The Drowned Girl

Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen (Lotte Lenya, 1957).
Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen (Gisela May, 1969).
The Drowned Girl.

The cabaret performer Carl Zuckmayer once saw Brecht at a party in Munich in late 1923. When Brecht reached for his guitar, conversations died, the tango dancers stopped and “everyone sat on the floor around him caught up in his spell,” he said. With a “raw and cutting” voice, while clasping his guitar against his stomach as though using it to stanch a wound, Brecht sang “Remembering Marie A.,” the vicious “Ballad of the Pirates” and his harrowing “Ballad of the Drowned Girl.” Zuckmayer said he felt hypnotized, his mind reeling in the performance’s wake. By now Brecht “had become an almost totally irresistible seductive force,” John Fuegi wrote. “He could now usually impose his will on virtually anybody.”

“Drowned Girl” had become one of Brecht’s most potent setpieces. It was inspired by the murder of the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in the suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (Brecht had originally titled the poem “On the Girl Beaten to Death”—Luxemburg had been clubbed and shot by Freikorps soldiers, her body hurled into the Landwehr Canal). But Brecht’s poem isn’t any sort of keep-the-faith revolutionary epitaph or a maudlin lament. With the same asperity and coldness as his “Marie A.” (it’s also referencing the drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet), Brecht instead lovingly details the slow decomposition of the girl’s body as she floats down the river, her body growing weighed down with seaweed, small fish eating pieces of her flesh until she’s reached such a state that “God forgets her.”

Brecht later recycled “Drowned Girl” into Baal; Baal sings it while tramping in the forest. At this point in the play (Scene 15), a girl who Baal seduced has killed herself, and “Drowned Girl” is Baal’s eerie tribute to her, taking a cold delight in the business of death and a satisfaction in being able to turn the latest corpse into a workable song. It was set to music by Kurt Weill in 1928 for Berliner Requiem, a cantata for chorus and orchestra, whose aim was to express what “the urban man of our era has to say about the phenomenon of death,” Weill wrote.

For Bowie’s Baal, he and Dominic Muldowney kept Weill’s music for “Drowned Girl.” Muldowney was struck by Bowie’s nearly improvised yet masterful technique (inspired by Lotte Lenya’s performance), from the opening verses where Bowie, at times singing staccato, keeps low in his baritone range as the girl’s body slowly moves, slowly grows heavier and heavier (Brecht once had instructed these lines to be whispered) to how Bowie disperses the haziness of “when the sky that same evening grew dark as smoke” with the sharply-sung “k” in “smoke,” which kicks off a climb up the octave (a very Sinatra-esque move). One of Bowie’s finest vocals of the era.

*Lotte Lenya sang her version of “Drowned Girl” to Brecht shortly before the latter died in 1955. She wondered if her performance had suited his idea of epic theater, to which Brecht replied: “Lenya, you are always epic enough for me.”

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre; shown on BBC1, 2 February 1982. Studio version recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982. Amazingly RCA requested a video for “Drowned Girl.” Shot by David Mallett, it has a cast of ringers in the supporting band, including Tony Visconti (on guitar), the Simple Minds’ drummer Mel Gaynor and Bowie’s legendary majordomo Coco Schwab as one of the wind players.

Top: George and Poppy Plemper, “Unknown Girls 1 &2, Woolwich Dockyard, 1981.”

9 Responses to The Drowned Girl

  1. Maj says:

    I really had no idea there was a video for this song. A performance video but still. I’ve seen stills from the video before tho.
    I really should go through Bowie’s channel on YouTube sometime. :)
    I wonder why Bowie songs so good in these Baal songs…is it because for once there is no studio wizardry distracting him and/or overshadowing his vocal?

  2. Brendan O'Lear says:

    The video stills are probably more familiar from Wild is the Wind, which is exactly the same but for the ‘musicians’ shifting around a little.
    Thanks for the info on the musicians in that video. I had no idea that was Corinne Schwabb.

  3. Remco says:

    I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by these Baal posts but this one takes the cake. I really like the Lotte Lenya version but Bowie is at his goose bump inducing best here.
    How a song this good has been able to fly under my radar for so long is one of life’s great mysteries. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I’m currently downloading, and very much looking forward to, a pirated version of the play. Here’s hoping it’s the entire play instead of a collection of YouTube clips.

  4. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    Yes, Bowie wouldn’t be my favourite Brecht interpreter, but his vocal performances are much better than I’d remembered them. A very pleasant surprise indeed.

    That some of Brecht’s songs have “flown under the radar” for so long is partly because he’s best known theatrically for his later Marxist period (Mother Courage, Caucasian Chalk Circle etc.). But his early poetry and songs, heavily influenced by Baudelaire and Villon as well as his visceral experiences serving as a medical orderly in a German military hospital World War I, are just as interesting.

    ‘The Drowned Girl’ is an excellent example of this, combining the influences of Rimbaud’s ‘Ophélie’ and similar themes in German Expressionism (Heym’s ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Die Tote im Wasser’, for example).

  5. Jeremy Earl says:

    Yeah, this is a great song and performance and best from the Baal EP, in my opinion at least…

    Love the video and I never knew that Schwabb was in there….

  6. diamond dog says:

    Totally agree with Jeremy Earl here it is the best on the ep it has a similar feel to some early nick cave solo material and the later bad seed and mutiny eps by birthday party, downbeat but eerily beautiful.
    Baal remains for me the most uncommercial recordings he ever cut Im surprised rca released them.

  7. Rufus Oculus says:

    Bowie’ s vocals on this EP are my favourites from his whole career. Thanks for the info concerning Rosa Luxembourg. I never knew that.

  8. Another reference to Coco Schwab. I’ve read so many Bowie biographies and I still feel like I can’t get a handle on her. Sometimes she seems like the only sane satellite in Bowie’s orbit and responsible for his continued respiration, and sometimes she seems like an awfully Svengali-like figure. I’d love to read her memoirs more than any other Bowie confidante’s I think.

  9. crayontocrayon says:

    Such an incredible performance. Bowie does a great job with his pacing. The Baal EP is a real gem. This song made it onto the platinum collection set, I’m surprised it hasn’t snuck onto more compilations

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