02 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/36

Today is Labor Day in the United States, so here's something suitable. This is a song from the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical The Threepenny Opera, sung by Jenny, a maid/prostitute in Peachum's London brothel, referred to in the song as a "cheap hotel." (There are some stagings in which the song is sung by Polly, Peachum's daughter.)

Pirate Jenny

You gentlemen can watch while I'm scrubbing the floors
And I'm scrubbing the floors while you're gawking,
And maybe once you tip me and it makes you feel swell
on a ratty waterfront in a ratty old hotel
And you never guess to who you're talking –
You never guess to who you're talking.

Suddenly one night there's a scream in the night
And you wonder what could that have been?
And you see me kind of grinning while I'm scrubbing
And you wonder, What's she got to grin?
And a ship – a black freighter –
With a skull on its masthead – will be coming in.

You gentlemen can say, Hey girl! Finish the floors,
Get upstairs, make the beds, earn your keep here!
You toss me your tips and go down to the ships
But I'm counting your heads while I make up the beds
'Cause there's nobody gonna sleep here –
Tonight, none of you will sleep here.

Then that night there's a bang in the night
And you yell, Who's that kicking up a row?
And you see me kinda staring out the window
And you say, What's she got to stare at now?
And the ship – the black freighter –
Turns around in our harbor
Shooting guns from the bow.

Then you gentlemen can wipe off that laugh from your face
Every building town is a flat one;
Your whole stinking place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up safe and sound
And you yell, Why do they spare that one?
And you say, Why do they spare that one?

All the night through with the noise and to-do
You wonder, Who's the person lives up there?
Then you see me stepping out into the morning –
looking nice – with a ribbon in my hair.
And the ship, the black freighter,
Runs a flag up its masthead, and a cheer rings the air!

By noontime the dock is all swarming with men
Coming off of that ghostly freighter,
They're moving in the shadows where no one can see
And they're chaining up people and bringing them to me
Asking me, Kill them now, or later?
Asking me: Kill them now, or later?

Noon by the clock, and so still on the dock

You can hear a foghorn miles away;
In that quiet of death I'll say, Right now.
And they'll pile up the bodies, and I'll say, That'll learn ya!
And the ship, the black freighter,
Disappears out to sea – and on it – is me.

Bertolt Brecht, translated by Marc Blitzstein

Like most working people, Jenny indulges herself in the occasional fantasy that though she may appear to be merely a lesser cog in the machinery of profiteering, she is, in reality, powerful and important, enough so to exact retribution from her oppressors before disappearing to unknown destinations with her pirate crew – this is literally an escapist fantasy. This is not about people realizing something about "the person inside" someone they've overlooked; what Jenny's oppressors turned victims learn ("that'll learn ya!") in a blood-filled day of terror and revenge is that her social role is actually even more powerful and destructive than theirs. The "gentlemen" who treat her so contemptuously and condescendingly never see her as a person, really – and they never will. Everyone has been reduced to his or her social role. The gentlemen themselves aren't really seen as people, either, only as brutal samples of their social class. The same is true of the pirates: they have no individual personalities; they cheer and swarm and take the town in anonymous unanimity; they seek and obey Jenny's judgment without question. Why is she working as a maid/prostitute instead of sailing with the pirates? Where will they go, and what will they do, once they've destroyed the town for her? There's no indication, and there doesn't need to be; in fact, too much explanation would dilute her apocalyptic (you could say, potentially revolutionary) anger. The impossibility of her vision is what makes it so vivid. The dreamlike quality of "the black freighter" links it to doomed, otherworldly ships like the Flying Dutchman: it's "ghostly"; the crew moves "in the shadows where no one can see"; the ship does not sail or float or move out to sea, it "disappears." The most poignant detail to me is the ribbon in her hair – she can't resist the urge to make her triumphant exit in style, and though she could have given herself ropes of pearls or any other sort of pirate finery, for this impoverished drudge a nice-looking ribbon seems like luxury. It's the sort of realistic detail that people often unconsciously put into their fantasies, probably to make them seem less like fantasies and more like possibilities.

Remember, as Tyler Durden tells us: You are not your job.

I transcribed this from the 1954 New York cast recording, which features Lotte Lenya (Weill's widow) as Jenny. There are other translations of this song, but I love this one for "But I'm counting your heads while I make up the beds." There are other renditions, too, but I love the triumphant, longing, slightly spiteful yet dreamy way Lenya stretches out the final "me."


Michael Strickland said...

What happened to the 8 sails and 50 cannons of the chorus? That's my favorite part...

Und ein Schiff mit acht Segeln
Und mit fünfzig Kanonen

You sent me off to YouTube land where I found Lotte Lenya in the Pabst German movie version singing the song. It's beautiful and chilling:


And Nina Simone's version is pretty soul-stirring too.

Happy Murderous Fantasy Labor Day.

Sibyl said...

My siblings are a half-generation older than I, and I grew up listening to Judy Collins' cover of Pirate Jenny on a record belonging to my sister. I have very clear memories of singing along at about age 6 or 7. I gave it all I had, really belting on "and the ship, the black freighter," which must have been fairly surreal to my family. Of course, I thought Jenny *really was* a pirate. Because naturally I was.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mike, Thanks for the linkage. You inspired me to dig out the Pabst film and watch it again -- this time I watched the French version as well, which Pabst made simultaneously but with a mostly different cast in the larger roles (including Antonin Artaud as one of the beggars). Amusingly the differences between the two versions conform to national stereotypes: the Germans are harder-edged and more authoritarian, the French lighter and more sophisticated and charming.

Sibyl: Should you be grateful your Pirate Jenny wasn't recorded and put on YouTube by your siblings? There's a whole world out there of children singing age-inappropriate songs: a friend of mine once told me her mother as a child used to sing "Doin' What Comes Naturally" and of course I'm still scarred by hearing "I Don't Know How to Love Him" sung as a hymn during mass by a prepubescent girl. There's also the category of songs that mean something completely different in context from what they sound like out of context, like "Everything's Coming up Roses" from Gypsy or "I Believe in You" from How to Succeed in Business.

But I guess we all really are pirates. Have you ever used one of those pirate-name generators that are on the Intertubes? Last time I did I was given the pirate name Diego the Bitter, which was so perfect that I realized with some sadness I could never again generate my pirate name, since nothing else would be as good (I guess the fact that I thought of that demonstrates why "the Bitter" struck me as so perfect. . . .).