Tag Archives: Popular music

A song about building the American Dream, railroads, towers, war, then being tossed aside to beg for change

Most Americans know the lyrics of this depression-era song. Now they know what it was about.
 
They used to tell me I was building a dream,
and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear,
I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream,
with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line,
just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al. It was Al all the time.
Say don’t you remember? I’m your pal. Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Coppelia and the Viennese Hesitation

If you are hardwired with a cultural affliction like mine, if you find yourself with a compulsive affinity for the waltz, I’ll wager you will also be a sucker for what’s called the Viennese Hesitation. It was just such a hook that led me to a Slav melody that immersed me into a ballet called Coppélia, two days ago, and I still haven’t surfaced.
 
Any fan of ballet, or parent whose child has studied dance, will know about this beguiling comic classic. To the rest of us unwashed, Coppélia or The Girl with Enamel Eyes, draws a blank, likewise even of its composer, Leo Delibes. Most of us outside the world of dance think ballet is all nutcrackers and swans, or the usual literary themes transposed to choreography. What are ballets but silent films to opera’s talkies? In today’s terms, ballet scores were the first soundtracks, and if you find new film scores overwrought, you might be delighted to alight on Delibes and his clever heroine, yes, Swanilda.

The title character Coppélia is actually a doll, the creation of aging Dr. Coppelius in his efforts to fashion his idealized bride. Seated in a window above the square, the mechanical beauty entrances the village boys, in particular Swanilda’s suitor Franz, so it falls to the assertive girl to break the spell. Hilarity ensues. Or, beyond the traditional lighthearted reading…

You may not recognize the name Delibes, but you know his Mazurka. And I’ll bet you can hum his Pizzicato (a divertissement from Silvia) in its entirety. Tchaikovsky said if he’d fully appreciated Delibes’ mastery of composing for the ballet, he would not have dared write Swan Lake.

If you’d like to share my Coppélia experience, I’d love to curate it for you. Start with the Royal Ballet production available on Youtube, mostly because the entire performance is there, and its intertitles explain the plot. There are more lauded productions, but Youtube has enough of their highlights to satiate without testing your patience with Netflix. That said, you’ll want to put the 1994 Lyon Ballet adaptation to the top of your queue now, because we want to save that for last.

The 2000 Royal Ballet production provides an ideal example of a classic interpretation of COPPÉLIA on a Disney budget. The comedy is writ large enough for opera glasses in the nosebleed seats. The choreography is traditional with a Sorcerers Apprentice perfection to it. The costumes are precisely Galician, where this adaptation of a Hoffman tale is set, an agrarian village in a region now part of the Ukraine, but in 1870 belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The red boots go to the Hungarian wine makers who dance the Csardas, and the black boots to the Mazurka dancers returning from the wheat harvest.

Unfortunately the Royal Ballet appeared satisfied to play to the popular misconception that the story of Coppélia is a trifle. I’ll suggest as a rebuttal the 2001 production staged by the National Ballet School of Paris, where the students were clearly able to imbue the lovers with emotion and spirit. This Swanilda is danced by a 16-year-old ballerina, by coincidence the same age as the Italian-Parisian who originated the part before she succumbed to disease after the 18th performance, during the Prussian siege of Paris.

The student production dispenses with Act III, which was all divertissements as you’ll have noted, beautiful musical scenes, but extraneous to the plot, although the love story looses the enchanting La Paix (Peace) variation and the Dance de Fete pas de deux. But they manage to sneak in Act III’s La Fileuse into a dance.

By the way, in my opinion this production makes the very best of the aforementioned hesitation, basically a hanging pause. There’s a suspended hesitation inherent in every waltz, Viennese or otherwise, but Delibes renders this one monumental. In the Theme Slav in question, the fickle Franz punctuates each break with an entreaty, and each time Swanilda resumes her dance. Other choreographies of the Them Slav don’t even slow for those moments, some notably expunge the hesitations from the score altogether.

(Note: If you are curious about the solo for Franz interposed into this variation, it’s a short Scena taken from Act II of Delibes’ 1866 ballet The Source.)

You can compare and contrast or not, but I will suggest checking on other Swanildas to flesh out the flirtations, coy games and lovers quarrels of Act I. For example, ?do not miss Lucia Lacarra of the Munich production, in particular this less coy prelude to the Ballade de L’epi.

