My Favorite Song In German


for Robert Christgau

We were getting drunk after work, a long time ago. So long ago, in fact, that I was the young guy, the rock and roll and soul guy, and my two co-workers were old.  One, a World War II vet, was a lower east side native, Polish in background, perhaps best defined musically by Frank Sinatra.  The other had grown up in Panama and Jamaica before reggae, a calypso man.  As we worked our way through a bottle of overproof rum our host, the calypso man, decided to entertain us with some recorded music and pulled out an LP that he announced contained music by Elvis when he was first starting out. I was plastered but I could tell it was an Elvis imitator.  In fact the one LP contained a cross section of hits from the 1950s by a variety of top 40 fakes.

But it didn’t matter that it was bogus.  We were drunk and bonding, and that record, with its slapdash mix of genres, ethnicities, and market segments evoked a non-existent multicultural past. It signified and thus intensified the wonderful evening three guys from three different sub-cultures were having.  I think of that night when I think of how I ever got the idea that I should even have a favorite song in German.

I was in college in the early sixties, groaning under the New Criticism and the classics, listening to the Beatles, at least two years before meeting Bob Christgau.  There was a bigger world. I had to get out. So I bought a book by Susan Sontag, a certified smart person who assured me it was legit, in spite of what I was being taught, to use different stances to appreciate different art at different times in different places.  As an example, in Notes on Camp she mentioned a British musical group called the Temperance Seven. They weren’t Plato or Thomas Mann.  My parents were in England.  I asked them to bring me back any records they could find by the Temperance Seven.

It would be years, even decades, before I understood that many of the songs on the LP Temperance Seven, 1961 were early jazz classics, that they were a clever-than-most Brit trad jazz band, and not really camp at all. But like the three drunk buddies listening to fake Elvis, I apprehended something without getting all the details right, as soon as I gave a listen.  These guys were taking something old and making it sound current, and not by updating the sound.  It was the cleverness of the recreation that give it an immediacy.  And like the three drunk buddies, I even got something out of the music that wasn’t really there.

Now it’s as far from 1961 as 1961 was from the twenties, but I can still remember absorbing the shock I felt when I first heard Whispering Paul McDowell sing “Falling In Love Again.”  I didn’t follow the Marlene Dietrich reference.  I didn’t see the switch from man-eating Blue Angel to swooning male lover.  I wasn’t familiar with the song, I didn’t know it was a standard, I didn’t know about the movie. But I knew it was a tribute, a bridge from past to present. And what I heard was an oddly affecting British pop singer in sincere naive mode, not unlike Paul McCartney on a slow song, reaching back, making something current, and suddenly taking a verse in German.  What a surprise.

There was music sung in German, of course, by Bach and Beethoven.  There were old people that sang old hymns in German at my Grandma’s church in Ohio, a dying culture.  There were novelty German versions of hits by the Beatles and the Beach Boys that added nothing.  But why was this the only real use of German I found in post-war pop?

 I’m a more or less German-American and I don’t speak or understand the language of my ancestors.  But I don’t speak or understand Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese, and I have favorite songs in all those languages.  As far as I know there are more Americans of German ancestry than any other European Americans.   Shouldn’t I have at least one favorite song in German? There’s so little trace of it you even forget to ask.

 Was it a fatal high/low culture split?  Was it Hitler?  Was it Stalinist East Germany?  Was it an authoritarian personality structure that didn’t lend itself to rock and roll?  Was it the North American anti-German hysteria during World War I?  Was it a lack of colonies: no German Brazil, no German Cuba, no German Mali?  Probably all six, and especially number two.  What I heard in that one verse by revivalists at the dawn of swinging England, was a contemporary use of German, shocking for being unique. It would take about forty years before I would hear an entire song.

I like Natalie Cole.  I think Unforgettable is a great CD.  But some people don’t like it.  If you think of her father’s biography as the story of a Great Jazz Singer And Pianist & Let’s Forget The Rest, the biography Diana Krall pays tribute to, (perhaps pegs her career to), on All For You, a great CD, you might not like Natalie Cole and Unforgettable.  But if you step back, and see Nat “King” Cole’s biography as the story of the jazz hot shot from Chicago’s South Side who makes it all the way into the middle of the entertainment world and becomes so popular he gets his own TV show but can never attract a sponsor because he’s black, if that’s your Nat Cole than Unforgettable is a little rich girl who grew up in Beverly Hills’ successful attempt to connect back to the music of her lost father.

Sometimes Natalie Cole is all over the place musically and it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  I don’t like her latest Christmas CD The Magic of Christmas.  It sounds inauthentic, distant, too ironic, too hip.  Except when she sings ” O Tannenbaum”, a heartfelt recreation of one cut from her father’s classic Christmas album.  Here we reenter the realm of Unforgettable and Natalie Cole isn’t singing the jazz canon or the Christmas demographic, but The Songs of Her Lost Father.  As it turns out, Nat Cole didn’t understand Spanish, French, or German but sang phonetically in foreign languages.  Why?  I don’t believe it was just to sell records.  I believe it was also to establish that the jazz hot shot from the South Side was a man of the world, a sophisticate, an entertainer of international stature that should have attracted sponsors for his TV show, a contemporary of the Marshall Plan.  When I hear Natalie sing “O Tannenbaum” I hear the authentic affection and yearning I hear on Unforgettable.   I hear the connection to her father’s achievement, both musical and social, even if she had to go the other direction, the upper-class hippie, from Beverly Hills to the South Side herself. 

And yet, it can never be my favorite song in German because I’ll always remember one Christmas, when my parents lived in Canada.  We were singing Christmas Carols with some guests after dinner when my Mom turned to one of her friends,  who had grown up in Germany, and asked her to lead us as we sang “O Tannenbaum”.  It was an act of graciousness, it was the only German Christmas Carol all of us could sing, and it seemed innocuous enough.  But the guest graciously declined and explained that she could never sing that song because it was the only song the Nazis allowed them to sing at Christmas when she was a little girl.  It wasn’t Christian, it was pagan, and it was truly German.  For her the song was ruined.

So I can appreciate Natalie Cole’s achievement, but I can’t quit thinking of that Christmas dinner. I can appreciate Nat Cole’s deployment of German as just another pigment in the Euro-palate, a signifier of tolerance and inclusion.  But where’s the song with no baggage, the innocent song not saddled with an evil history, the singing that’s not from the authority of high culture, just the great I Am of rock and roll?

 If I go into any of the music stores in Manhattan to the world music sections there’s a lot of stuff in Spanish, and Portuguese, and French, and Italian, but a tiny section in German, and half of that’s Oktoberfest oom-pah bands.  There are pop bands from Germany, and now it’s even cool to be from Berlin, and there’s a noble pop history that takes place in Germany going back at least to Donna Summer, but very little sung in German.  Even assured-of-their-place-in-pop-history Kraftwerk didn’t really hit their stride until they quit chanting in German and started chanting in lots of languages with a German accent. 

According to Patricia Kaas’ website she’s the “most exported artist in France” and I helped make it happen.  I bought her box set because recently she’s presented herself, navel flagrante, as a sort of French Madonna and I thought that was interesting because for awhile Madonna herself presented herself as the French Madonna.  So why shouldn’t somebody French have a crack at it?  As it turns out Patricia Kaas can do the Madonna thing and revive a little Edith Piaf, duet with James Taylor, recite James Brown, combine French pop with the blues.  Some might find her employment of musical affects derivative, but amazingly enough, they escape the French curse.  They’re not wimpy, they rock, they wail, they pop.  A border girl, from the French coal-mining region next to Germany, she’s French-German herself   She was singing in Germany when she was called to Paris for an audition and now she’s so rich and famous she lives in Zurich, just like Tina Turner. And every once in awhile she sings in German.

I’m driving across Interstate 80 to visit my parents, listening to a random mix I made before I left knowing that if I couldn’t predict what came next it would help keep me awake.  Outside of New York City, driving fast for hours changes the feel of the beats of the songs. There are songs that have the noise of the subways, songs that sound good performed live, songs for dancing, songs for exercising, and songs that have the beat for driving a car.  For me, that car beat is usually the sound of the early Beach Boys and then all the white male rock you hear driving your car across the Heartland and it is always from North American.  But on this trip, the song that had that beat, that I couldn’t wait to her, that kept me going, “Ganz Und Gar” sung in German, recorded in France, by Patricia Kaas.

You may call the Byrds-like clanging guitars, the Leon Russell-like piano, the Waddy Wachtel-like solo guitar bridge, the Russ Kunkel-like drums a big pile of cliches. But what glorious cliches they are here, and how beautifully they are strung together.  And the German!  Here and there a familiar word or phrase mixed in with incomprehensible but appropriate sounding vocalizing.  Just like real rock and roll. In fact it is real rock and roll. Not a clumsy “German version.”  Not nostalgia for a irretrievable or non-existent past.  Not life is a cabaret, old chum.  Not ‘50s come-fly-with-me sophistication.  International pop.  The European Union rising.  A new world.  An O.K. world.  A tolerant world. An ass shaking world. A world where the individual matters  A world where everyone is learning and thus altering the musical vocabulary of post-war America and so a world where World War II may finally be resolved.

I’m driving through Pennsylvania, where those German-speaking 18th-century Smuckers are buried, to visit my parents in their nursing home, my favorite song in German on the tape deck.

Tom Smucker 2002

This essay was originally completed four days after 9/11, when my daughter and I happened to be four blocks from the World Trade Center, Ground Zero. It was published as one of over 50 contributions from over 50 friends for a book produced in tribute to Robert Christgau on his 60th birthday: Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough.