Tag Archives: music

Ballad of the soldier’s wife

Here’s the song by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht,
performed by Marianne Faithfull (video) and by Amanda Palmer (video).

For the role of plunder in the Nazi political economy, there’s Götz Aly Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.

Here are the lyrics:

Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the ancient city of Prague?
From Prague came a pair of high heeled shoes,
With a kiss or two
Came the high heeled shoes
From the ancient city of Prague.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Oslo over the sound?
From Oslo there came a collar of fur,
How it pleases her
The little collar of fur
From Oslo over the sound.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the wealth of Amsterdam?
From Amsterdam he got her a hat,
She looked sweet in that,
In the little Dutch hat
From the wealth of Amsterdam.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Brussels in Belgian land?
From Brussels he sent her the laces so rare
To have and to wear,
Those laces so rare
From Brussels in Belgian land.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Paris city of light?
In Paris he got her a silken gown,
It was envied in town
That silken gown
From Paris city of light.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the south, from Bucharest?
From Bucharest he sent her a shirt
Embroidered and pert,
That Romanian shirt
From the south, from Bucharest.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the far-off Russian land?
From Russia there came just a widow’s veil
For her dead to bewail
In her widow’s veil
From the far-off Russian land,
From the far-off Russian land.

Land of samba

South America largely avoided the all-out international total wars that consumed Eurasia in the twentieth century. (Civil wars are another matter.) But international events made themselves felt even here. Brazil had its own fascist party, the Integralists (founded 1932), with its paramilitary wing, the Green Shirts. However in Brazil, even the fascists couldn’t quite get into the whole National Socialist racial purity thing; the Integralist slogan called for a “Union of all races and peoples.” (“This place would have driven Hitler crazy,” is what one Brazilian told me, talking about race in Brazil.) The Integralists fought the Communists in the mid 1930s, but eventually both sides were suppressed by the dictatorial Estado Novo (New State) in 1937, led by Getúlio Vargas.


In much of the world at the time, liberalism and free trade were out, and nationalism and protectionism were in. In Latin America, this move went under the name of “populism,” favoring urban businessmen and workers at the expense of the old export-oriented land- and mine-owners. This often meant cultural as well as economic nationalism. Brazil today is famous for its Carnival celebrations, including samba parades. Ironically these took much of their current shape during the 1930s, echoing mass rallies in Italy and Germany. The organized samba parades were a means of bringing rowdy public celebrations under official control: from this point on they were officially sponsored, and were expected to march in orderly lines and to celebrate edifying nationalist themes. Early twentieth century samba musicians incorporated a variety of musical styles in their performances; in the 1930s, in the name of “authenticity,” they were encouraged to purge their music of foreign influences, including jazz.

Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

The last time we got romantic on Logarithmic History was back February 14, Valentine’s Day, and also around the time when sexual reproduction evolved on our calendar. Then I posted When you were I tadpole, and I was a fish. But there’s no reason we can’t celebrate romance again.

A huge fraction of music is silly love songs; it’s possible that music evolved among humans, as among songbirds, as a result of sexual selection. (That was Darwin’s theory.) All the major operas of Mozart (1756-1791) are celebrations of love – in its enduring monogamous form – in the face of various threats: a lustful sultan (The Abduction from the Seraglio), libidinous aristocrats (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni), the sexual curiosity that even nice girls feel (Cosi Fan Tutte), and an interfering mother-in-law and a bitter custody battle (The Magic Flute). Here’s an aria from The Magic Flute on this theme, with Lucia Popp as Pamina and Wolfgang Brendel as Papageno

Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

PAMINA Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen, fehlt auch ein gutes Herze nicht. PAMINA In men who feel love, a good heart, too, is never lacking.
Die süßen Triebe mitzufühlen,
ist dann der Weiber erste Pflicht.
Sharing these sweet urges
is then women’s first duty.
Wir wollen uns der Liebe freu’n,
wir leben durch die Lieb’ allein.
We want to enjoy love;
it is through love alone that we live.
Die Lieb’ versüßet jede Plage,
ihr opfert jede Kreatur.
Love sweetens every sorrow;
every creature pays homage to it.
Sie würzet uns’re Lebenstage,
sie wirkt im Kreise der Natur.
It gives relish to the days of our life,
it acts in the cycle of nature.
Ihr hoher Zweck zeigt deutlich an:
nichts Edler’s sei, als Weib und Mann.
Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann,
reichen an die Gottheit an.
Its high purpose clearly proclaims:
there is nothing nobler than woman and man.
Man and woman, and woman and man,
reach towards the deity.

Putting’ on the Ritz

173-164 thousand years ago.

It’s fancy dress day on Logarithmic History. Between 170 and 80 thousand years ago, people started wearing clothes. We know this from recent genetic studies showing that sometime during that period, probably closer to 170 kya, pubic lice and body (=clothing) lice diverged into two separate species. This is before the major exodus of modern humans from Africa, so it may mean clothing was not just about protection from high latitude winters. Or else Neanderthals or Denisovans were wearing clothes, and we got body lice from them. (There’s an even earlier split, three million years ago, between head lice and pubic lice, that probably means human ancestors had lost their fur. And there’s another story about the ancestors of East Asians picking up a different strain of head lice from non-sapiens humans that we may cover later.)

