Submitted by Susanne Bacon.
Whenever I come across a German festival, store, or restaurant over here, I encounter one thing that – I have to admit this much – makes me slightly cringe. It’s a phenomenon with traditionally Southern German, respectively Alpine roots. But I am not sure how many Germans my age are really into it – you may know part of it as oompah-music, brass music called that because of its bass line. The genre itself runs by the name of Volksmusik (pronounce ‘follx-moo-zeek, i.e. people’s music).
In Germany, there used to be and, maybe, still are entire TV shows dedicated to this kind of music. My parents never watched them with us; but my family’s grandparent generation seemed to devour them and knew all the stars by heart. The only song I was really familiar with and that played heavily (and befittingly so) on the Volksmusik theme was the theme song to the cartoon series “Heidi” (made in Japan, by the way). I even rehearsed yodeling to it! But still a child, it struck me that the composers tried too hard to play up to younger listeners with pop percussions and that it was sung in standard German, not in dialect – I didn’t like this. Still, singers Gitti and Erika came across the ether every Sunday afternoon into so many living rooms, and the alphorn-like intro froze us kids into attention:
German folksongs have been around since the Middle Ages, of course, and many of them are still traditional. Each and every region in Germany has its own specific kind of texts and music. But you rarely hear the sailor shanties from the Northern German coastal areas. And most people won’t recognize a song as Silesian, Bohemian, or Moravian unless their roots are from these German regions lost after WW II. There are groups in Germany that celebrate the traditional festive garb, dances, songs, and melodies of different regions. There are also modern approaches to Volksmusik such as those of Austrian rockstar Hubert von Goisern, who mixes the traditional music and dialect lyrics with typical rock elements. Listen in to this hit song of his:
So, why is it that Volksmusik seems to be such a thing over here in the U.S.? The explanation is pretty easy: because of WW II. U.S. military then occupied Bavaria and some Austrian regions, and the coziness of traditional town festivals with all these brass bands playing marches, waltzes, and polkas, the fascination of costume garb, the yodeling, the vibe of a wholesome world after all the war horrors must have been like a marvelous consolation that something in this world was still alright. I’m pretty sure that many of my readers in this Washington State area have been stationed in Germany at one time or another and learned to love this rootedness and the embellishments that come with it. Many have returned long after their retirement to re-discover the places they got to know and to discover new ones. The Munich Oktoberfest (another English Germanism!) is probably top of the list for many, as well. Nothing wrong with it – just not “typical” German.
Assuming that Volksmusik and oompah music are THE kind of music Germans listen to while dancing to it in dirndls and lederhosen would be like taking Texas, country music, and line dancing in cowboy attire as an overall cliché for the U.S. Of course, American music became en vogue by the early 1900s also in Germany. We had our own versions of jazz music. The field of ballroom music is huge. And in the 1980s, the Neue Deutsche Welle (pronounce ‘noy-ah ‘dot-shah ‘vel-lah, i.e. new German wave) celebrated the German language in pop and disco music, such as singer/songwriter Nena, with whom most of you might be familiar, too:
I grew up with the full range of musical genres, classical music very much included. I’m still singing traditional folksongs and know the lyrics by heart. As to Volksmusik, that’s like Neue Deutsche Welle, disco music, rock, or Grunge – you dig it or you don’t. It’s only a small piece of the entire picture.
A Southern German beerfest usually also features an oompah band on a band stand – but these days, they also play tunes that are not Volksmusik.