Friday, April 21, 2017

Not all romance and stars

I posted a dash through the park yesterday of some of my favorite absurdist musical numbers from the 20s and 30s, wanting to share my hobby with others, even though I know not one in a dozen people I know, even close friends, have any interest at all in such esoterica. No matter. That, I always say, is why God made delete keys. And every once in a while somebody will write me and let me know they listened to some musical piece with fresh ears, and that gives me no end of pleasure. Music is the cement that keeps the bricks together in the house of sanity. Escaping to cheap entertainment as a way of surviving the rigors of reality is one thing. Finding refuge in music, regardless of the genre, in my view, serves the same function, and provides so much more reward in the process. Even the silly songs of yesteryear.

That said, though, I have to admit in searching for such esoterica as "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" in French (since yesterday, I've found a wonderful Django Reinhardt version, by the way), I've also found a whole bunch of stuff that makes the real argument for not surrendering to nostalgia. Evidence, as if we needed it, that the "good old days" were anything but free of prejudice and provincialism.

Max Raabe argues his preoccupation with this music should not be mistaken for nostalgia, but recognized as an appreciation of a classical music form. And I give him that. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to refer to "my little cactus" and "the things Ruth does for me" and "Amalie goes to the baths with a rubber gentleman" classics, but there is a timelessness about the energy and the uplift of big band music and absurdist comedy - think Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. They all still work, nearly a century on.

Where things get problematic is when we dip into the cultural goings-on of the 20s and 30s and tap into some of the things that we have done well to escape, reasons to appreciate this thing called social progress through consciousness raising. We still have racism and anti-Semitism, but they are now peripheral to society. Except for the occasional backsliding - to wit, our very own Trump administration - we are not going to return to the time when anti-Semitism was official government policy in Germany and informally in most of Europe and in America as well. And segregation, cultural as well as physical, was evidence that the slaves had not actually been freed, but only nominally relieved of some of the harshest aspects of American treatment of dark-skinned people.

I sent around a video yesterday of one of the silliest things I've seen in a long time - a dancer hoofing it to the tune of a ditty about dancing the Black Bottom with the Hottentots.  I went ahead and sent anyway because it was so over the line, I thought, beyond racism and into silliness, and because I don't spend enough time being silly.

Here are a couple more samples - at least I thought they were at first - of the kind of bad taste stuff that pops up when you go digging in the past.

Foxtrot: Einen grossen Nazi hat sie. (Foxtrot - "She's got herself a big Nazi.")

Makes you sit up straight and take notice.  The words go:

Einen großen Nazi hat sie
Einen kleinen Nazi hat sie
Hat den großen und den kleinen Nazi gern
Sagt zum großen Nazi Schatzi
Sagt zum kleinen Nazi Schatzi
Und verachtet in der Stadt die feinen Herrn

Drum tut mir jeder Herr leid wenn er in
Der Schweiz verliebt in eine Sennerin

Einen großen Nazi hat sie
Einen kleinen Nazi hat sie
Denn sie ist in puncto Nazi Kennerin

She’s got a big Nazi
She’s got a little Nazi
Likes the big Nazi and the little Nazi
Calls the big Nazi Schatzi [darling]
Calls the little Nazi Schatzi
And respects the fine gentlemen in the city.

So I’m sorry for every gentleman who
falls for a dairy maid in Switzerland

She’s got a big Nazi
She’s got a little Nazi
Because when it comes to Nazis, she’s an expert.

Remember this is 1928, and the Nazis were still just getting started. At first I thought I was onto somebody whitewashing the seriousness of the Nazis and being clueless. But it turns out the song was written as satire by a Jewish Austrian songwriter named Fritz Grünbaum who evidently was able to see the writing on the wall. Not the end of the story, unfortunately. Grünbaum died in a concentration camp. Which begs the question, is something satire when you can't recognize it as satire? I guess you had to be there. Satire is usually limited to a narrow window of time and place, since its power is in its immediate relevance.

But what about this?  Here's another Foxtrot.  Actually, a "one-step": Der Neger hat sein Kind gebissen ("The Negro bit his child.")

The lyrics go like this:

In the darkest forest of the darkest land lives Jumbo, the Negro, exhausted from fighting.
The wives of the Negro scolded and fought with him, because Jumbo wounded their vanity. He had ten beauties, freed according to custom, but loved another maiden as well, whom he always kissed in secret. And so violently that the blood flowed from her lips. The wives saw that and cried, all ten of them:

Chorus: The Negro bit his child, o o ho
Why didn’t he kiss us? o o ho
Because when you’ve got ten wives you call
your own, they want to be kissed, too.
They want to be kissed too.

What do you make of this example of Culture A seen through the eyes of Culture B, I'd like to know. It's racist, for sure.  (They refer to the protagonist as "The Negro," rather than sticking to his name, for starters.) But is it racism pure and simple?  Or arguably more of a question of naïveté?  Irony? Camp?  The sense of humor of a seriously screwed-up bunch of wackos, maybe? Put your anthropology hat on before answering.

Or, like its composer, M. C. Krüger, just an isolated piece of trivia, all but lost but for the advent of the internet.

I mean, he's not up there with the likes of the Kardosch Singers, especially Rudi Schuricke.

Here is Rudi singing "J'attendrai" in 1939.
And here's Max Raabe opening his Waldbühne concert with it, in 2010.

photo credit: text of Der Neger hat sein Kind gebissen

No comments: