents per capita. In 1909, there was a hue and cry that the low price of $10 per passenger was attracting a lower class of immigrant.

There are 40 pieces of music from 20 countries or cultures in "Steerage Songs." Rothstein said the show is broken into six parts that tell a chronological story. Berlin, as an individual, pops up throughout the narrative.

"I'm only interested in looking at history if it has something to say about today," said Rothstein. "With immigration issues at the forefront today, this is a topic I'm passionate about. We think that immigrants 100 years ago were welcomed with open arms. That's not true, and we struggle with what we preach."