Thursday, February 10, 2011

1937-1944 – Swing Tanzen Verboten - Swing Music and Nazi Propaganda Swing During World War II

It's time to take a break from the generally lighthearted fair I've been writing on these past several weeks, and take a sharp turn into some genuinely dark territory.
Swing Tanzen Verboten! is a compilation I happened across during my Tower days. Since I was just a kid, I had a fascination with World War II, some would go on to say I was more fascinated with World War II than most kids my age. By "kids my age", I mean 4th grade, and by "more fascinated" I mean "at all interested". Funny how everything seems to root back to 4th grade... hmm...

My 4th grade teacher was a brutish, impossible man who seemed like he was just born angry. Being part of his class was stressful, because you never knew what was gonna set him off. But underneath that large personality flaw, he was actually a pretty good teacher. I am not certain if he actually was a soldier in the second World War, but he was the right age, and he talked the talk.
Every day was story time! One usually does not associate elementary school with having actually learned anything, but I walked away from that class knowing more about Pearl Harbor, Japanese internment camps, the Nazis, American and German military tactics and weaponry than an entire year's worth of the History Channel! He would even sometimes veer off into a tangent, and talk at length about American pop culture during war time. So needless to say, I got a little high on nostalgia years later when I found this collection sitting on the shelves at work.

The first disc in the collection is enjoyable, but also forgettable. It is comprised mostly of pre-war German swing, and then develops into a chronological compendium which leads all the way up to 1944. A quick aside for the unconverted, it should be noted the Germans HATED swing during the reign of the Third Reich. They associated it with poor minorities, unclean, not pure German, and hence it was dubbed "Entartete Kunst", or "Degenerate Art."

a hilariously racist caricature of a Negro/Jew wailing on a sax in a 1938 propaganda poster.

Before it was illegal, the Germans took a very blaissez faire approach to the style. At first it was merely mocked and ridiculed, then it was flat out banned. As soon this happened, the style was forced underground, where it flourished! The third and fourth discs are, without exaggeration, AMAZING collections of swing and jazz. Most of these recordings were made in occupied Europe after Hitler went full tilt on the continent. Disc 3 features French and Belgian artists very heavily, and as such, Django and Joseph Reinhardt is the main focus. Disc 4 features an incredible amalgamation of artists from all over Europe, many of whom I've never heard of, but enjoy none the less.

I'm saving Disc 2 for last, because it is by far the most noteworthy, as well as the creepiest to listen to. Enter "Charlie and His Orchestra", while they weren't the only underground swing artists surviving in Germany, they were however, commissioned by Heinrich Goebbels. In order to broadcast pro-Nazi agenda swing music across the nation, Karl Schwelder, (AKA Charlie), was trusted with a sacred task! Write swing lyrics that will demoralize the enemy! What came of the project were a series of eerie "Weird Al" type parodies of existing, popular swing tunes, in which Charlie trashes the Jews, and mocks Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. His lyrics taunt the American and British military with:

"Why are the ships always sinking and blinking at me?
What makes the British stop drinking from their cup of tea?
It's now the season, the reason, let me explain what it means,
German Submarines!"

Karl Schwedler also known as "Charlie". This goofy motherfucker struck fear into the hearts of the Allies everyday... with MUSIC!

Those of us who have the benefit of hindsight know the Nazis lost the war, so these songs are little more than an amusing curiosity to us. However, think of them in a more historical context. Imagine the American and British soldiers who happened across these songs on the radio, when they were trying to get some R&R when not in combat. A musical taunting of your nation's wartime efforts. Fellow soldiers', possibly friends' horrible demise put into song! Granted it does not mean much to me now, but I can understand the mindset that it must have been trying to undermine.

It's worthy to note also that the music wasn't just throwaway swing either. The style may have been outlawed in Germany, but that doesn't mean they didn't know how to do it! The style is very hip, contemporary, and very much like what they would be listening to anyway in Britain and America, that's how it was able to creep into so many homes, and military bases.
This isn't the best contemporary comparison, since Al-Qaeda isn't exactly known for it's chart topping pop singles, but imagine if Osama Bin Laden commissioned some hip young pop star to record a hit radio friendly rock song about how awesome 9-11 was. Now imagine it was on the radio CONSTANTLY! Imagine it sandwiched right in between "How you Remind Me" by Nickelback and "Chop Suey" by System of a Down on the AM rotation. That's kinda what Charlie was getting away with!

However, it is good to note that Churchill was actually a fan of Charlie and His Orchestra. He sarcastically commented that the changed lyrics were more funny than they were threatening. Good to know the Prime Minister was not so easy to shake.

Thanks for tuning in to another update on "Best Thing Ever". Next week we'll be jumping into the 50's, analyzing the soundtrack to Disney's version of Peter Pan.
In two weeks, I'll be ushering in the birth of Rock and Roll with Elvis Presley's self titled Debut.
I'm not all about operas, soundtracks and racist swing music! ;-)

On a random side note! Today is also an important day in music history!
Today, Lady Gaga released the single for her second (and a half-ish) album "Born This Way."
I'd tell you to go check it out, but chances are, within the next couple days or so, the song is gonna find YOU! ;-)

See you all next time!!!

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