Out of all our hard work and low pay, and tired backs, and empty pocketbooks, is goin’ to come a tune. And that song and that tune aint got no end, and it aint got no notes wrote down and they aint no piece of paper big enough to put it down on.
I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a product of mid-western St. Paul suburbia. It was a time when summer included a week at camp, a time where there was less money, less legal liability, and because of it, less adult oversight. This translated into a hell of a lot more fun than I think adolescent children and teenagers are allowed today at such institutions. Our behavior did not always match the naive goody-goody image that might come to mind based on a Kodachrome Disney-esque portrayal of that era. And it was at these events that I experienced many firsts of the adult world under the cover of the wholesome conservative institutions that were supposedly shielding impressionable young men and women from such temptations in the first place.
There was also a sweet, simplistic side to going to camp, the hot canvas tents, sleeping in a green cotton flannel sleeping bag, cooking out doors, swimming, canoeing and the camaraderie of friends sitting around a campfire. I look back with fondness, though I know we rolled our collective adolescent eyes when the song books came out. Yet, singing was an innate part of the camp experience. The idea of song books may sound old fashioned and it is. These were crude stapled copies, that allowed everyone to sing along. Apple and Sony had not yet usurped the idea that music was based on technology. Portable music played outside of the reach of an electric plug-in meant you made it yourself.
The songs were simple: On Top of Old Smoky, The Ants Go Marching In, Home on the Range, B-I-N-G-O, This Land is Your Land and America the Beautiful. The song books often contained our national anthem, yet I don’t remember singing the Star Spangled Banner once around a campfire, but I sang This Land is Your Land a hundred times at least.
Woody Guthrie’s history is well known, however the connection from Woody Guthrie to a sonnet may seem a bit obscure. Billy Bragg and Wilco took Woody Guthrie’s lyrics and released the song Isler On The Go on Mermaid Avenue. It is a haunting tribute by Guthrie, Bragg and Wilco to Hanns Isler, who along with his brother Gerhart, were accused by their sister of being communists. The two had been active in the communist party prior to WWII in Germany and had left Germany when the Nazi’s came to power. They immigrated to the United States where Hanns was able to cobble together a modest living as a composer for Hollywood films. In addition, while in America Hanns wrote a series of songs that had lyrics based on poetry from Brecht, Goethe and others as well.
His brother Gerhart was smeared by his sister as being the head of a communist conspiracy in America and she claimed he was the lead spy in a network of spies. It didn’t matter that none of it was true, it was perfect fodder for tabloid headlines and exactly what the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) wanted to hear. Hanns was called to give testimony and was interrogated himself on any role he himself had played in the Communist Party in Germany and then here in the United States. Hanns said;
My subversiveness is that I love my brother. My crime is that I am trying to defend him.
Give a listen to the simple lyrics and haunting delivery of Jeff Tweedy as Guthrie himself in this song is wondering what he would do if he is called to HUAC to give testimony.
Hanns capitulated and returned to Europe, eventually settling in East Berlin. It was then that Isler composed the German Democratic Republic’s national anthem. He continued his long friendship and artistic partnership with Bertolt Brecht during this time. Brecht is best known as a playwright, but he also wrote the lyrics to many songs with Isler and left a legacy of more than 2,000 poems, including sonnets. Isler fell into a deep depression after Brecht’s death and his productivity as a composer declined. I have included a video of a performance of one of Isler’s and Brecht’s songs below; Songs to Sing in Prison.
A recent English translation by Constantine and Kuhn shows the brilliance of Brecht’s poetry for those of us that can’t read him in his native tongue.
Sonnet No. 19
by Bertolt Brecht
One thing I do not want: you flee from me.
Complain, I’ll want to hear you anyway.
For were you deaf I should need what you say
And were you dumb I should need what you see
And blind: I’d want to see you nonetheless.
Given to watch for me, companion
The way is long and we’re not halfway done
Consider where we are still: in darkness.
“Leave me, I’m wounded” is not good enough.
And nor is “Somewhere,” only “Here” will do.
Take longer with the task: but you can’t be let off.
You know, whoever’s needed is not free.
But come whatever may, I do need you.
I saying I could just as well say we. *
*Bertolt Brecht, Love Poems, translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015), 86.