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Merna and Claire Barry singing in strapless cocktail dresses
A 1950s promotional photograph of the Barry Sisters (from left, Merna and Claire), Barry Sisters Papers, Box 15, folder 3.

The Barry Sisters and “Yiddish Swing”

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The following is a guest post by archivist Maya Lerman, who introduces the Barry Sisters collection.

As a new archivist in the Music Division, I was excited to have the assignment to process a collection that melded my love of jazz and swing with my interest in Yiddish language and culture. At the outset of the project I learned the term “Yiddish Swing”—a genre defined and embraced by the Barry Sisters, a singing sister duo who fused their Eastern European Jewish cultural background with the upbeat jazz of the 1930s. Popular among immigrant Jewish communities and Holocaust survivors for singing in their native tongue and for their nostalgic repertoire, the Barry Sisters introduced American jazz standards to these communities. Conversely, they also exposed mainstream audiences to Yiddish songs with their interesting arrangements, close harmonies, and the high-level musicianship of their supporting bands. Their beautiful looks and matching glamorous dresses distinguished them from other Yiddish performers and added to their appeal.

The Sisters’ musical scores, lead sheets, and instrumental parts, as well as photographs, scrapbooks, and promotional materials related to their career, are now accessible in the Performing Arts Reading Room through the publication of the Barry Sisters papers finding aid. The collection not only contains documentation of the music they performed and publicity materials from their careers, but it also provides insight into the tastes and interests of audiences in the late 1930s through 1960s.

Excerpt of the piano-conductor score for “Bei Mir Bist du Schein,” stamped with Claire Barry's name.
Excerpt of the piano-conductor score for “Bei Mir Bist du Schein,” Barry Sisters Papers, box 3, folder 5.

The Barry Sisters, who were born in the Bronx, New York, with the names Minnie and Clara Bagelman, began their performing careers as the Bagelman Sisters. The sisters Americanized their names to Merna and Claire Barry upon hearing the Andrews Sisters’ 1937 version of the Yiddish song “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” Unlike the Andrews Sisters, however, they chose to perform the song in Yiddish. The Barry Sisters would go on to record for major record labels and become mainstay performers of “Yiddish Melodies in Swing,” a New York City radio program on WHN that ran from 1938 until the mid-1950s. The show’s host, Sam Medoff, arranged traditional Yiddish songs for the Barrys with a swinging backup band that included the great klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras. The upbeat swing arrangements and stellar musicianship on “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” breathed new life into traditional Yiddish songs, while connecting younger audiences to the music.

Excerpt of review of WHN Yiddish Melodies in Swing program, which calls the music [quote] “a potpourri of Yiddish folk tunes, swung to present-day styles, tho not too vociferously or objectionably.” Hand-dated January 1940, newspaper unidentified.
Excerpt of newspaper review of WHN “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” program, 1940. Barry Sisters Papers, box 15, folder 5.
During the run of the “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” radio program and into the 1960s, the Barry Sisters performed for predominantly Jewish audiences at resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains and in Miami Beach, Florida. They performed several times on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and Sullivan even took them on tour in the Soviet Union during the Cold War in 1959, initiating a Russian fan base that had to smuggle their records into the Soviet Union. Later in their careers they toured with clarinetist, saxophone player, and comedian Mickey Katz, and they made other television appearances on “The Jack Paar Program” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” They also performed for Israeli troops after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Yiddish advertisement for the WHN program, which uses the term “Yiddish Swing.” The Barry Sisters are the second act from the top of the starred list.
Yiddish advertisement for the WHN program. The Barry Sisters are the second act from the top of the starred list. A note at the bottom of the clipping names Manischewitz Matzohs as program sponsor. Barry Sisters Papers, box 15, folder 5.

While working with the collection, I had the opportunity to speak with Claire Barry’s daughter, Joy Pargman, who shared an anecdote about her mother’s early life and aptitude for music. When Clara Bagelman was 10 years old, her mother, Ester Bagelman, came to believe that little Clara could sing, despite her reluctance to do so. At home, the Bagelman family often listened to the local radio station’s Jewish Children’s Hour featuring Yiddish-speaking children. Ester encouraged Clara to audition for the program, and when she declined, her mother said, “Do it for me.” Clara suddenly understood the importance and said she would try. Soon after she began singing on the show, the director made clear his preference for a sister duo. So Clara convinced her sister Minnie, who also had no previous singing experience, to sing with her, which motivated them to work up harmonies and ultimately to continue singing together and, eventually, to make a career. [1]

The music in the Barry Sisters papers reflects a mix of traditional Jewish songs such as “Chiribim,” “Yiddishe Momme,” and, of course, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” as well as jazz standards such as “After You’ve Gone,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Them There Eyes.” By examining the arrangements of the songs the sisters performed, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of their musical sensibilities. The collection’s photographs and publicity materials provide additional documentation of the Sisters’ careers, including their appearance and style, types of performances, radio stations and venues where they performed, and biographical information not found elsewhere.

The popularity of the Barry Sisters from the late 1930s through the 1960s is a testament to the tastes of immigrant audiences grappling with missing the culture of their homelands and adjusting to life in the United States. The music in the collection can help us better understand the Jewish immigrant experience during this period of transition, as well as how groups who embodied these sentiments found creative ways to highlight their cultures of origins.

[1] Telephone conversation with Joy Pargman, January 24 , 2024.

Comments (8)

  1. Why not post a clip of their singing?

    • Thanks so much for your suggestion. Because of music copyright, we are often prevented from providing recording clips. However, more than 80 recordings associated with the Barry Sisters collection have been transferred to our NAVCC (National AudioVisual Conservation Campus) for preservation and digitization, so we’ll be able to provide access onsite and I’m hopeful we might be able to post a clip in the future.

  2. Go Sisters!

  3. Thank you for your work featuring the Barry sisters. My grandmother and mother loved them. I grew up listening to their records and watching them on television. It’s wonderful that the Library of Congress is recognizing them. Thank you!
    Eileen Lederman

    • Thank you for sharing the appreciation of your family for the Barry Sisters!

  4. Thank you so much! Another who knew? Revealed from the world’s most amazing Music collection! Enjoyed this article and forwarded to friends.

    • We’re glad you enjoyed Maya Lerman’s post, and appreciate that you have shared the post with your friends!

  5. Maya — thank you for this thoughtful, sensitive and important post. The history of Yiddish theater and song continues to recede into a past more distant from many of us today, but close to the heart to those who came before us (and still for a few of us, who remember). I enjoyed the read and would much enjoy a link to those delightful songs of yesteryear. Bei gezundt.

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