For a heartier rendition of the first folk dance, check out the 1993 Kirov Ballet Mazurka.

You will want to see Lisa Parvane of the 1990 Melborne Ballet, in the denouement of Act II, made to dance for Coppelius’ amusement, the Boléro Spanish dancer, and Gigue referred to as the Scottish reel, (actually “Gigue” pronounced in French is Jig), but mostly for the cathartic finale, where the mad Coppelius does not merely mourn the broken mechanical doll, as Delibes’ score makes clear, his heart breaks.

Where the students of Paris may have glossed over the old man’s loss, they did grasp the sociological theme of this tale, natural versus unnatural love, nature versus industrial modernity. The violin Ballade de L’Epi, where a spear of wheat is shaken to reveal if you’ve found true love. We know it as plucking the daisy. But where we’ve come to leave the outcome to chance, in a farming community the answer is sought from nature. Green grains will remain silent until they’re ripe and ready for harvest. This concept is faithfully conveyed by the students, as was the sequence which preceded it, where the tinkerer’s labors to animate his lone world are derided while the villagers anticipate the next day’s social festivities.

If you’re still looking for what makes COPPÉLIA more than a silly tale, you’re ready for the absolutely mesmerizing modernized interpretation filmed by the Opera Ballet de Lyon.

Lyon is not coincidentally France’s industrial center, and here the Coppelius malaise is contemporary. Ballet purists appeared to be aghast, and isn’t that the surest sign of a heretical message? Extracts one and two are online and make obvious this production pulls COPPÉLIA right back from the purgatory of children’s repertory. And here it helps I think to know the tale they’re supposed to be telling, to see what they really have to say. The peasants of Lyon are today much the wiser to the false reality foisted upon them by industrial culture. Their Mazurka is a silent glare. Swanilda’s waltz is a childish mocking of the inanimate Deneuve clone.

While some have describe the Lyon staging as a new twist on the tale, I’d say it’s a brilliant reexamination that gets to the core of why Coppélia became an immediate classic in the first place.

An aside about the Theme Slav. Like Offenbach and other contemporaries composing for the ballet, Delibes borrowed from folk melodies to inform his dances. His partner Saint-Leon returned from travels in Eastern Europe praising this popular melody he had overheard. The Slavic theme turned out not to have folk origins at all, but was a piece by composer Stanislaw Moniuszko, actually Poland’s national composer, author of numerous ballets and operas. Delibes gave credit where it was due, and the Slav melody stands out from among the indigenous varieties. At seven minutes it is Coppélia’s longest sequence. But it was Delibes who lent it the memorable hesitation motif which permeates the score.

In the Lyon production the musical hesitation comes in an early variation, a dramatic leap that already feels like it will haunt me forever.

COPPÉLIA celebrates the strength and wisdom of women, and nature, to overcome a young man’s hesitation, where that of the old man may be doomed, and his technology damned.

Your father’s Lili Marlene, specifically

On the subject of historical misconceptions, you might say I’m hugely sentimental. So the tale of Lili Marlene catches me up like a honey trap. What does the name conjure for you? A Nazi Mata Hari? A fictional musical persona beloved by soldiers on both sides of the Good War? While even antiwar sentiments wax nostalgic about its universal love-conquers-all popularity, the WWII melody evokes romantic memories fueled by dueling propagandas. And when a victorious meme writes the history, it can erase its footprints, leading from what was effectively a literary rape.

A recent folk reference for example, an otherwise impeccably adroit Lili Marlene Walks Away, about Marlene the streetwalker, leaves me just sick in the heart.

The historical narrative has it that Lili Marlene was actually Lili and Marleen, two girlfriends for whom German soldier Hans Liep pined from the trenches of WWI. With unchivalrous poetic license Liep conflated the two and penned a love poem as it might have been written to him, “signed, Lili Marleen.” Two decades later a German composer set the words to music and then came the outbreak of the next war. The original recording by Lale Anderson was a flop until broadcasts to the front lines over Radio Belgrade captivated homesick Wehrmacht soldiers and eventually the lovelorn battling on both sides. Lili Marlene emerged the most popular song of all time, translated in as many languages as fought in the war. Was this owed to a universal empathy toward the pangs of love, or was it the appeal of a truly catchy melody and lyrics carefully crafted to suit the moment? And how did Lili’s character become redefined?

