David Robb (editor) – Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s

27. 5. 2008 | Rubriky: Articles,Book reviews

[by Ken Hunt, London] The German protest movement, in which song was a mightily important element, first truly broached my consciousness in 1971. Formative experiences included attending anti-nuclear protests of the ring-around-the-plant kind and sitting at trestle tables with beer, bread and Bockwurst and with old (well, they looked old to me) comrades singing Kampflieder (‘songs of struggle’) and spouting Kampfsprüche (‘jingles’) at rallies that seemed to last for days. But all that was politics and protesting often in almost a carnival atmosphere, despite the constant presence of the camera-wallahs busily snapping away. Next steps, log car registration plates, match face to identity card and so on – quite enough to take you out of the paradoxical.

More important, if shallower (in a consumerist sense), was listening to Wolf Biermann’s messages from the East, like Chausseestrasse 131 and internalising writings such as his play Der Dra-Dra (only later did I discover Hedy West’s role in popularising his work in Sing Out!) and listening to the West German man-of-letters Franz-Josef Degenhardt laying out fresh tables. Still more important in their role of providing a balanced, daily musical diet was discussing and discussing those songs, winkling out their flesh from their shells and, sober or stoned, analysing what came out. Only Dylan came close. That was what whetted my appetite for German-language song with political messages. And to be honest that is what continues to feed my imagination with any song form. That weighing up of musical and linguistic grammars, lyrical twists and wordplays, open and concealed meaning, the past meeting the present, will remain at the heart of my musical experience until my dying day.

Things plodded along until the Wall fell in 1989. That was when I went on a crash course, albeit a privileged one, courtesy of my job, because my job granted me access to East German musicians in a way that hitherto only talking in Plattdütsch had. In English it is called ‘Low German’ and is generally downgraded to a dialect of Hochdeutsch or ‘High German’. No, it is a cognate language with many dialects of its own. It is also an intergrade language, linguistically speaking. Westwards it goes into Dutch. Head northwards, as in my case from Schleswig-Holstein, it goes into Danish. And in its very otherness, it was and is the unifying language of the two Germanys’ seacoasts. The first time I met Jo Meyer of JAMS and we slipped from High into Low German during a BBC radio recording we knew we had other ways to communicate.

Until recently, most commissioning editors considering an English-language account of German-language protest song would have winced, whinged and baulked at the very suggestion of a book by the name of Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s stretching from 1848 revolutionary songs via punks and Liedermacher (‘song-makers’) to Berlin Love Parade. It is, however, long overdue. Robin Denselow’s When The Music’s OverThe Story of Political Pop (1989), a milestone contribution to the understanding of political or protest song within mainstream music, had its eye on other prizes. Denselow sidesteps Europe in the main. Yet German protest song is universality in a microcosm, as perhaps only Francophone or English-language song have ever been in the context of the wider European scheme of things. Reading this book at times becomes frustrating. The story cries out for parallels between Biermann’s Ausbürgerung – his stripping of citizenship -and de facto excommunication from East Germany and, say, the migration of the Czechoslovakian songwriter Karel Kryl (and not because of our website’s Czechness). Including Kryl would have set up a bigger screen on which to project the ‘transnationality’ of this book’s story.

The various essays in Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s regale the reader with illuminating accounts. They include chapters about early revolutionary song (in David Robb’s ‘The Reception of Vormärz and 1848 Revolutionary Song in West Germany and the GDR’ and ‘Mühsam, Brecht, Eisler, and the Twentieth Century Revolutionary Heritage’), West Germany’s Folk and Liedermacher scene (in Eckard Holler’s ‘The Folk and Liedermacher Scene in the Federal Republic in the 1970s and 1980s’ and Robb’s ‘Political Song in the GDR: The Cat-and-Mouse Game with Censorship and Institutions’), performers such as Konstantin Wecker (in Annette Blühdorn’s chapter ‘Konstantin Wecker: Political Songs between Anarchy and Humanity’ – a performer I only ‘got’ many decades later) and Biermann (‘Wolf Biermann: Die Heimat ist weit’) and more recent drives (Robb’s concluding ‘The Demise of Political Song and a New Discourse of Techno in the Berlin Republic’).

Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s is simply peerless. So, why do I have misgivings about it? Well, I want more people to know more about what came out of the two Germanys. At its most basic, it excludes. If you are unsure of your German or speak none, blocks of text are positioned like dragon’s teeth. At one point in Eckhard Holler’s Burg Waldeck festival chapter, it goes from “the artists were all asked to answer four questions about the politically engaged song and their own artistic commitment.” into repeating those questions in German without translation or footnote. So, sentences or phrases in English run into German and material that moves the narrative marvellously forwards (in German) become exclusion zones (in English). In the case of lyrics, a synopsis or a contextual commentary of, say, Wenzel’s faux-surreal masterpiece Das Berlin-Lied would have assisted immeasurably. Similarly, expressions such as Vormärz (something to do with an early or premature March?), Jugendbewegung (which youth movement?) and Liedertheater (song theatre?) are neither translated on their first occurrence, nor translated in the index, nor in the non-existent glossary.

The inclusion of a chapter laying out earlier, historical antecedents pre-Vormärz (roughly a period leading from 1815 up till 1848), and 1848 would have improved this excellent work enormously. Creativity in times of censorship – protest literature, if you will – is an ever-recurring and enormously fascinating area. Coded material, that is, material that allows the author or performer to speak or sing plainly without, as it were, moving their lips was not a new invention. The Hapsburg-era, Austrian playwright-actor and songwriter Johann Nestroy was a past master of saying one thing and delivering and detonating another. From personal discussions with Hans-Eckhardt Wenzel, the figure on the book’s cover, I know he was both aware of Nestroy and being part of a continuum. Robb clearly knows Wenzel’s work and is insightful about it, yet misses out on that little extra insight that might have explained so much.

Though Holler writes in his excellent chapter entitled ‘The Burg Waldeck Festivals, 1964-1969’ concerning one of West Germany’s most important song gatherings, there were moves “geared toward a critical re-evaluation of the recent German past” (in its simplicity as true as it is profound), peculiarly, overall, race relations get little coverage, get short shrift. This is not to typecast a people. The two Germanys engaged in decades of self-examination. (Famously, unlike Austria.) In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as elsewhere, racism and racialism fouled the socialist nest. (It happened in most places.) Most signally in the GDR, it occurred when it came to interracial relationships – typically involving a black African or Arab student – resulting in a child. It was commonplace for GDR citizenship to be refused. In the West, in the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) German-Turkish race relations were a massive issue.

Surely, rap is a form of protest song and rapper Erci E. has brilliantly captured stereotyping in his Weil ich ‘n Türke bin (‘Because I’m a Turk..’). Similarly, one of Christof Stählin’s most insightful songs, Deutschland nicht mehr (the comma is unprinted but it varies between ‘Germany no more’ and ‘Nothing more/higher than Germany’) acts as a vignette of integration. The girl in the baker’s shop may be of Turkish descent but she speaks Swabian and Stählin’s song overturns cliché. The pussyfooting around race – now not then – is a profound weakness. The whole multicultural debate and dimension barely gets a look in this book, a major omission.

For all that, Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s is indisputably the best account on the subject in English. It a reminder of what the sages and soothsayers say about receiving what you hoped for. It is a wonderful book but only if you are bilingual in English and German. But I will say this: while I couldn’t have written this book I wish I could have fed into its writing in an editorial role.

David Robb (editor) – Protest Song in East and West Germany since the 1960s Camden House, ISBN 13: 978-1-57113-281-9 and ISBN 10: 978-1-57113-281-3 (2007)

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