Threads of Americana. Repurposed Traditions and the New German Folk Music

No surprise results from the fact that during wartime more is exchanged than simply gunfire and death tolls. During WWII much crossed German borders from food to soldiers to melodies. The tradition of currywurst is attributed to a German housewife who received ketchup in 1949 from British soldiers present in Germany.

Mixing those ingredients with spices already in her German kitchen, she poured a delectable, an agreement held by masses of tourists and locals, sauce over wurst. When the wall fell in Berlin, abandoned properties were numerous in East Berlin and – as was the number of artists looking for housing. The people filled the waiting spaces, the artists set up studios between empty and collapsing walls, and the squatting became a contemporary narrative rather than a bohemian day dream.

Awaiting: Empty Chairs at Cowhide House Concerts

Awaiting: Empty Chairs at Cowhide House Concerts

The ephemeral threads of music also crossed the demarcations of war time. German folk music played a bittersweet but serious role in the psychology of Nazism. Always rather disjointed – Germany was not a united geographic territory until the late 1800s – the music of the East and West regions once consisted of joyous and patriotic volkslieder. The traditions were slowly instituted, and instilled, within Nazi patriotism.

The yodels sung by workers and folksingers became an extension of political identity and manipulation. The Hitlerjugend, youth assembled in support of Hitler, adopted a brand of extreme nationalism and a pamphlet, Musik und Volk, was even penned devoting its text to the importance of music as a source of Germanic pride. 

As time went on and the Nazi regime was defeated, German folk music was soiled and the people sought something else to restore the joy to their oral traditions and evenings of merrymaking.

The genre, and the pride in the genre of folk music, was noticeably rebuilt using the songs and the thematic foundations of Americana, protest songs of the American 60s, traditional Irish folk songs, and other politically motivated melodies. Even today, strong communities of folk clubs exist across Germany. From Cowhide House Concerts in Frankfurt to Folk Club Bonn, small, dedicated groups of music gourmandizers protect the tradition from being diluted and disappearing.

Dietmar Bloech, organizer of Cowhide House Concerts offers that: “Due to the use of any national German traditions and cultural aspects during the Nazi regime, a break took place after WW2 when any form of German tradition in that context was frowned upon. The interest in folk music was only revived by the new folk and protest music spilling in from the USA in the early 60s and later the various revivals in other countries in the 60s and 70s e.g. Ireland with the Dubliners.”

Hybrids of American folk songs with German texts made way for new genres such as krautrock. There were suddenly spaces – dance halls and music circles – blossoming and popular artists found the courage to redefine previously popular songs. Achim Reichel – a pivotal member of the Krautrock movement – used the traditional yodeling in singles of modern music; thus, re-appropriating the text of German songs and classic poetry to be paired with modern music. ´An example of such being his arrangement of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig on his album “Wilder Wassermann”.

Willy Tea Taylor in Berlin

Willy Tea Taylor in Berlin

Nowadays, the search for a deeper truth and a deeper authenticity within music and, in a greater sense within life, fuels the lyrics and inspires the audiences. There is a simply strumming pattern, only a few strings, but a melodic thread of a broken and displaced heart: core. The crooning is likely to come from the Belgian artist Vincent Slegers who self-identifies as playing in the style of North Mississippi Hill Country Blues.

Or from Brazilians Mary Lee and the B-side Brothers, ever popular with their energy and lyrics of kinship beyond blood lines: “The best kind of family are the ones that we choose /The blood doesn’t matter I know we choose you”; songs that use traditional yodeling; themes that thread throughout every human being, particularly those of a not-so-distantly war-torn landscape.

folkclubbonn

Folk Club Bonn

Of course as pianos and accordions are replaced by synthesizers and guitars, the sound of this folk music continually morphs and the musicians that embody its spirit vary: from music festivals like “Tanz- und Folkfest Rudolstadt” to “Muddy Roots Europe.”

Whether German audiences sell out the latest Brian Fallon concert – a staple on the Revival Tour circuit – or pack into a crowded house show in a humid Berlin summer to see Willy Tea Taylor, the cowboy boots have a way of replacing, and displacing, any pejorative echoes of a shameful wartime past with the celebratory and explanatory chords of folk music.

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