Die Loreley

Die Loreley

No collection of German songs during the Civil War can possibly ignore the rich collection of folksongs (Volkslieder) from which the soldiers were continually drawing. The following song is a perfect example of the romantic songs that the immigrants cherished and which came to characterize the singing around the campfire.

The legend of the Lorelei says that this beautiful maiden sits on the Lorelei rock, high above a dangerous turn in the Rhine River. From there, she calls to unwary captains like a Siren, and lures them to their death on the stones below.

The words to this poem were written by Heinrich Heine in 1823, and were set to this music by Friedrich Silcher in 1838.

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein,
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Im Abendsonnenschein.

Die schönste Jungfrau Sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr goldnes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.
Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame
Gewaltige Melodei.

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreit es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh'.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Loreley getan.

O tell me what it meaneth,
This gloom and tearful eye?
'Tis mem'ry that retaineth
The tale of years gone by
The fading light grows dimmer,
The Rhine doth calmly flow,
The lofty hilltops glimmer
Red with the sunset glow.

Above, the maiden sitteth,
A wondrous form and fair;
With jewels bright she plaiteth
Her shining golden hair.
With comb of gold prepares it
The task with song beguiled;
A fitful burden bears it,
That melody so wild.

The boatman on the river
Lists to the song, spell-bound;
Oh! what shall him deliver
From danger threatening round?
The waters deep have caught them,
Both boat and boatman brave;
'Tis Lorelei's song hath brought them
Beneath the foaming wave.

"One German company, in early May, 1861. arrived late at their camping site with no food and no beds, and with only green officers. Some of them lit a fire and began to sing the 'Lorelei'. Soon this and other German folk songs worked a charm on all. so that in less than half an hour all were up from the ground and around the campfire. Good and bad wit as well as droll anecdotes charmed away the hours until the longed-for daylight came."
-Ella Lonn Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy page 374.

In his book, A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain included a chapter which added a great deal of detail to the legend of the Lorelei. He also gave two translations of the song. On the song, Twain wrote, "I could not endure it at first, but by and by it began to take hold of me, and now there is no tune which I like so well." Oddly, he also says that he never heard the song in America. For more of the author's comments, click on the link at the begining of this paragraph and go to Chapter XVI. This site also contains his chapter on "That awful German language", and other observations from his German excursion.

The English translation of the song given on this page was chosen because it was meant to be sung. It is not a literal translation of the German. The language used in the translation is certainly the type of melodramatic formalness that was popular in the mid- to late 19th Century. It was taken from the book: Heart Songs, edited by National Magazine (New York, World Syndicate Company, 1909).