STLT#291, Die Gedanken Sind Frei

I entered this morning’s hymn with trepidation; I’m familiar with it and I’ve sung it a few times, but I was a bit anxious about what is really a charming little melody, wondering whether it would be a problem the way the Austria tune can be.

Between the Lines was no help really; James says simply that this is an Alsatian tune, with a translation of verse 1 by Arthur Kevess and new lyrics from Elizabeth Bennett.

That’s it.

Before we go too far, here are the lyrics as we have them in the hymnal:

Die Gedanken sind frei, my thoughts freely flower.
Die Gedanken sind frei, my thoughts give me power.
No scholar can map them, no hunter can trap them,
no one can deny: Die Gedanken sind frei!

My thoughts are as free as wind o’er the ocean,
and no one can see their form or their motion.
No hunter can find them, no trap ever bind them:
my lips may be still, but I think what I will.

A glimmering fire the darkness will brighten;
my soaring desire all troubles can lighten.
Though prison enfold me, its walls cannot hold me:
no captive I’ll be, for my spirit is free.

Good strong lyrics representing free thought. But what of the original? Was it as freely thinking?

As it turns out, yes.

This song first became popular during the 1840s, after the Carlsbad Decrees and then during the 1848 German Revolution, Die Gedanken Sind Frei was a popular and important protest song. A direct translation from the German goes like this:

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!

I think what I want, and what delights me,
still always reticent, and as it is suitable.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free!

So I will renounce my sorrows forever,
and never again will torture myself with whimsies.
In one’s heart, one can always laugh and joke
and think at the same time: Thoughts are free!

I love wine, and my girl even more,
Only her I like best of all.
I’m not alone with my glass of wine,
my girl is with me: Thoughts are free!

Not surprisingly, this also became popular again in the 1930s and 40s in German; in at least one example of Nazi resistance, a member of the White Rose Resistance (Sophie Scholl) would play the song on her flute outside the prison where her father had been detained for calling Hitler “a scourge of God.”

So we’re getting closer to why this might be in our hymnal, but just as there are dozens of protests songs around the world that we’ve never heard of much less included in our living tradition, how did this one get our attention?

And then I read this, in Wikipedia:

The Weavers recorded the song at a live concert in the 1950s. Pete Seeger also recorded the song, solo, back in the 1950s. The Limeliters recorded the song in 1962 on their Folk Matinee album. Pete Seeger recorded the song once more in his Dangerous Songs!? album in 1966.

It all makes sense now.

And yes, I used this in my service on January 21st. We need to remember that what we are experiencing is not normal, and that we must keep our minds freely flowering.

Image is of cornflower, the national flower of Germany. I was going to show edelweiss, but it’s honestly not as lovely. Plus, it’s Austrian. Plus, it plants an earworm, and goodness knows I wouldn’t do THAT to you. Not me. Perish the thought.

2 responses to “STLT#291, Die Gedanken Sind Frei”

  1. Thank you so much for this list, and thanks to my minister Sean Neil-Barron for bringing it to my attention. I first heard this song when it was used as a theme song for the movie “The Birdmen”, about the escape of some POWs from a Nazi camp:

    I searched for it for years and was excited when it showed up in what was then the new UU hymnal.

  2. Charlie Dieterich Avatar
    Charlie Dieterich

    Interesting… we used this hymn for a member who escaped in the Kindertransport before WWII was declared. And the flower that his relatives said was appropriate is Pansy, the symbol of the Free Thought movement.

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