For the German audience, the character of Lili Marlene did not change. For some the song lost its sheen for having been co-opted by the Third Reich war machine. But even as the singer’s living embodiment of “Lili Marleen” became tarnished by her Faustian-won fame, the title role of “Lili” remained the non-fictional love interest with whom her soldier lover spent every furtive off-duty moment, revisited in memory and in anticipation. Concurrent translations across the European continent stuck to the same essential theme, owing no doubt to listeners being in the main multilingual. They understood enough of the original German not to be sold another Lili Marlene. English was another story, but the Allies didn’t start it.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels at first banned the song because he saw it as demoralizing to soldiers enduring the deprivations of war. He referred to Lili Marlene as “The tearjerker with the death-dance smell” until its popularity reached a critical mass even he couldn’t stop. When opposing forces seemed also to succumb to the song’s wiles, Goebbels sought to intensify the poison’s venom.

The original German lyric was written in an ambiguous voice, either that of the soldier or his faithful girl, revisiting their every last moment together and the promise of more. Even as the imagery may have been accepted as a soldier’s fantasies, the singer’s female gender was consistent with the voice of his lover’s reassurances. As a result, the original singer came to personify the character Lili Marleen. For soldiers of every side the voice they heard was that of “Lili Marlene.”

The popular account goes that when Allied soldiers were observed singing along to Radio Belgrade, an English lyric was ordered post haste lest American GIs and British Tommies be singing in German. Rarely mentioned is that the seduction interrupted had been in English.

A recent compilation of nearly 200 different renditions of Lili Marlene gives an unprecedented look into the WWII propaganda battle waged over control of the Lili Marlene narrative. Many of the key recordings have reached Youtube.

When the Germans surmised that Allied soldiers wanted to do more than whistle along, a lyric was devised for them which changed the ambiguity of the narrator to the first person. YOUR Lili Marleen became MY Lili Marlene. And oddly, but for reasons un-mysterious obviously, the vocalist remained a woman. The English version was supposed to be a translation after all, and no one was under any illusion that the song’s original appeal with soldiers was not owed to the enchantment of the chanteuse.

The plodding, dripping sentimentality of the melody also lent well to marches. Lili Marleen, in English, Marlene, was an ideal tonic for a war long on effort and deprivation.

An American GI today could still be forgiven for hearing Lili Marlene and saying: those aren’t the lyrics I remember. Late and post war USO tours effaced the earlier Nazi radio broadcasts. There was a German English version before the British and American after that, when Lili of the home front became the seductress became the whore.

If the song conjures an American image at all, it’s Marlene Dietrich, who subsequently claimed the song for her own, perhaps why it’s named Marlene and not Marleen, I don’t know. But her vampy rendition colors interpretations to this day. An American film star from the 30s, Dietrich is still mistakenly remembered as a reformed German double agent, possibly the Axis Sally propagandist who originated her namesake song. To my mind, familiarity would be the only reason to favor Dietrich’s rendition of Lili Marlene. The original 1938 German and its first English incarnation in 1942 were both by Lale Andersen, easily the most moving. But Marlene Dietrich wasn’t selling love, or was, to be more precise.

The lyric to the original German recording translates thus:

In front of the barracks, in front of the main gate,
Stood a lamppost, if it stands there still,
So will we see each other there again,
By the lamppost we’ll stand,
As before, Lili Marleen. As before, Lili Marleen.

Our two shadows looked like one.
That we were so much in love, at a glance anyone could see.
And everyone will see it,
When we stand by the lamppost,
As before, Lili Marleen. As before, Lili Marleen.

(The motif of female narrator was conceded by a 1943 BBC propaganda rerecording made for broadcast back to Germany. Instead of a love song, the lyric became a war-weary rant where a hoarse-throated middle-aged “Lili” calls for an uprising against Hitler. Loosely translated it went:

Maybe you’ll die in Russia, maybe you’ll die in Africa,
You will die somewhere, that’s what your Führer wants.
But if you see us again, where will this lamppost be?
In another Germany.
Your Lili Marleen.

The Führer is a oppressor, that’s what we all see,
Making every child an orphan, every woman a widow,
It’s all his fault, I want to see? him at the lamppost,
Hang him up at the lamppost.
Your Lili Marleen.

)

The German propagandists were more insidious with their subversion of Andersen’s 1942 recording, sticking closely to the original setting, shifting the narrator squarely to the male, relegating Lili not just to the third person but to the past, and interjecting heaping doses of sentimentality:

Underneath the lantern, by the barrack gate,
There I met Marleen every night at eight.
That was a time in early Spring,
When birds all sing, then love was king
Of my heart and Marleen’s, of my heart and Marleen’s.

