So you all probably know that I am very interested in music and its effect on us, and I’m also very interested in the great land of Australia where I spent the best five months of my life. Late last year, I decided to combine those two passions together and start a series focused on Australia’s #1 singles with a friend — we started in 1952, at the dawn of rock and roll, and we’ve so far covered just over two years’ worth. I thought we could do with a bit of promotion, so here’s today’s dispatch — this one’s written by me, but my friend Liz is also a very good writer and you should definitely read her reviews too. 🙂
31 July 1954
#37: The Obernkirchen Children’s Choir’s “The Happy Wanderer”
#1 for 8 weeks
written by Friedrich-Wilhelm Möller and Friedrich Sigismund
Legend has it that when Dylan Thomas first heard the Obernkirchen Children’s Choir sing at a Welsh music festival, he was so moved by the kiddies that he enthusiastically dubbed them “angels in pigtails”. Notwithstanding whether Thomas (then in the last stages of the alcoholism that would kill him in four months’ time) was sober enough to have actually said anything as coherent as this, there is indeed something ethereal about the voices of two dozen German girls, singing to you about the pleasures of hiking. But it’s a very hard feeling to place.
Perhaps it’s the quality. The recording we have is from 1953, but sounds like it could have been made another half-century earlier: there’s so much static crackling on the track that it feels much more ancient; if you were to shoot a horror movie about a haunted, abadoned mansion, this would be playing in the background. The girls’ singing, too, sounds like it belongs to another era, strident and almost haughty in the way they spit out the words, a style that confirms whatever stereotypes we might have about Teutonic harshness. It’s a mode of singing that we don’t really find anymore — I was in a choir until my voice broke, and let me tell you that even boys these days don’t sing with that level of ferocity. But the Obernkirchen choir lays into it with the utmost force, and the result sounds ever so traditional and upright, a dispatch from the distant past.
Or perhaps it’s the lyrics. Even if you don’t understand a word, the title “The Happy Wanderer” immediately conjures up a state of Alpine bliss: you see in your mind’s eye the verdant grass, the bubbling brook, the snow-capped mountaintops glistening under the sunlight. For those of us who’ve been stuck in our homes in the midst of this never-ending pandemic, it’s a simple yet haunting image of paradise — nobody else there, just you and nature sharing a patch of sky. And it’s amazing how many times you have to listen to the song before you realise that the only accompaniment is a lightly strumming guitar, strumming the same few chords over and over. It’s so basic, and yet it works — that guitar work propels the song, keeps it marching along, leading the girls ever onward — a slice of folkish magic, if you will.
So this song charms you on two fronts: history and simplicity. But you’d expect that out of a folk song, right? They’re meant to be ancient and unadorned. These days, “The Happy Wanderer” is so embedded in our cultural consciousness that we accept its antiquity as a matter of fact. But what’s interesting about the song is that it’s only a simulacrum of folkishness: despite all those comments on YouTube about POWs in World War Two listening to the song, this song doesn’t even go back 70 years. The lyrics do originate from a 19th-century poem, but the music was composed by the choirmaster’s brother in the 1950s — hardly old enough to be labelled part of the folk tradition. And yet you could swear that the temporal distance was wider. 1953 already seems too complex a time to be wheeling out this sort of song. The choir, with their statically charged voices, seems to be calling forth memories from time immemorial — a simpler time, a time we never knew. You hear “the bird singing to you/ So joyfully his song”, you feel the joy of the brook “murmuring and rushing through its course”, and you’re mesmerised. You feel like you knew them, once upon a time.
That “once upon a time” is, of course, fictional. Every era has its own complexities, and there never was an unspoilt era of innocence. But it did the trick — this song hit during the winter of 1954 in both the UK and Australia, when everything was beginning to change: rock and roll was making its first destabilising moves, the Vietnam War was hotting up, and the Petrov Affair had just raged Down Under, sending the country into even more Communist panic. In the midst of all this, “The Happy Wanderer”, with its evocations of an alternate reality where nothing except the views and the mountaintops matter, must have felt like a soothing balm. Never mind that all that rustic innocence was fabricated, or that the Axis atrocities of WWII were not even a decade past: it felt like a record of Germany in its innocence, and that’s what mattered. (And kept on mattering too — 8 weeks, the longest reign at the top spot since 1951.)
And that’s still the case today: even as things get ever more complicated, it remains such a pleasure to listen to these girls singing about hiking, their sublime voices mingling with each other and reaching through the ages. So much happens at once when you listen to “The Happy Wanderer”: nostalgia, longing, joy, excitement, and all that from a naïve bunch of German girls. It’s a pure, ghostly shiver of electricity crackling down the radio waves, a distant cry from an era of innocence that we imagine got lost somewhere along the way. Even if we’ll never experience it again, “The Happy Wanderer” gives it a damn good shot.
So that’s my comments on “The Happy Wanderer”, but this isn’t everything though: we also rate the songs out of 10 (just like in my ongoing Eurovision series — I’ll have a new piece out next week, I promise). To find out what we both gave the song, head over to our website and have a look — and while you’re at it, why not check out all the other songs we’ve reviewed so far. It’s been a fun ride so far and we hope to eventually get up to the present day… fingers crossed!