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Words & Music to Change the World

What if your story stopped a war in its tracks?

Hans Leip (1893-1983) was a teacher in Hamburg, Germany and was conscripted into the Imperial Army in 1915 to fight on the side of Germany in the first world war. He wrote a poem about his ideal woman, which was really a composite of two women – someone that he knew named “Lili” and another woman, a nurse, named “Marleen.” He called it “The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch.”

Just before the outbreak of the next great “war to end all wars” in 1937, someone published the poem and added a few verses to it. Norbert Schultze set the poem to music in 1938 and the next year, a young singer named Lale (pronounced “Lolly”) Andersen recorded the song for distribution under the title “Lili Marleen.” It didn’t exactly set the world on fire, selling 700 copies by 1941.

A young German officer who worked at a German armed forces radio station in the occupied city of Belgrade (formerly the capital of Yugoslavia), now Serbia, was on leave in Vienna, Austria and needed some music to play. He found this record and a few others and brought them back to Belgrade with him. Since his music selection was limited, “Lili Marleen” got plenty of air time.

The late, great radio legend Casey Kasem (sing with me – “American Top 40…) told the story, repeated by many veterans of World War II, of both Allied and Axis armies, about how they stopped whatever they were doing at 9:55 PM, which was when the last song of the broadcast day was played. It was always “Lili Marleen.” It got to be customary that shooting, shelling, and most any activity ceased, as both armies paused to hear the lilting love song about a young soldier missing his love.

How many writers or lovers or people scribbling words on paper or tapping away on any kind of device, ever think that their words will live on, be published, have meaning or even move a single person to have a single, forlorn, abstract thought that was inspired by something that they wrote?

Sullivan Ballou, whose life was cut short in the American Civil War in 1861, had no idea of the power or the endurance that the words he wrote to his wife, Sarah, would echo into the new millennium and beyond, more than 150 years after his death. See: How Do You Define Passion?

Sullivan Ballou was “just” writing a letter to his wife. What burns inside of you, that may spark a fire within someone else?

The song did not end the war. Troops continued to fight and die when the song ended, and the war went on, and millions of people died during that awful conflict. But for three minutes and a few seconds every night in North Africa and on more and more battlefields throughout the war, the war stopped as tired, lonely, battle fatigued soldiers stopped and listened to a school teacher’s poem put to music by a little known singer, and thought about how someone was missing them and wishing them back home.

If you don’t tell your story, how will it ever change the world?

Sources:

  • “Casey Kasem’s Top 40” February 15, 1975
  • Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller; “Lili Marlene: The Soldiers’ Song of World War II.” 2008
  • Marleen was also spelled “Marlen,” “Marlene,” “Marlane” and other ways…
  • The famous actress Marlene Dietrich made this song a staple of her live performances as well. The song was also recorded by American singer Connie Frances. There are as many as 200 versions of this song in countless languages.

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Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

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16 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Oh Tom! This is breathtaking! I started playing the song where the youtube video was placed and it was the backdrop for reading the rest of the piece and I feel like I’ve just had a whole experience. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this.

    • Kimberly, my brain is everywhere and nowhere and all over the place, so nothing is really ever outside the realm of discussion. For it to be breathtaking to you is a plaudit beyond where I could ever imagine, and will be a pillow that helps me sleep for a long time to come.

  2. Tom, your story recalled the guts Marlene Dietrich had in leaving Germany in protest against Nazi Germany and perform Lily Marlene for Allied troops. Vera Lynn sang the same song countless times from England to Burma during WW2. I also invite you to watch Anna Magnani (Italy’s greatest actress) sing a poignant Neopolitan ballad about a soldier pining for his love as he fights in the trenches of WW1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0H8H0Yv06Y. Her expression, her gestures and the close-ups do not need a translation.

    As for why creators create, it is invariably a combo of personal demons and ego. What tips the balance is a matter of integrity and humility.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • “As for why creators create, it is invariably a combo of personal demons and ego. What tips the balance is a matter of integrity and humility.” That, Noemi… is a beautiful formula, of which I had never considered. Thank you for such a lovely contribution to this discussion, and for how you always seem to bring fresh and new perspective to every one.

  3. “How many writers or lovers or people scribbling words on paper or tapping away on any kind of device, ever think that their words will live on, be published, have meaning or even move a single person to have a single, forlorn, abstract thought that was inspired by something that they wrote?”

    My fervent hope, Tom, is that the answer to your question is every one of them. At the end of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said this:

    “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

    If you told me you don’t write for those reasons — to lift hearts, to celebrate courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice — I’d concede that you might not be consciously aware of those reasons. But I’d assure you that’s exactly what your doing. You’ve just done it again.

    Thank you for doing it again.

    • Mark – it does seem as if sadness and tragedy and pain are some of the common denominators of some memorable writing. I am quite in agreement with Faulkner, that it would be a privilege to do as he suggests, but that usually isn’t the goal. The goal is probably giving wing to thoughts that try to express ourselves about situations that defy description, and we flail away with words and find ourselves somewhat unsatisfied about the results. But it is in the attempt that we may give voice and empathy and appreciation to some other soul, who may feel that their own needle was threaded, though our own assessment sees what is lacking and how we missed the mark. I always deeply appreciate what you bring to our discussions, and please know that I treasure and cherish your comments. Thank you is appropriate, but it always seems a bit lacking.

  4. Tom, thanks for telling the story, which after seeing “1917” yesterday only exacerbated my sadness. (Not your intent!) It also reminded me of the Christmas truce in 1914 – the one and only time opposing forces in WWI left their trenches to celebrate a somber Christmas together. What terrible irony: forces intent on killing each other celebrating the birth of Christ who spoke of love and peace.

    • Hi Jeff – I do remember that tale of the Christmas truce. There were always lots of similar stories during the Civil War, of soldiers from each side of the war talking and shouting back and forth across rivers and streams or battlefields at night, sometimes jeering, but many times asking questions of each other, and sharing stories of loneliness and frustration at being part of a war that didn’t make a lot of sense to them. And to think of guys yelling back and forth at each other, maybe becoming friends or friendly by the end of the conversation, and then shooting at each other the next day. I have great things about 1917, but I have a feeling that I need to brace myself for it… Thanks for checking in, Jeff, you always have so much to add to any discussion.

  5. Music and words form a sometimes perfect marriage. When I wrote I never expected it to be published or that anybody would read what I wrote or even want. The name Lili Marlene is a name I only know from a Leonard Cohen song. Thank you Tom for writing and sharing your article. I hope I got the right grasp of your article’s meaning

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