The next verse begins with a cringe-worthy overstep of a military put-down, perhaps however to divert critical faculties from the real manipulation. Even though the song is now in English, the soldiers expect it serves German propaganda. Disarmed by the amateurish mocking of “retreat,” the listener is vulnerable as the rest of the lyric preys on a soldier’s insecurity about his sweetheart’s fidelity, the longer the war years become interminable. The subject is the usual propaganda leaflet fare, but animated with the potency of music. Faithful “as before” became “time would part” Marlene.

Waiting for the drumbeat, signaling retreat,
Walking in the shadows, where all lovers meet.
Yes those were days of long ago,
I loved her so, I couldn’t know
That time would part Marleen, that time would part Marleen.

The pace leadens to deliver the fatal pronouncement, again the anticipation of reunion becomes perseveration and lament:

When I heard the bugle, calling me away,
By the gate I kissed her, kissed her tears away.
And by the flick’ring lantern’s light,
I held her tight, t’was our last night,
My last night with Marleen, my last night with Marleen.

The last verse repeats the first, which I omitted earlier. It’s a call to action, obviously absent the original, “Now is the time-” meaning desertion into the aforementioned shadows, “to meet your-” and I must admit to be unsure of a transcription. From Andersen’s accent to the unclear recording quality of her backup chorus, it’s difficult to determine whom Lili wants the soldier to meet. “Your girl” and two other words which rhyme with girl, the first begins with P, the last with S.

Still I hear the bugle, hear its silv’ry call,
Carried by the night air, telling one and all:
Now is the time to meet your pearl,
To meet your girl, to meet your soul,
As once I met Marleen, my sweet Lili Marleen.

Your girl, not Lili Marleen. She’s gone, a love lost to regret. In their German-accented affected English, the male chorus appeared to provide a mocking echo “Now is the time to meet your death.”

Needless to say it was imperative that while Radio Belgrade reached the English and American soldiers in North Africa and Italy, the Allies had to record an antidote. A first version by a Brit kept with the romantic original:

In the dark of evening, where you stand and wait,
Hangs a lantern gleaming by the barrack gate.
We’ll meet again by lantern shine
As we did once upon a time.
We two Lili Marlene, we two Lili Marlene.

Our shadows once stood facing, a tall one and a small.
They mingled in embracing, upon the lighted wall.
And passers by could see and tell
Who kissed my shadow there so well:
My girl Lili Marlene, my girl Lili Marlene.

But that didn’t address the problem of demoralization, Goebbels’ original concern shared by military commanders no matter which side: soldiers overtaken by depression.

Plus the Allies needed less a song about the girl back home than one about the German lass awaiting the Yankee conqueror. Who are we kidding? Lili Marlene’s German voice did not invoke thoughts of home so much as a foreign woman taunting, however innocent, from behind enemy lines. Eventually those lands would be overrun, her lover to die in their defense, Lili to await the last man standing. How many soldiers listened to Radio Belgrade and did not fantasize about cuckolding their adversary with his beloved Lili Marlene? The Allied troops needed a Lili of not-unfaithful character, but one available to them. It was no big leap for an American lyricist to transform Fritz’s Lili, faithfully waiting for him under the lamppost, to “Lili of the Lamplight,” the only type of German woman with whom American GIs would be able to get near, a prostitute.

Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate,
Darling I remember the way you used to wait.
Twas there that you whispered tenderly
That you loved me, you’d always be
My Lili of the lamplight, my own Lili Marlene.

You’ll always be mine? My love? No, my lover by the lamplight. In the new scheme, the mentions of love and tears become sublimated by kisses, caresses, whispers of tender nothings and feet waiting in the street. Sung to the Allied troops as they marched unto Berlin by a husky voiced vamp. That’s your Lili Marlene.

Life follows art, “99 Luft-Balluns” and Seoul, ROK

This is what we’ve waited for, this is it Boys, this is WAR!
The balloons weren’t released from North Korea, but from a Korean version of Elementary School. Do Chiang. Which is also the name of a Tae Kwon Do school. That’s the only way I know it.

Apparently some folks witnessed what they thought were small parachutes drifting into the trees and panicked, dialed Nine-Eleven.