Sailor’s Tango

Growing up, there were a few musical staples in our house. I mean in my pre-teen years, before I discovered WLS and what was playing there. The station we listened to–the only one, except on snow days when we had a local AM station on to see if our school was closed–was WFMT. I think it’s tag line was “Chicago’s fine arts station.” It carried, and still carries, classical programming, soberly read news headlines, and, on Saturday nights, “The Midnight Special.” That show was a weekly fixture for me for years. It started with a recording of Leadbelly singing the song from which the show took its name and ended with Richard Dyer-Bennett singing “You’ve Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley.”

My parents didn’t have a big record collection, and I don’t remember their LPs including anything at all that would have been considered popular music. Well, maybe there was a Mitch Miller record in there. But mostly the discs included a few of my dad’s classical favorites, including an early ’50s recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome” (the only side I ever played was “The Pines,” which ends with a stirring, bombastic passage meant to evoke the march of returning Roman legions; I’ll bet Mussolini just loved it). Others I remember hearing often, and still listen to, featured the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Fritz Reiner conducting Wagner overtures and Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky.” My mom’s tastes, as I remember them, were more in the vein of classic musicals. I remember hearing “My Fair Lady” a lot when I was little. Hours of “Camelot.” “West Side Story.” “Man of La Mancha.” “Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris.” And my parents seemed to share an enjoyment of recorded comedy and folk music and the way I recall it went out of their way to introduce us to performers like Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Joan Baez, and Burl Ives.

One record they had that got played over and over and over and that my siblings and I adopted as our own was by Will Holt, an interpreter of the Brecht-Weill canon. I can’t say I understood the songs (or that I do now, for that matter), but the music and lyrics were peculiar and fascinating. On a driving trip once, my brother John, about 10, surprised my parents by coming out with the lyrics of “Kanonen Song” from “The Threepenny Opera” (the refrain goes: “Let’s all go balmy, live off the army,/See the world we never saw,/And if we’re feeling down,/We’ll wander into town,/And if the population/Should greet us with indignation/We’ll chop them to bits/Because we like our hamburger raw”). I think the surprise was occasioned by the sudden realization that we actually were listening to and absorbing this music to some degree.

Online, you can still find used copies of the album, “The Exciting Artistry of Will Holt.” I’ve got a copy that I found in a record store out here, though I don’t have the equipment set up to play it. One side consists of original interpretations of standards like Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris.” The other side, with the Brecht-Weill numbers, made a deeper impression. In addition to “Kanonen Song,” they include “Mack the Knife,” “Alabama Song,” “Bilbao Song,” and “Sailor’s Tango.” They all contain a blend of irony, cynicism and world-weariness. Holt translated lyrics for two of the tracks–“Bilbao Song” and “Sailor’s Tango”–and those contain an element of frank sentimentality that seems to be absent in the hard-edged German originals. The Brecht-Weill “Matrosen-Tango,” from the show “Happy End,” is a woman’s observations about the selfishness, arrogance, and machismo of seafaring men; of course, they’re bound for a fall. The Holt “Sailor’s Tango,” is in the voice of the selfish, arrogant sailor. Both versions include an interlude that talks about the sea: in the Brecht-Weill version, the ocean is calm on the surface but ultimately ominous and annihilating. In Holt’s version, the ocean and night are depicted as peaceful and welcoming–but still annihilating.

I started thinking about “Sailor’s Tango” a couple weeks ago and tried to reconstruct all the Holt lyrics. I feel like I missed something, but here’s most of them, anyway.

Hey, there, we’re setting sail for Bremen,
The seamen are loading up with booze because it’s a long way home.
Just bought a box of cigars–Henry Clay–
and I’ve got a dollar saved for one last woman.
So excuse me please but don’t get in my way,
Excuse me please but don’t get in my way.
It’s your last night on shore and you can’t get enough
Of the sight and the sound of the city.
Every bar is crowded with all your friends,
Every moment you hope it never ends.
Then it’s OK, goodbye,
All you feel for those poor slobs is pity.
Because nothing can make you feel more like a man
Than when you’ve got that ocean in the palm of your hand.
Then it’s OK, goodbye.
Don’t get caught praying down on your knees,
Don’t spoil your life being anxious to please,
Because who’s got the need
To beg and to plead
Because if they don’t like it, so what?

Oh, the sea is deep and blue,
And everything is going to be all right,
And when the day is over, then welcome to the night.
Oh, that sea is deep and blue
And when the moon is shining bright,
Oh, the sea is deep and blue,
Oh, the sea is deep and blue,
So deep and blue.

As luck would have it, we hit a bad storm,
The engines stopped, we hit the rocks, and so it ended.
Hey, there, who ever thought we’d end up by drowning
Just a few miles from Bremen but a long way from home?
Yeah, keep on shouting, there’s nobody near–
There’s no one can hear you.
Oh, we only had a few miles to go,
Oh, we only had a few miles to go.
Now the sea’s coming up,
And the ship’s going down,
Gee don’t those harbor lights look pretty?
I’ll bet every bar is crowded with all our friends,
I wonder what they’ll say when they hear how it ends.
They’ll say OK, goodbye.
And you never can tell when that moment will come
When he says up above, here’s your pity.
Where’s my box of cigars–Henry Clay?
Well, I’ve just got to say …
Yeah, we were bragging, our feet on dry land
But standing in water, then you’ll hold out your hand,
And know that you need
To beg and to plead,
Oh, Christ, I’m scared of the dark.

Oh, the sea is deep and blue,
And everything will be all right,
And when the day is over, what happened to the night?
Oh, that sea is deep and blue,
And when the moon is shining bright,
Oh, the sea is deep and blue
Oh, the sea is deep and blue
So deep and blue.

