Saturday, September 04, 2021

the trouble with Volksmusik

Last week, Germany’s Green Party got into trouble with a TV ad using the 19th century folk song “Kein schöner Land” in a somewhat sugary video extolling the loveliness of the country without mentioning any of the problems that the next government will have to address. Right now, the youtube video has three dislikes for every like.

At around the same time, I also ran into trouble being asked to share a German folk tune, something which I have studiously avoided so far, while playing music from all corners of Europe for the last seven years. As I am bad at explaining such things in conversation, I decided to a) do a write up as to why there are Irish folk sessions in Germany but no German ones, and b) just learn a suitable tune to present at such occasions in the future.

The trouble with German folk traditions is a complex mix of many factors, but the biggest one is that it has fallen into bad company and kept the wrong sort of friends for too long. Specifically, Nazi organisations hijacked everything that could be prefixed with Volks- (which means folk, the people’s, or popular), from the Volksempfänger (people’s receiver = radio) to the Volkswagen (VW), and the traditional music and song repertoire (Volksmusik) played a huge part in their project.

Post 1945 one would have had to denazify the canon in some form, but that didn’t happen. Lots of harmless and simple songs from the 19th century were kept as children’s songs, a compendium of maybe 100 songs that are endlessly reprinted in different orders. These are ok in their way, but one wouldn’t normally play them among adults.

The grownup folk songs, with only the most horrific Nazi songs swept under the rug, kept their cultural home on the right wing of the political spectrum. Especially those who wanted to recover Germany in the boundaries of 1938 were very keen on songs celebrating the beauty of their country.

Progressive people meanwhile turned outward for inspiration, discovered popular music and folk traditions from other countries and liked those. Which was a good thing as such, but had the unintended consequence of hardening the divide – people who engaged with Volksmusik were likely to be on the right wing and suspicious of other cultures.

There were only very few exceptions in bands and singers working to reclaim the people’s music of times past for the kind of people who used to sing it, namely the workers, sailors, farmers, and the failed revolutionaries of 1848. Zupfgeigenhansel (named after an early 20th century folk song book) and singers like Hannes Wader spring to mind, but the list doesn’t grow much longer than that.

All of this has been my perception until reunification – as I moved to the UK in 1993, I didn’t witness developments since then as closely and may have missed changes that happened. Bands I happened to hear about, like Santiano, Faun, Triskilian, may now be heralds of a different social context of folk music, or they may still be exceptions that prove the rule, I couldn’t judge from the distance. In any case, the story until 1993 explains why I don’t walk around singing Kein schöner Land (and haven’t dared to watch the Green Party clip yet, which, from what I heard, seems to be targeted at the old-fashioned Volksmusik fans).

So, as all this is a bit tedious to explain when the situation arises, I’ve now had a look around for any German folk tunes that are sufficiently interesting musically and come without any horrific historical baggage. The result is a very short list, but maybe if readers want to add suggestions, I’m all ears.

Some simple tunes for the D whistle:

Muss i denn (Friedrich Silcher) in G, start on G, end on B
This one is globally famous because it was recorded by Elvis Presley (Wooden heart, 1960) - which fits my much neglected folkmash tag

Warum (Vom Truge; Ponthus et Sidoine)
I’ve actually played this one at Galician sessions, as Carlos Nuñez has recorded it, although he learned it in Brittany. A UK catholic person told me it’s used as a hymn here as well. The song version I knew is called Warum and sung by Triskilian, who give as the source the song book of the Duchess Sophie-Erdmuthe von Nassau-Saarbrücken from 1750.

Zogen einst fünf wilde Schwäne
An anti-war song from Eastern Prussia

Something a bit more interesting that sounds nice on the alto recorder:

Ich hab die Nacht geträumet in G: range from B to e’ – doesn’t work on D whistles.

Loreley (Friedrich Silcher) in G, start on D
Travelling up the Rhine on the train Cologne – Koblenz is actually as close as I get to feeling at home in Germany, so I might as well make this my go-to German tune (although one could dispute its folkicity)

on the way towards Loreley (own photo, 2017).

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