For if we don't find the next whiskey-bar, I tell you we must die!
December 13, 2013 1:47 PM   Subscribe

"Oh, show us the way, to the next whiskey-bar. Oh, don't ask why, oh, don't ask why." And so opens the Alabama Song (Google books preview) by Bertholt Brecht and Brecht's close collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann (Gbp), first published in 1927. Brecht set it to music and performed it on stages all over Berlin, but the better known version was scored by classical composer Kurt Weill, who was impressed with Brecht’s poetry and wanted to break away from the constraints of his previous work. It was this version, first performed by Lotte Lenya, that was made famous by The Doors and their use of a Marxophone (Wikipedia).

For contrast, here's the song performed as part of Mahagonny Songspeil by the Carnegie Mellon University senior class of 2012, sung by women in search of "the next pretty boy." And here is Marianne Faithfull live, singing those same lyrics.

David Bowie, a fan of Brecht, performed the song in 1978, and in years following, including in 2002, when he introduced the song by saying "And when I was living in my apartment in Berlin, I would sing this at breakfast every morning." Bowie opted to go with the same language used by The Doors in the 1960s, as featured in their self-titled debut album (full album on Vimeo).

There a number of other covers of this song, including Marilyn Manson (live) and The Bobs (studio recording). And we'll wrap up with The Doors live, with Love Me Two Times, featuring an organ instead of the Marxophone. If you want more Marxophone, here's The Doors - Alabama Song (Niconé edit) (YT; alt link: Soundcloud stream and download link). You can find more covers listed on Wikipedia and the Covers Project.

Songs of Alabama, previously, and Mack the Knife, a previous post on Brecht cover song mania.
posted by filthy light thief (23 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite of the more "contemporary" versions is this take from Ralph Schuckett, Richard Butler and others ... as found on the 1985 compilation album "Lost in the stars, the music of Kurt Weil"
posted by philip-random at 2:07 PM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

The Bowie version is my favorite, so hectic.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:26 PM on December 13, 2013

So, is "Moon of Alabama" an entendre or allusion to some lovely/unsavory activity?
posted by sammyo at 2:27 PM on December 13, 2013

In the context of the opera, it's literally the moon of Alabama. Jenny Smith leaves home and comes to Mahagonny looking for drink, cash and men.
posted by Bromius at 2:34 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

sammyo, I don't know, so I won't guess. In searching for the thoughts of others, I was reminded that The Doors' album was covered on the program Classic Albums (prev. MeFi post).
posted by filthy light thief at 2:34 PM on December 13, 2013

My favorite of the more "contemporary" versions is this take from Ralph Schuckett, Richard Butler and others ... as found on the 1985 compilation album "Lost in the stars, the music of Kurt Weill"

Lost in the Stars is the source of many of my favorite contemporary Weill interpretations.
posted by mykescipark at 2:35 PM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lotte Lenya, bond villainess and cabaret singer!
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:12 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Marianne Faithfull, wow
posted by mumimor at 3:24 PM on December 13, 2013

I don't know exactly when or why I started digging it, but at some point in the second half of my life it happened. I must be getting campier.

I've had much the same experience, but I think my enjoyment developed when I first heard the "next little dollar" lyric and suddenly realized what the song was all about. I don't think The Doors included that in their version of the song.

Also, I first heard this accompanying a SNL short titled "Babies in Make-Up" which I can't find online at the moment.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:28 PM on December 13, 2013

Great post. There's a typo in Brecht's first name: It's "Bertolt", not "Bertholt".
posted by tecg at 3:38 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The original poem and song were composed before they were set to opera. So I suspect that what Brecht was up to with "Oh moon of Alabama" was mocking the home and family sentiment in songwriting and theater which is evergreen for a hit. Bracketing this particular Brecht work in English, you have "On the Banks of the Wabash," a turn-of-the-century hit that hits both home and a lost mother in the first verse, and Bing Crosby's "I'll be Home for Christmas," which drips with homesickness. He may also be referencing the tradition of sentimental songs from minstrel shows such as "Old Kentucky Home" which are about homesickness for the Old South. There are probably better examples in German and closer to 1927 of soldiers and displaced workers pining for home and singing obliquely about why.

At least that's my interpretation. I could be wrong.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:23 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nina Simone's performance is my favorite.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 5:49 PM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Uta Lemper Lemper is a leading proponent of Weill. Look her up on Amazon.

Dalida This is an unusual interpretation - smooth, almost disco-like!

Kurt Weill was a freaking genius!
posted by Vibrissae at 8:14 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh my, Ms Simone's performance just gives the chills. Warm and hot and oh my, or you know why!
posted by sammyo at 8:41 PM on December 13, 2013

Anyone know the melody played in the Marxophone demonstration? 'Cause it's lovely.

Brecht wasn't particularly adept at English when he wrote "Alabama Song", and I think the awkwardness of the way the words are fitted to the rhythm is a big part of it's appeal. It set up this cultural round-robin of a German portraying American decadence, which in turn was picked up by Americans trying to recapture Wiemar decadence, then Bowie and Faithfull (half Austrian herself) came and built off German tragedy and LA transgression. It's one of the few rock standards that can't work with a backbeat. The melody has to sway above the upstrokes, fluttering above the weight of history.

My own favorite rock-era Brechtian interpreter is Dagmar Krause.
posted by bendybendy at 4:59 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

That Doors gig is on Netflix. They were a great live band. Always loved their version of the Alabama song.
posted by juiceCake at 7:30 AM on December 14, 2013

The Doors' version's on the list of treadmill tunes I run to. Just so you know.
posted by Rash at 8:40 AM on December 14, 2013

juiceCake, which gig is that? I'm not seeing anything for The Doors on Netflix (at least, not via Instantwatcher).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:40 AM on December 14, 2013

And to add to the Bowie/Brecht lovefest here's Mr Bowie in Brecht's play Baal, pt. 2, pt. 3, and for extra Bowie obsessiveness, another version of Brechts The Drowned Girl filmed during the same session as the Wild is the Wind video.
posted by merocet at 10:48 AM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

juiceCake, which gig is that?

It was, I believe, The Doors Soundstage Performances. It appears to be no longer available. However, it is on YouTube.
posted by juiceCake at 11:52 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Doors version is one of the reasons I got a Marxophone, now probably my most prized instrument (and the best of the gadget zithers by a mile).
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 4:35 PM on December 14, 2013

The big epic opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is really worth a look for someone curious about operatic things. Kurt Weill composed some stunning male vocal ensemble parts in this work which are on a whole different darker level past the traditional barbershop quartet style.

O Heavenly Salvation by The Persuasions, from the 1994 video documentary September Songs, inspired by the Hal Wilner tribute with some of the same artists involved.
posted by ovvl at 4:04 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had no idea that was a Marxophone, after all these years. Interesting, so long they were considered junk wall hanger class instruments, recently I've seen them selling for kinda crazy money.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:34 AM on December 17, 2013

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