Monday, August 24, 2009

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Among the most moving of all the great protest songs of the 1960s, and one which is still regularly performed by Joan Baez, bless her, among many others, is the old Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson classic, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1961):
Where have all the flowers gone? / Long time passing / Where have all the flowers gone? / Long time ago / Where have all the flowers gone? / Girls have picked them every one / When will they ever learn? / When will they ever learn?
Where have all the young girls gone?.../ Taken husbands, every one / When will they ever learn? etc.
Where have all the young men gone?... / Gone for soldiers, every one… etc.
Where have all the soldiers gone?... / Gone to graveyards, every one…
Where have all the graveyards gone?... / Covered with flowers, every one… / When will we ever learn?
According to tradition, Seeger was inspired by a Cossack folksong he came across in the novel And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) by Mikhail Sholokhov, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. Some time after he read the book, but well before its author hit the jackpot in Oslo, Seeger came across a few lines he jotted into his notebook, “Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army.”
The song simply followed from that, and the final verses were added later, a reflection of the deepening crisis in Vietnam. Its circular structure reinforces the memento mori aspect, even if, these days, one might balk a little at the cheerful typecasting of young girls hoovering up all those flowers, not to mention all the young men in turn snaffling the young girls, “every one.” However, let’s not get too carried away with current sensitivities about gender politics.
Lately I thought of this song not because of any recent performance, nor even any resonances with what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan—though I guess these are pretty powerful.
Instead it was when, in my reticule, I came across another version that must surely go down in the annals of recorded music, and even of stage performance, as one of the most stupendously weird covers of any song ever to be voluntarily committed to magnetic tape. I refer, of course, to the 1973 cabaret rendition, “Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind,” by the iconic but by then rather elderly Marlene Dietrich. At the time it was aptly remarked by Clive James that, even as the great diva shimmied carefully downstage, center, at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, to the wild applause of devoted fans, the pelts of innumerable small white animals, of which the train of her fur was composed, were evidently still leaving the dressing room.
Setting to one side the matter of Marlene Dietrich’s preferred but gravelly lower register, in the surviving footage her delivery is as clipped as the German translation of the lyrics leans towards the peremptory. She also seems very sleepy. In fact, notwithstanding the loose, open strumming of the acoustic guitar and gradually building café-orchestra accompaniment—together with some zippy, if slightly leaden upward key-changes—in Marlene Dietrich’s hands the song is handled not so much as a rumination on impermanence, love, death, and the futility of warfare, but rather as one might imagine some not particularly senior official appearing before the Düsseldorf town council to defend the imposition of a higher rate of land tax.
Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind. / Wo sind sie geblieben? / Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind. / Was ist geschehn? / Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind. / Mädchen pflückten sie geschwind. / Wann wird man je verstehn? / Wann wird man je verstehn? etc.

Mind you, if Marlene Dietrich had ever put in an appearance in such an unpromising forum—as far as I am aware, as a matter of principal she rarely set foot in Germany after taking American citizenship in 1939—I have no doubt she’d have brought the house down anyway. As James remarked, generally the quality of her later performances was for loyal audiences a foregone conclusion, but I think they are still worth listening to, and not only for a chuckle. And it’s also true that she did look amazing, right to the very end. Check out her final, extraordinary cameo appearance opposite David Bowie in David Hemmings’s fine motion picture Just A Gigolo (1979). She was by then seventy-seven years old.

No comments:

Post a Comment