When I first came to this land, not much money in my hand,
So I got myself a shack, and I did what I could.
And I called my shack Break My Back,
But the land was sweet and good, and I did what I could.
2nd verse: cow/called my cow, No Wilk Now
3rd verse: duck/called my duck, Out of Luck
4th verse: wife/called my wife, Run for Your Life
5th verse: son/called my son, My Work’s Done
Going through my family attic, I came across a box of tapes hand-labelled “Yiddish Yodel 1992-95.” From asking around, I learned that a group of relatives and family friends kept up a tradition of singing together every year, to practice their traditional language and reconnect over their immigrant ancestry; most were second-generation. Among many songs only slightly familiar to me in tune, one stood out as completely recognizable. It was a song I myself had sung countless times in English during my childhood. Although I could not manage to get a Yiddish transcription of the original, a confirmation of song’s premise and my remembered version from my informant was enough to satisfy me. The formulaic nature of this song makes it incredibly easy to remember, and allows participants to sing if for almost as long as they wish, as long as they can keep coming up with rhymes. The verses above are merely one set of options among great multiplicity and variation.
Another version of the song in English can be found in the Smithsonian’s Folkways project, recorded by Pete Seeger: https://folkways.si.edu/pete-seeger/american-favorite-ballads-vol-3/folk-popular/music/album/smithsonian