9 Replies to “Sailor’s Tango”

  1. Dan, I was looking for English lyrics for Sailor’s Tango and stumbled on your post. In the mid-80s, I saw the Arena Stage production of Happy End and was struck by this song (and many others from that work). A year or two after seeing the performance, I happened on a broadcast of the production on the radio. (I understand that the performance was also broadcast on television on PBS). I taped most of it from the radio, but alas, the cassette became unplayable about 10 years ago. Anyway, the translation of the song was by Michael Feingold. Can’t say how it compares to the German (my grasp of that language is limited), but it seems to have both similarities and differences with the Holt version. If you are not familiar with the Feingold version, you can see a couple of performances of it on YouTube by searching under Sailor’s Tango — these were posted by user washingtonmusicaviva).

  2. Hello.
    The translation seems very fine, but the action takes place off the coast of Burma. At some point, they see the docks of Rangoon up ahead.
    I do not know the whole story depicted in Happy Ends, but it is certainly an adventure in the eastern seas: the other very prominent song of the opera is the equally excellent Surabaya Johnny – Surabaya, the large harbor city on the north east coast of Java in Indonesia.
    May I recommand the remarkable performance of these 2 songs – and others by Brecht – by Dagmar Krause on the album Supply and Demand. The vinyl has got both songs in german AND in english. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  3. Actually, here’s the scoop regarding Happy Ends, which despite Surabaya Johnny and the docks or Ranggon does not take place at all in SE asia: “Throughout 1929, Kurt Weill was a busy man. The phenomenal success of his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht on Die Dreigroschenoper the year before — a craze which persisted until the Nazis banned it — sparked a demand for his music which he was hard pressed to fill. Moreover, he was scrambling to complete the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, his most ambitious work to date, for its première in the spring of 1930. When Ernst Josef Aufricht, proprietor of Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (and scene of the Dreigroschenoper triumph), asked Weill and Brecht for another piece in the same vein, Weill accepted — less from a desire to duplicate his hit than to develop the Dreigroschenoper’s “new song style”; its jazz-inflected rhythms and bittersweet melody was a radical departure from his previous, self-consciously avant garde works. Brecht, the Marxist engagé, on the other hand, had little interest in work which did not directly further his ideological aims, and turned the project over to his mistress and collaborator, Elizabeth Hauptmann. Drawing heavily on Shaw’s Major Barbara, Hauptmann patched together the tale of Salvation Army Lieutenant Lilian Holiday — a woman with a steamy past brazenly revealed in the “Matrosen-Tango” and hauntingly recalled in “Surabaya-Johnny” — and her uneasy “reformation” of Chicago gangster Bill Cracker. With Brecht’s desultory collaboration, she put together two of the projected three acts for Brecht to take with him to the French Riviera in May, where he was to catch up with Weill and work in earnest. An automobile accident prevented him, and Weill composed quietly, setting Brecht’s lyrics (some from earlier works) by June.
    Directed by Erich Engel, with sets by Caspar Neher, Theo Mackeben, and his Lewis Ruth Band in the pit, and an all-star cast on stage — including Carola Neher (Lilian), Oskar Homolka (Bill), Kurt Gerron, and Peter Lorre — the show aired on September 2, 1929. By curtain time, however, the third act had still not been finished; apparently, the actors improvised. Aufricht recalled that “Up to the interval after the second act it was as big a success with the audience as Dreigroschenoper had been. Then came the third act. Palpably disappointed, they started coughing and fidgeting … Then to my amazement … I saw Helene Weigel [another of Brecht’s mistresses, cast as the gangster boss] advancing to the front of the stage. Reading from a scrap of paper, she shrieked out into the auditorium in a piercing voice, “What’s a picklock compared to a share certificate? What’s robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?” and similar bits of crude Marxist propaganda.” The enraged audience rose in tumult. The show closed after two further performances. The critics buried it in scorn.”

  4. Howdy, I’ll check on these soon, and send you minimal friendly corrections. I’m running in haste now, and bootlegging the Internet at a restaurant (don’t have it at home). Like you, I found this years ago, and it’s always been a treasure to me. I’m actually thinking of doing it in a concert soon. Found myself singing it unconsciously in my car while driving through the Main woods a few weeks, then realized, Hey, why not? If interested you can read about some not utterlt unrelated stuff by searching my name and my book title HARMONY JUNCTION on the Internet.

  5. I think you got all the lyrics that Will translated. I just had Sailor’s Tango going through my head & Googled the album title & got this page. I sang this song once in performance about 15 years ago.

  6. One cheeky little note on the lyrics of the sailor’s tango, which I never knew until a native speaker explained it to me while we were listening to it:
    “Das Meer is Blau” (“The Sea is Blue” – repeated often in the chorus) is colloquial German slang for (roughtly):
    “Oh my, I suddenly find myself unintentionally very very drunk; what a surprise, I think I need to sit down and might be a bit ill in a minute”. I’m sure you’ve all had that experience at some point in your life.
    Now you have a pithy way of saying it. And it really explains what the song’s story is about.

  7. Andy, I actually remember the phrase, “Ich bin blau” — “I’m drunk” — from high school German. Never made the connection to this, though.

  8. It was my ex-wife, actually. She learned German in Berne for about 5 years, and so is totally fluent (though since my German accent is Koelnisch, we cant understand each other in german). Makes a lot of sense in the song – they load so much booze on the ship, thats why the voyage went to pieces, they were drunk the whole time.
    Das Meer ist blau is one of those phrases English really ought to have, but doesnt.
    Anyway, enjoy.

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