Deutschfolk: a box of folk wonders from both sides of the Berlin Wall

Deutschfolk: Soundtrack Zum Volksliedrevival In Der BR[D]DR cover
Deutschfolk: Soundtrack Zum Volksliedrevival In Der BR[D]DR is a new 12-CD box set of folk song in East and West Germany.

Chances are Folk London readers will know little about Germany’s Volkslied traditions but Britain’s folk song owes Germany. That starts with the term itself, whether rendered as one word, hyphenated or two; the thread winds back to a German philologist.

The earliest occurrence in English fudged the translation of Volkslied grammatically but “folk song” stuck. What looms darkest over the fascinating subject of Volkslied is how, historically, two totalitarian regimes bent Volkslieder (folk songs) to their will.

A new 12-CD, 229-track box set shows how the Volksliedrevival (folk song revival) of East and West Germany – the BRD and DDR of the title – and the reunified Germany recovered its pride and its passion.

Compiled by Bernhard Hanneken, Deutschfolk: Soundtrack Zum Volksliedrevival In Der BR[D]DR (Deutschfolk: Soundtrack To The Folk Song Revival In The FR[G]DR) also shows how the two folk scenes negotiated the political rapids and cultural shoals of their day. By the way, my [D] insertion is graphically realised in the original, with one linking “D” in green. FR[G]DR – Federal Republic of Germany/German Democratic Republic works in English. Everything here is in German. The fantasy bilingual edition would have broken any major label’s budget, let alone this labour of love from NoEthno’s cottage industry.

Came reunification, came the meeting of the tribes. That took place at the heady Tanz & FolkFest Rudolstadt 1991 – now the Rudolstadt Festival – in the once-GDR state of Thuringia. Hanneken and Jens-Peter Müller programmed. As someone who had lived and worked in West Germany and with a two-decade familiarity with the West German folk scene, plus, seemingly, being the only German-speaking British folk journalist, I got the guest speaker gig at TFF Rudolstadt – and joined the core festival team in 1994.

This 10-CD set is the soundtrack to Hanneken’s monumental book Deutschfolk – Das Volksliedrevival In Der BR[D]DR (2021). As instantly as any 500-plus page history ever can, it became the standard work. A half-century of listening and 30 years of deep immersion in the German folk scene did not equip me for this box set. It left me feeling like the new boy on his first day in big school. It is that awe-inspiring. And full of obscurities, rarities, live tracks and never-heard revelations from the tape and vinyl cellar.

In 1906 Georg Capellen coined the term Weltmusik in exactly world music’s later sense stripped of marketing purposes. Rüdiger Oppermann’s oriental-sounding recording for harp titled Requiem für Günther Sare is a wordless riposte to West German brutality memoralising a protester taking part in a demo against neo-Nazis in Frankfurt am Main who was crushed and killed under a water cannon vehicle in 1985.

Fasia Jansen’s 1983 Der Zug Nach Aldermaston (The Train To Aldermaston) reveals a great deal about what the state sanctioned as social criticism and commentary. The west and capitalist state militarism are in the sights. (Angela Weiz’s sin with Unsre Heimat I+II – not here – was to turn a Pionier youth anthem into social criticism; the GDR revoked its impending release in November 1989.)

Hanneken’s leftfield choice of Rudi Goguel et al’s 2005 take on the paragon of KZ-Hymnen (concentration camp anthems), Die Moorsoldaten or Peat Bog Soldiers from O Bittere Zeit (O Bitter Time) is utterly inspirational. In 1996, Bavaria’s Hundsbuam Miserablige rivalled the Pogues in shock value. Hoizhakka Pogo (Woodchopper’s Pogo) still does.

What Germany’s Volksliedrevival never had, it seems to me, was the presence of living traditional song-carriers. It lacked its Bavarian Sam Larner, its Schleswig-Holstein Sarah Makem, its Pfalz Phoebe Smith or its Mecklenburg Jeannie Robertson. It never had a fountainhead of inspiration to draw on like Topic Records or Ate Doornbosch – whose Onder De Groene Linde (Under The Green Linden Tree) broadcasts inspired and replenished the Dutch folk song revival wellspring.

One aspect the two Germanys excelled in, barely touched in Britain, was literary sources. Bonus discs 11 and 12, the unreleased Zugabe (Encore) CDs, show how two of East Germany’s finest acts, Folkländer and Wacholder, parlayed transgression through literary sources – Brecht, Burns (via Freiligrath), Heine, von Fallersleben and Tucholsky. The capitalist countries never had to do that.

Inspired by Fairport Convention and Pentangle – names only in the East – Hamburg’s Ougenweide dived into Middle High German poetry and genuine medieval spells (quite unlike Kate Bush’s “Hem of anorak, stem of wallflower, hair of doormat”). Their track from Wol Mich Der Stunde (Blessed The Hour) is quintessential Mittelalter-Rock (medieval rock) exceeding Gryphon’s wildest.
Britain’s folk revival probably never will have a one-stop box of wonders to compare with this feat of erudition and dog’s bollocks of anthologising and licensing.

Deutschfolk: Soundtrack Zum Volksliedrevival In Der BR[D]DR (catalogue number NoEthno 2003-2014) is available from noethno.de. This article appeared in Folk London 315, October-November 2021