The Memorial Day Concert Nobody Expected: Schubert's "Der Wanderer" and Mel McDaniel and Samuel Hogin's "Shoe String"

Image by Liam Ortiz from Pixabay


Yes, we are starting at the Munich Opera and ending at the Grand Old Opry ... ... the Ghost of Operatic Musical Greatness Past and the Ghost of Country Music Greatness Past are just waiting backstage and doubtless cracking up about how they got dragged out of the afterlife THIS TIME ... but sometimes, it just it what it is... desperate times call for desperate measures...

I was going to tackle this subject of veterans struggling to find their way home because of their losses obvious and not so obvious for Memorial Day either way, but in light of the United States of America flirting with betraying its veterans who rely on their benefits over this ridiculous shutdown fight, I imagine that the feelings of lostness and abandonment many U.S. veterans are feeling must be greatly enhanced … so, this is my complex love note to those on Hive, on the blockchain as long as there is a node running, that they are seen and thought of, deeply, in spite of the foolery those in blue and red are doing at this moment as I start writing this for next week.

Schubert's “Der Wanderer” is about what you think it is in English, because the word is the same in German: “The Wanderer.” The recording I have chosen is that of Kurt Möll, my favorite bass, although this is not the best recording … it was on the radio quite some time ago, and when they recorded it, the pitch “wandered a bit”...

… but somehow it fits … that voice is still lovely, but there is definitely something wrong … and indeed, there is... the Wanderer has been to the sea and the valley and the mountain, and they have offered him nothing but roaring and fog and emptiness.

This is the song of a German, bear in mind … a culture that loves nature … a culture whose songs of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries exult in returning to nature in life and in death. So if nature itself offers this man nothing, he is indeed lost. We are also well out of any thought of Germany's Christian or even Jewish heritage – this man has fallen out of all four notes of the great chord that held his society together in those days ... but Germany is a nation that long before the 20th century had known its share of warfare and great losses, and its men were not always victorious.

What happens in a culture in which victory is part of the worship if you cannot come home the victor? In many parts of Europe, living and dying in valor was one's way to eternal communion with the gods, perhaps even deification – but coming home in defeat? Not so much. In fact, up to the mid-20th century, you might not have a home to come to because the conquering powers would redraw the borders of their nations to annex yours!

And of course, if you lost and lived, it was your fault. You weren't strong enough or brave enough to even die fighting – in the German context, at least you might still get to Valhalla by dying in valiant battle, or to Heaven if you were a Christian. But you dared to live and lose, and give up your homeland? You might be an outcast for life for that, by virtue of the stakes at hand, and in your mind, what torment would that be?

The only people around you who could really understand what you had been through were those who had been with you in the struggle … but the reality for many veterans is that many of those brothers in arms don't make it back home. Hence the importance of Memorial Day here in the United States … except that Memorial Day is a holiday to remember departed winners. I know a few Vietnam veterans here in the United States who can tell you: that holiday hits different when you are perceived as a loser, as a baby killer.

Then there is also the fact that war exposes men to sights and sounds that can simply undo the mind, win or lose … what happens to the self, and to friends, might make coming home impossible, mentally … the mind gets stuck at the place of such terrible trauma often times, and that localization of anguish that may well destroy every other relationship and localization that goes with “normal life.”

When Schubert wrote “Der Wanderer” in 1816, the Napoleonic Wars were scarcely a memory … empires and territory changed hands and people had to adjust if they could … but Europe had been at war off and on since 1789 and the French Revolution. That's a lot of adjustment. Not every human can handle all that. Some had to run for their lives … and never could find their way back home.

By the time Kurt Möll sang this for his radio audience, one also has to consider … even with the slightly distorted audio, one has to consider his approach to the song: empathetic, tender, literally heartbreaking. There is one moment in which he calls out on his highest notes, “O Land, wo bist du? Wo bist du?” – Oh homeland, where are you! – and at that place he just about breaks my soul in his way of showing the emotion that lies beneath the surface by thinning out the immense fullness of his voice to the delicate edge of choking or cracking from emotion … but not across the line … he expresses the emotion, giving voice to the grief and pain that many men suffer in silence, but protects everybody by doing so beautifully.

But just as I connect with this song because of what I have seen in San Francisco all my life, Herr Möll would have known many “wanderers” as well. He was born in 1938, in the vicinity of Cologne, Germany … so, by the time he was seven years old, veterans of his father and grandfather's generation all sat in the ruin of shattered, divided Germany, defeated. Some of the defeated were also of young Kurt's own decade of birth – the record shows that Germany at the end conscripted boys as young as fourteen. So, he may well have had to deal with the reality of he and childhood playmates of his losing elder brothers still in late childhood, to to say nothing of still elder brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, and grandfathers lost, to say nothing of the civilian deaths among their sisters, mothers, and grandmothers and age mates, to say nothing of losing half of Germany... on the promise of a reich that would last a thousand years.

