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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Day 6 - "O Tannenbaum" by Henry Lowman - 25 Days of Christmas Angst

No actual trees were harmed in the making
of my Christmas this year.
Today's song comes from another free album of cigar box Christmas tunes.  You can download it for free!

Henry Lowman's version of this Christmas classic takes minimal instrumentation to an eerie place.  In fact it might be too generous to call it instrumentation; I don't have enough audio production experience to pinpoint exactly what is being done, but it sounds like a double guitar strum that is then being echoed.  If it is possible to describe a guitar as droning, that is what is happening in this song.

The vocals are in the "original" German and are clear (if quavering on a few notes).  The vocal track also seems to have been manipulated.  There is a definite atmosphere that has been added; it sounds like a single voice filling a large room and echoing around.  It adds to the overall haunting feel.

I had always assumed that this song was some sort of throwback to a pagan ritual or belief that was later adopted by Christianity (like so many of the customs around Christmas).  After doing a few minutes of reading about this song, this understanding was proven to be very wrong.

The English version I am most familiar with uses the word "lovely" to describe the branches of the tree.  In the German version you can see that the word used is "treu" as in "true" or "faithful."  And the second English version below reflects some of this meaning by using the word "steadfast" instead of "lovely."

I will get back to the use of "faithful" but first you must understand that this song was never intended to be about Christmas.  The original was a simple folk song about how fir trees stay green all year and provide color to an otherwise bleak winter.

If you put "tannenbaum" into Google translate you get "Christmas Tree" while if you put "tannen baum" with a space you get "fir tree."  I wonder if this is a modern convention or where that distinction comes from.  I searched for an explanation and could not find anything to elaborate on this.  If anyone reading this knows please contact me with the reasons; I'll update the post with your insights.

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"Faithful" enters into the song when a later song writer used a version of this folk song as the basis for a longer song in which an unfaithful lover is compared to the faithful fir tree.  The German lyrics of today's selection are an even more recent revision of the song to "remove" the comparison to an unfaithful lover.  However, it clearly contains many throwbacks to the jilted lover version.

With this in mind, lines that translate to "You can please me very much!" and "A tree like you given me such joy!" take on a different meaning.

No, not THAT you dirty minded lout.  I picture a man who has lost his lover in the coldest and darkest days of the year; a man with no friends.  Nature becomes a refuge (there's that nature theme again), and the fir trees being the only things showing signs of life become companions and confidants.

This man sees in these trees hope for the future, a reassurance that life goes on even after the worst of times.

Often our obsession with finding merriment, happiness, and joy during the holidays prevents us from taking this simpler message to heart.  The loveliness of "your" branches isn't that the green contrasts so strongly with the whites and greys of winter or that they are covered with twinkling lights and colorful ornaments.  The true loveliness of the fir tree is the message:  "memento vivere" (Latin for "remember that you must live").

O Tannenbaum
(German lyrics and English translation from:  http://german.about.com/library/blotannenb.htm)

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur
 zur Sommerzeit,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
Wie oft hat nicht zur Weihnachtszeit
Ein Baum von dir mich hoch erfreut!
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Dein Kleid will mich
  was lehren:
Die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
Gibt Trost und Kraft
  zu jeder Zeit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum!
Das soll dein Kleid
  mich lehren.

Literal English Translation

O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves/needles!
You're green not only
  in the summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows.
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves/needles!

O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
You can please me very much!
How often has not at Christmastime
A tree like you given me such joy!
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree,
You can please me very much!

O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Your dress wants to
  teach me something:
Your hope and durability
Provide comfort and strength
  at any time.
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree,
That's what your dress should
  teach me.

[two alternate English versions from:  http://german.about.com/library/blotannenb2.htm]

O Christmas Tree
English Version 1
Author unknown

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!
In beauty green will always grow
Through summer sun and winter snow.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
You are the tree most loved!
How often you give us delight
In brightly shining Christmas light!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
You are the tree most loved!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me
That hope and love will ever be
The way to joy and peace for me.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
Your beauty green will teach me.

O Christmas Tree
English Version 2
Author unknown

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
How steadfast are your branches!
Your boughs are green in summer's clime
And through the snows of wintertime.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
How steadfast are your branches!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
What happiness befalls me when oft
  at joyous Christmas-time
Your form inspires my song and rhyme.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
What happiness befalls me

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your boughs can teach a lesson
That constant faith and hope sublime
Lend strength and comfort through all time.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your boughs can teach a lesson.

Resources:
"O Tannenbaum"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Tannenbaum 

"Memento Mori"
http://www.indiana.edu/~memento/memento.html

25 Days Of Christmas Angst
Day Song Download/Purchase Info
6 "O Tannenbaum" by Henry Lowman FREE! Get this free album from C. B. Gitty Crafter Supply. There are other Christmas cigar box guitar albums discussed here.

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