SONG: Lili Marlene
ARTIST: Marlene Dietrich
Listen to it here:
Lili Marlene started off in the world as a three verse poem, written by a German school teacher who had been conscripted into the German army in 1915. The poem was called “The Girl Under the Lantern”, and Lili Marlene was a combination of the name of a nurse that the teacher/soldier admired, and the nickname of one of his friends’ girlfriends.
In 1937, Norbert Schultze read the poem in a poetry collection and immediately started work on turning the poem into a song. It was first recorded in 1938 by German singer Lale Anderson. At this time, the tune made very little impact. But a few years later, in 1941, German radio started broadcasting the song to the Afrika Korps, partially because the record was cheap to buy and they had few records on hand. The song made an impact on both German and Allied soldiers who listened in to the station. This started a rush on recording the song for both sides of the war. Unprecedentedly, this song was listened to in both English and German by both English and German troops.
Because of this, it seemed very appropriate to have a German Hollywood star who was famously anti-Nazi, Marlene Dietrich, sing it. It quickly became a huge success, and for years was her signature song. She toured North Africa, Italy, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, and England throughout the war, singing it to allied soldiers.
Lili Marlene was also a massive success on the German language OSS MO radio station Soldatensender, where it became the station’s theme song. When Marlene Dietrich recorded it, they released the song with the title spelt “Lili Marlene” after the spelling of her name, when before the spelling had been “Lili Marleen”. The recording that is most well known is that of Marlene Dietrich singing and Charles Magnante on the accordion. He is also cited in the liner notes as the “Orchestra Director”.
Marlene Dietrich was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in December 1901. Her performance career started off in 1920s Berlin, where she performed in stage shows and silent films. Her performance in a movie called The Blue Angel (1930) brought her international attention, and a contract with Paramount Pictures. She moved immediately to Hollywood, where she starred in many films. As she was considered glamorous and exotic, she quickly rose in popularity and became one of the highest paid actresses of the era.
During World War II and after, she made fewer films, but toured the world as a marquee live-show performer, usually singing her signature song, Lili Marlene.
Dietrich was also known for her humanitarian efforts during the war, and was celebrated for her work improving morale on the front lines during the war. Dietrich died in her home in Paris in 1992.
In 2005, Bear Family Records released a 7-CD set (holy shit!) called Lili Marleen an allen Fronten (Lili Marleen on all Fronts). It includes almost 200 versions of Lili Marleen and a 180 page booklet. So if you LOVE this song, put that on your Christmas List!
I have this romantic picture of 1930s Berlin and the cabaret scene there, and this song definitely contributes to that! I picture Marlene, in some incredibly stylish androgynous mens suit, leaning on a piano with a long cigarette in a holder turning to ash as she rasps through the song, offering smouldering looks to the men (and women!) in the audience. The song isn’t my favourite, but the bright accordion sound gives it that 1930s street performer flavour and although Marlene doesn’t have the most golden of pipes, I think they work for the song. Also, props to Marlene for being anti-Nazi!
Ok, so Marlene Dietrich is not a great singer. Her voice is husky, yes, sultry, sure. But good – nope, not in my opinion. I kind of like the background accordion playing. It’s got a really weird tone to it, and it’s almost played as a wind instrument would play some of those lines. I also quite like the song itself. We seem to be in a long list of songs with great historical import, which this song also possesses. Taking into account that I like the song, and the arrangement, but not the singing.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song
The original 1939 Lale Andersen recording:
Sure, I guess Carly Simon can cheese this up and make it a ballad……what could possibly go wrong?
Dame Vera Lynn’s version was also quite popular:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: