Growing old is fascinating

This has nothing to do with wildlife, but a lot to do with ageing.  It’s about memory, and more particularly the odd scraps and images that are to be found way down in the depths of our subconscious. It is a common experience of old age that those things which happened ten minutes ago have vanished without trace, but those which happened 50 years ago are more vivid than ever.

First some background: Tinnitus is a condition which affects most people with hearing loss, and I’m no exception. The best description I came across of the kind of background tinnitus we experience was this: ‘it’s like a recording device which has automatic gain: when it hears silence it turns up the volume’. My brain creates ‘white noise’ like this, but it does more. It produces a musical note, a constant drone. Day and night the same low tone, a pure sine wave,  is playing in my head. That’s not unusual – not even interesting. What is interesting is how the brain copes with this. My subconscious insists that this note has to be part of a musical phrase, and it reaches back into my earliest memories to supply a selection of suitable tunes which will repeat over and over again – infuriating earworms. Most of these tunes are melodies I learnt in my teens, many of them classics of an earlier period: Greensleeves, Camptown Races, Rule Britannia, Amazing Grace, Bach Brandenburg Concertos. Some are songs I hate like All things Bright and Beautiful, Many are what were called “campfire songs” or boy scout songs, some are Rugby Songs – vulgar re-interpretations such as “The hair on her dicky-dido”.

In the last few days a new/old one has made its entrance onto the stage of my inner record player. It’s in German, because I learnt German in my teens during a 3 month stint in Mainz on a school exchange with a Mainzer student.  Joachim, when he came to Britain, came in the summer. I went on my own in January when I was 13. I travelled by train overnight from London to Mainz, with no knowledge of the language, to stay with people I had never met. It didn’t seem strange at the time! It was during this period, or soon after, that I learnt a German folk song, which I now know is called “Wo’s nur Felsen gibt” – Where there are only rocks. I remember it as either a translation, or an interpretation of a Cossack song.

A few days ago it came into my head for the first time in something like 59 years. Imagine you are listening to one of those Russian male voice choirs singing with great atmospheric presence – singing slowly and quietly, in a minor key, but speeding up and getting louder and faster to a raucous climax. But they are singing in German. I remembered the first line and its melody clearly:

“Wir sind voller Märchen und Legenden” – We are full of fairy tales and legends. There were three more lines of melody, and as they repeated again and again in my brain, bits began to fill in. By mid-day I had remembered more (capital letters are long syllables.)

“Wir haben, da da da da, DA da da DA DA.” We have…

“DA da da DA da da da da da da DA DA

Stolz auf der”… ‘proud of the‘..then came a word which had no meaning for me. A word I don’t remember ever having heard – “Narben” then “vom letzte” ..‘from the last‘… da DA DA.

“Proud of the something from the last something. And that was it. I couldn’t remember any more so I decided to go to our universal source of knowledge and information and did an internet search for the first line. Within seconds, the words were on my screen:

Wir sind voller Märchen und Legenden.

Wir tragen Schwielen von den Schwertern an den Händen,

Durchreiten die Tage, durchsaufen die Nächte,

Stolz auf die Narben vom letzten Gefechte.

I was delighted to find that I had remembered the rhythm correctly, and that ‘Narben’ did exist – it means scars. Before I set about trying to translate the rest I realised that this was a chorus. Above it in the transcription of the lyrics was a verse, and as soon as I saw the words I remembered the melody – nothing like the rousing chorus, but a slow, plangent repetition of a simple falling phrase.

You can hear the trembling sound of the balalaikas in the background. The machine translations were hopeless so I decided to try my hand at something with the spirit of the original:

Where I was born are only rocks

Early did I love, early gain my spurs

Rifle and steed, dagger and sheath

Danced many a dance, drained many a glass


We are the stuff of stories and legends

We carry welts from the sword on our hands

Ride through the day and drink through the night

Proud of the scars from our last big fight.

I could only find one recording of the song, and it doesn’t sound too good to me, but I was glad to find I had the melody right


It’s a Cossack song, a warrior song, full of the manly virtues of violence and drunkenness. How does it come to be in the canon of the German Pfadfinder – the boy scouts?

 Even stranger, how did I come to learn it? There’s nothing more on the internet – at least nothing without getting deep into the German language internet, and my German was never good enough for that. I can’t believe I learnt it when I was in Mainz, staying with a devout catholic family in the cramped housing and harsh economics of 50s Germany, still overseen by allied troops. It’s more likely that it was part of a tradition shared across Europe, a tradition which went beyond the Scouts and stretched back to the 1930s – that of singing together round a camp fire. It was a tradition cherished both by my schoolmaster father and his opposite number in the Mainz school – Herr Gierke. Between them they encouraged friendships between the young people of both countries, friendships nourished by exchange visits and summer camps. It was, with hindsight, a great achievement, and I’m proud to have been part of it.



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3 Responses to Growing old is fascinating

  1. Bob delaney says:

    We were in Cornwall about 45 years ago and in a folk club the Celebrated Ratcliffe Stout Band sang a song translated from German called “The Peat Bog Soldiers”. later I found that this was a song about German POW’s of WW1 “Wir Sind die Moorsoldaten” (i think). Many years later I sang the first few lines of the song in English to a young German woman visiting us from what was East Germany and she recognised it as a song they sang frequently at school. last year we went to the Hartz Mountains and I asked a woman there if she was familiar with the song. She said she did but to a different tune usually sung by football supporters.

  2. twynog1 says:

    That’s fascinating Bob – almost a parallel. I wonder if the whole German Folk song scene got a bad name by association with the Nazis. The pseudo Cossak song could certainly be seen as having right-wing tendencies!

  3. Heie says:

    Werner Helwig- an interesting looking guy. Prolific writer. I think this song was picked up by the anti nationalsozialismus brigade but am not 100% sure. Will need to look into it a bit more. Sort of the same vein as “Wir sind die Moorsoldaten”

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