All that – lost. Those dead for no purpose other than defeat – lost. The people who had set their love on those who would not survive and their hopes upon Hitler and the Third Reich – surely many of them broke in defeat, and were also lost … and the future master singer, growing up, would have seen them lost in the streets of Cologne just as I see those lost in the streets of San Francisco. He was 46 years old when he made this recording ... at an age of maturity in which there is life enough to process and reconsider and understand life more ... just as I am doing now at 42 years old.

Running parallel to the timeline of the end of World War II, there were plenty of U.S. veterans who did not come home to a hero's welcome … my family is African American, and veterans of that race came home to roughly the same situation as they did at the end of World War I: racists intent on putting them “back in their place.” Black men could not be heroes – they had to be made to understand that they could fight as hard and as well as anyone else and still just be an N-word. Veteran's benefits were routinely denied them, so if they came home disabled, too bad. If they wanted to buy a house or go to school like other veterans, too bad...

Run that down another generation to Vietnam, from which veterans came home feeling defeated and disrespected and unloved – when I was a little girl, many of the homeless in the streets of San Francisco were veterans of that war, unloved, un-helped, self-medicating, and falling out of society. On top of that, I know African American veterans still waiting on compensation from being exposed to Agent Orange. Progress has been notably slow … these men are now in their eighties. In the case of all these Vietnam veterans, they don't feel like they ever really came home because of the disrespect, even though they are physically located in their homeland.

Run that down to today, after a month in which the federal government has been playing around about having money in the U.S. Treasury to care for its veterans in need.

How necessary and yet how sad Memorial Day must be for veterans who only have friends in memory, rejected and abandoned and lost to their own homelands ... and indeed, The Wanderer in the song has searched and searched and searched for that green land of blooming roses, where his dead ones live again, and where he can hear the sound of his own tongue spoken. I thought at first, listening to this in German, that he might have been talking of Heaven, but every Christian knows where Heaven is and would not be searching for it on Earth.

It is more likely that The Wanderer's homeland would have been annexed, and his home language may have been forbidden or died out, given the time in history … but, as I have seen men wander through the streets of San Francisco, looking, even that might be too complicated an explanation … a last, lost spring might be sought in this man's mind, when all was well, when all that he loved and cared about flourished … when the voices and the laughter of loved ones was heard... but now is lost.

The Wanderer is a cautionary tale of what eventually happens if there is no way to re-home such men … to his call, there comes a soft, final answer, quoted here from the poem by Georg Philip Schmidt: “Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück.” Transliterated word for word, one gets, “There, where you not be, there is the happiness.” Straightening that out for modern English, the Wanderer hears in his head that happiness shall forever be where he is not. He is truly lost.

“Der Wanderer” brings tears to my eyes, for I have known him in San Francisco all my life … and it is especially sad around Memorial Day, and doubly sad when I know how many Iraq 1 and Iraq 2 veterans have replaced the dying old Vietnam veterans … in addition to San Francisco's own mix of gentrification foolery giving plenty of civilians to the mix. All these people have is memories of better days, sometimes wrapped up in some item that looks like trash to the average person … their whole existence is a wandering between meeting survival needs and looking for a sense of home that they may never feel again. The amount of work that it takes to “re-home” a troubled civilian is profound; compound that with the PTSD and deadly reflexes upon perceived threat of many veterans.

Of course, the Wanderer as voiced by Kurt Möll is still Kurt Möll, as known for his kindness as he was for his voice … there is sadness, and grief, and loss, but there is not a hint that the Wanderer as voiced by him could ever think of harming anyone else … he fits better in Herr Möll's interpretation with that long string of veterans who became hobos in the United States after the Civil War down to at least Iraq 1 – here is Hobo Shoestring, a gentle soul of a mere 50ish years old, a veteran who turned hobo and wandered the rails for 32 years before ill health forced him to settle down a little –

– and here is the song by Mel McDaniel that got him his nickname about a veteran from the previous generation and a previous war who did the same thing (named Shoestring Massey according to some info in the comments):

Shoestring Massey found his happy ending, and Hobo Shoestring is regaining his health and is – you guessed it – back out on the rails while having a supportive home base … so both men found a way to be “re-homed” in a sense. I keep this in mind as I go to and fro in the community … I can't help everybody, but a smile and a kind voice and a “thank you for your service” help a little bit everywhere as I help those veterans I can directly … quite often by listening to them share their memories about their lost ones, and letting those lost ones “live again” for just a little while. Introducing old friends to new friends is an important part of making connections, after all, and having new friends honor the old friends is important, too... and that brings us back to the importance of Memorial Day to our veterans, upon which we can show them living love to re-home them, with all their memories and wounds, with us as honored, cherished citizens.

As Gandolf put it in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, not all those who wander are lost – or at least, they need not be lost. Memorial Day is a reminder that we can actually do something to help veterans and even civilians who have suffered great losses … to show those who feel they only have love in a past they can never reach again that they need not wander off, for there is love and hope and homefulness here with us. It is the only thing to do that will help.