Lice are not just disgusting, but dangerous. On later dates, we’ll have occasion to see how louse-borne diseases like typhus have affected the course of history. But for now let’s forget about lice, and celebrate clothing, with Irving Berlin’s song about fancy duds, “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” covered below by a Moscow flashmob.

Also relevant to the video is Merlin Donald’s book Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition arguing that dance is part of a mimetic mode of culture that came before language. And Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on dancing in history and prehistory Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. is worth a look.



3.21-3.04 million years ago

AL (Afar locality)-288-1 is better known as Lucy: probably the most famous individual hominin fossil. Her skeleton is particularly complete, and demonstrated the existence of a previously unknown species, Australopithecus afarensis.

When she was discovered in 1974, she pushed back the hominin fossil record by over a million years. A. afarensis looked like a plausible ancestor to all the later hominins. Things have gotten complicated since then. “The first family” (AL 333) was discovered just a year later: bones of at least 13 individuals, a mixture of adults and juveniles, maybe all victims of a flash flood. This helped to fill in knowledge of individual variation among A. afarensis. And subsequent findings have documented the species over a million year span from 4-3 million years ago. At the same time, we have seen how later discoveries have also suggested that there were likely multiple hominid species around in Lucy’s day.

Also: Her pelvis is basin-shaped, and she stood with her legs under her body, not rocking from side to side. All this is like a human, not a chimpanzee. So she was certainly bipedal, but there are arguments about just how bipedal. The initial view was that she was an efficient walker (although not much of a runner: that comes later). But another school of thought points out that she’s got very long arms, and curved finger and toe bones, suggesting she spent a lot of time in trees. Her long toes might have made her an inefficient biped (a view derided by members of the Lucy-the-proficient-walker school as the clown shoe hypothesis).

Lucy got her name from this song, played on a camp loudspeaker the day she was discovered. John Lennon, who wrote the lyrics, always denied that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, in spite of the initials, had anything to do with LSD. He said that it was based on picture that his son Julian (then four years old) made in school, with some Lewis Carroll thrown in.

‘I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly; ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’

Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Leaves of grass

70.4 – 66.6 million years ago

Not as dramatic as the evolution of Triceratops or T. rex, but of more lasting consequence, is the evolution of grasses (Poaceae). We know from coprolites – fossil feces — that grass was around by the Late Cretaceous, so the coevolution of grass and grazers had already begun with dinosaurs. These early grasses were not widespread. It would take climate shifts and more evolution (toward using carbon dioxide more efficiently) to create the sort of grasslands we are familiar with.

Grasses have played a central role in human evolution and human history. Human beings evolved in tropical grasslands, and some evolutionary psychologists think we still have an instinctive affinity for this environment. The domestication of grasses (wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, corn) was one of the great revolutions in human prehistory, and grasses provided most of the calories people ate for most of recorded history. Contact along the frontier between grasslands supporting pastoralists and grain growing lands supporting peasants is one of the great engines of historical dynamics.

Grasses grow from the base of the leaf, not the tip of the stem, which is what allows them to recover from being grazed. This makes them a recurring symbol both of the transitoriness of life (“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is like the flower of the field,” Isaiah 40:6) and its resilience.

Brahms used another verse about grass in the second movement of his German Requiem “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away,” 1 Peter1:24. (Here is the German text and English translation.)

And the most famous poem about grass, by Walt Whitman, perhaps strikes the right elegiac note for the dinosaurs, who meet their doom tomorrow:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me
with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

My name is LUCA. I live on the ocean floor.

4.01-3.80 billion years ago

How life began on Earth is still not well understood. The “RNA world” is one popular theory. In modern organisms, nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, store and transfer information, but proteins do the actual work of catalyzing chemical reactions. But RNA can act as a catalyst, so maybe the first replicating systems involved RNA catalyzing its own replication. However, RNA doesn’t spontaneously form very easily, so it’s not clear how the RNA world would have gotten started. Borate minerals might help but it’s not clear they were around that early.

A different approach to the topic is to work backward from living organisms, to reconstruct the biochemistry of LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor (not quite the same as the first living thing). Recent research on these lines implies that LUCA was a heat-loving microbe that relied on hydrogen as its energy source, suggesting an undersea volcano as a habitat.

However the first organisms got established on Earth, it happened very quickly. Here’s a review from last year of the current state of play on theories of early Earth and early Earth life. Just about as soon as the planet could support life we find chemical evidence for it, from Isua, Greenland (but no fossils yet). This suggests that the origin of life is pretty easy (unless we want to go with panspermia). Mars may have been a more habitable place early in its history, and perhaps Mars exploration will one day solve the mystery of the origin of life in our Solar System.