“Alabama Song”, from cabaret tunes to rebel jazz and punk revival

Symbol of degenerate art for the Nazis, the association of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht sang of the attraction of whiskey and women. Created by Lotte Lenya, modified by Eric Dolphy, this wonky tune was “rockularized” by the Doors and adopted by punks.

For the past twenty years, each election has been the occasion for a new ghost train ride. Embarked a little against their will – not so much a choice – the French voters, taken hostage, sail in the darkness, feel their blood run cold as they see the ghosts of the past reappear and, clasping their hands, closing their eyes, strive to ward off the dreadful nightmare: “Not the 30s, especially not the 30s…” In these moments, it is impossible not to think of Bertolt Brecht (“The belly is still fertile…”). So to Kurt Weill. So to Alabama Song.

At the decadent cabaret: Lotte Lenya and The Three Admirals (1930)

Whiskey and women. Otherwise, death. The requirements formulated by Alabama Song could not be more primary, almost pure as they speak frankly. It could be the word of a pirate or a gangster. The first to have uttered it is an imaginary prostitute in search of men. Its text was written by Bertolt Brecht and his lover, Elisabeth Hauptmann. Set to music in 1927 by Kurt Weill for a brief musical and scenic sequence called Songspiele, it will be integrated into the opera Rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny before being recorded by Lotte Lenya, the composer’s muse and his greatest interpreter. Wobbly, horrifying, this version is anything but normal. One would think of a haunted cabaret of scarecrows and broken puppets where Death himself would sing in the garb of a young virgin. More decadent, unthinkable.

Recklessness of Propriety: Eric Dolphy & John Lewis (1964)

If Lotte Lenya’s version is striking in its gloomy character, it is because it reflects its time. magonny caused a scandal and Alabama Song gave nausea to German nationalists, who spoke of it as “Negroid jazz” and “cultural Bolshevism”. In 1931, Hitler himself concluded: “Brecht’s texts and Weill’s music can never be considered German art. » We know what threat this type of judgment contained in the mouth of the failed artist. In a sense, however, he was not mistaken: Alabama Song did not belong to the Germans any more than to anyone else. As proof of its popularity among jazzmen of all countries. When some, like Carsten Daerr and Daniel Erdmannwill deconstruct everything, others will aim for the grandiose (Maria Schneider) or the fake surging calm (RussLossing). John Lewis, the pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, is less original, at least until the arrival of Eric Dolphy. With his madness, his radical dissonance and his superb disregard for propriety, the latter does full justice to the saving “degeneration” of Brecht and Weill.

Admiral’s Son and Chorus of Sailors: The Doors (1967)

Whiskey and women, therefore. No need to look any further for what can attract a man to any dive. Or push a son of an admiral to rock. In fact, in the moments when he forgets to take himself for Rimbaud, Jim Morrison will mainly sing about alcohol and women, these two poisons hated by healthy Puritanism. And he wants it for good. This is what makes the strength of the version of the Doors, less perverse than that of Lotte Lenya but more direct, with its choirs of sailors and its atmosphere of bad carnival due, essentially, to Ray Manzarek. Its dilapidated organ and its round trips to the Marxophone half-open the curtain on the Berlin of the 1930s. david bowie to Marianne Faithfull, Nina Hagen or David Johansen.

Kurt among the punks: Göteborgs Brechtensemble (1979)

Their nature dooms the standards to be always similar and different, according to the movements of time. Conceived while Germany was sinking economically and politically (one of the best testimonies of this drift is the novel Towards the abyss by Erich Kästner) but still tried to stun himself in vain orgies, Alabama Song could only be appreciated, half a century later, by the punk movement, both a product of decadence and a bulwark against what has always presented itself as its most obvious (and worst of all) solution. : fascism. In 1979, the Germans ofAbwarts adorn Weill’s theme with a dog collar and safety pins and nothing seems more becoming to him. The same year, the Swedes of Göteborgs Brechtensemble did even better with their strange mixture of greyish fanfare and sharp rock, the factory not being far behind this reinvention (for the fanfare side, listen also The Four Bagsfor rock under industrial influence, The Young Gods).

An Endless Nightmare: Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda (2014)

We have come to a crossroads. On the one hand, the jazz of Eric Dolphy, mad and rebellious to everything. On the other, the punks, an identical radicalism but passing through an infinitely simpler, more raw language. Two irreconcilable paths? Do not forget that it is at the crossroads that the devil presents himself, a gentleman who appreciates good jokes. Why not consider a new union against nature, mixing in the same debauchery two currents apparently so opposed? Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda apply themselves to it with joyful ferocity, where pastiche competes with anxiety. One is German, the other Japanese and both were born after the war, in defeated countries. The horror of the 1930s, no need to explain it to them. Perhaps against his will, Alabama Song refers to this time as a nightmare, a trauma. The objects of desire are negotiated there with death, the thirst for license does not manage to mask the anxiety. Ninety-five years after its creation, the little unhealthy cabaret tune still sticks to our sick era.

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“Alabama Song”, from cabaret tunes to rebel jazz and punk revival


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