Because Catarina is not posting about Brazilian music today, I will continue my blogging about music for another week. In two previous posts, I called attention to how performers transform a tradition by inserting themselves in it by way of evaluating it musically. (See here and here.) While there is more to be said about that theme, here I want to call attention to a kind of converse phenomenon.
I start with some autobiography. Both my grandfathers were exiles/refugees from (Nazi-ruled) Berlin, Germany. My maternal grandfather associated this exile with Marlene Dietrich (and named my mom, Marleen, after her). Noel Coward's introduction of Dietrich at the Cafe de Paris was memorized by all in the family.
Now one of the biggest hits that Dietrich ever had was with "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," which went on to be a popular anti-war song. (I believe I first became familiar with it through a version by Peter, Paul and Mary.) Dietrich made the song famous in German at the 1962 Unicef Gala [I have seen reference to a French version by Dietrich, but can't find it]. However, I embed a less glamorous and more austere version below ('creepy' in a David Lynch sense--thanks to Petra Van Brabandt for calling my attention to it).
Of course, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" is a Pete Seeger song. There is a great clip (courtesy to Swedish TV with Swedish subtitles) where Seeger comments on the fact that Dietrich made his song famous. Now my reason for showing this clip is not merely Seeger's tribute to Dietrich (or to bemoan the fact that he was not always clean-shaven), but to call attention to his comment at the very end of this performance, where (not singing, but speaking) Seeger criticizes his own song "for not being specific enough" and for "being too easy." Now, the hypothesis I want to offer is that because of the popularity of Dietrich's performance, which he clearly admired, Seeger felt constrained NOT to rewrite the song.
If I am right about this sometimes even a prophetic founder of a (performance/philosophical) tradition can't rewrite it after it has taken on a life of its own. (Of course, this is the old Quine-ean point that sometimes even the Baptizer is powerless to stop future changes....)