German Folksong: Over de Stillen Straten / Over the Quiet Streets

Link to audio recording of song: Over de Stillen Straten

Background on German Folksongs:

Q. Do you know how old these songs are?

A. No, and I think that’s part of folklore—you don’t really know where it comes from, it wasn’t written by anyone in particular. My mother must have taught me some, and at school, I imagine I learned some.

Q. When would people sing folksongs?

A. While we were walking places in a group, we would sing. And singing while walking, you know, is kind of fun. You can walk to the beat, and it gives you something to do. And I remember that they were calling on me because I used to know all the words. And I was the littlest one on the group, I was only five years old, but I used to know all the words, so whenever they didn’t remember the words, the older kids would call me, “Eva, what are the words again?” so I would come running and tell them the words, and it made me feel good, it made me feel important because here are these older kids, and I have to tell them the words. Those are some of my earliest memories.

Songs were often sung while working. If you had some menial work to do, and you’d get bored doing that, you would sing. For example, when spinning—women used to do a lot of spinning—they would sing, just to amuse themselves. Or when they were ironing; my mother used to tell me, “this is an ironing song,” because they had to do a lot of ironing, and it’s boring work. And my mother and I would sing when we did the dishes because that, too, was boring, menial work. She would do the dishes, and I would dry them, and we would sing together. And we would harmonize. You sing when you work or you walk, and you don’t use any machines, because machines make noise and then there’s no room for singing…so it’s kind of part of the preindustrial age.

Q. People don’t sing as much as they used to?

A. We sing in certain contexts, like at school in choir, but just while doing stuff, not very much anymore. It’s really sad—it’s kind of a dying tradition.

Q. Do you know if German folksongs are very different from other folksongs?

A. Well, you will see that most German songs are in the major key, which sets them apart from eastern European folk music, which is usually minor.

Over de Stillen Straten / Over the Quiet Streets:

This song is a lullaby…There are many lullabies. This song is also in dialect. Originally, all folk songs are in the dialects of the regions where they came from. Then, many of them were cleaned up and translated into High German, but this one was not, so this one, I know in the original dialect form, which is the dialect from the region I came from, a region in the north of Germany.

So, I think they took several steps. The songs came from a certain region, and then they were collected by some of the collectors in the nineteenth century, and then they were compiled into collections of songs, and then they became sort of universally known, in that form—not quite as original as they were.

Q. What is High German?

A. High German isn’t really any dialect, it’s something that people just agreed on as the language that everybody would know. For very long, there were only dialects, and not any form of High German. It didn’t really have a capital, the way England and France did. What really killed the dialects is television. Now, in everyone’s living room, you have High German, and you hardly ever speak dialect anymore. There are some regions where they hold onto it, like Bavaria.

Q. In Germany, do people have a sense of having a regional identity, as opposed to a German identity?

A. Yes. There was not really a German identity until 1870, with Bismarck. There were little states, and those gave people identity. Bismarck united Germany as the first Reich. But people still have very local culture.

Analysis: This song has a melancholy, plaintive melody, and is very lyrical. It stands out against the other songs that my informant sang to me because it is the only one in a minor key; according to my informant, almost all German songs are in major keys. It seems reasonable that a lullaby would be less upbeat, however, since it is meant to quiet children down before they fall asleep. Since this particular folksong has not been translated into High German, it remains much closer to its original form than many other German folksongs today.

German lyrics can be found online on numerous websites, including these ones: