Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I’ve been waiting for something momentous to return to the Plex, and the recent news about the “historic financial reform bill” is as good as any for springing my new translation. After a thorough search of the Internet and our city’s incomparable public library, I believe I am offering the only idiomatic English translation of Jean-Baptiste Clément’s “Song of the Banks”, an 1884 French militant ditty translated to German by Walter Mehring (“Bankenlied”) and set to music by Hanns Eisler in 1931. How could such a perennial problem go begging for an anthem in the Anglophone world? (left: Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.)

I’m not much of a political wonk; my interests are too broad to permit the penetrating study of Washington arcana necessary to an educated opinion. Anyway, everything our “representatives” do is truncheoned to hash or diluted to inefficacy now. What’s the incentive to scry over the bureaucracy when one can only vote, most often for local politicians, laws, referenda and initiatives? Besides, MY state is not the problem in Congress. Yet it seems dangerous to have no idea and no opinion of what’s afoot. In these times it seems tantamount to succumbing to Good German Syndrome.

I thought this bill might be exciting until I read a bit more about it. It wasn’t endorsed by the august Senator Russ Feingold, whose voice is one of the few on Capitol Hill that makes me tune in anymore. “As I have indicated for some time now, my test for the financial regulatory reform bill is whether it will prevent another crisis," Feingold said in a statement. "The conference committee's proposal fails that test and for that reason I will not vote to advance it."

Ben “‘Unusually Uncertain’ Economic Outlook” Bernanke defends the bill, but uses the usual tepid language of feds to describe it: we’ve “taken steps” to close “important gaps in our regulatory system.” Also hot to trot, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent and another name I trust (relatively speaking) said, “It by no means goes far enough, but on the other hand, I think it is a step forward.” To his credit, he had contributed a measure to the bill that “requires the Federal Reserve to disclose by Dec. 1 the identities of banks and financial institutions that received more than $2 trillion in taxpayer-backed loans and other assistance at the onset of the financial crisis,” writes

Oh good! Come December, maybe we can finally find out whether any taxpayer money was embroiled in Wachovia’s $378.4 billion worth of money-laundering for Mexican drug cartels, the most egregious violation of the Bank Secrecy Act since it was passed in 1970. Wachovia’s $110 million of laundered drug proceeds reported in March ’10 is peanuts in comparison, still more trifling the $50 million fine the Treasury levied for this skulduggery. The period covered by both investigations predates the bank bailouts, but recall the little matter of the bank mergers of ‘08/’09, when this blog was started (we come full circle!).

Breathless news outlets stumbled over themselves to report: Wells Fargo bought Wachovia for $12.7 billion! or $15.4 billion! Which finally ended up being $15.1 billion! after downing Citigroup who’d bid $2.2 billion! Wells Fargo said they didn’t use any bailout money to buy Wachovia, but check that last link to radical klaxon CBS News…I was too disheartened to dig further.

Want a laugh? Google “bankster+FDR.” The common denominator between then and now is the derelict financiers, on a frolic of their own from civil society.

The terms of “Bankenlied” are so simple that they resonate across the late modern period. Jean-Baptiste Clément was part of the Paris Commune (1871), the first exercise of power by a government of working people in Western industrial history. “Time of Cherries” and “The Bloody Week” are his most remembered tunes, of romance and repression respectively. clarifies the origins of “Bankenlied” without mentioning its original name in French. The German edition is one of the most rousing tunes on “Keine Oder Alle,” a compilation of Eisler’s more political works. Walter Mehring, an anarchist who fled the Nazis like Clément fled repression of the Communards in Paris, did the German verse translation, rendered into literal English on Eislermusic by Andy Lang. Eisler was one of Arthur Schoenberg’s prize pupils (before they split over Eisler’s politics) and a composer who left his mark equally on apolitical pieces, militant songs and Hollywood scores in his long course fleeing the Nazis to the U.S., where he was forced by McCarthy to return to the DDR when it was established. Regrettably, history has slighted his significance as a composer because of his politics. (Above: Hanns Eisler: any resemblance is purely coincidental.)
I stumbled on the song a few months ago and dusted off my old college German for it because it was so au courant. The whole album is on Amazon, but I’ve included “Bankenlied” here...just click the song title below for a link to YouTube. I hope that my translation is in the spirit of Eisler: meant to be sung in the streets.

Now they have canned us!
It’s gone too far.
Countrymen, countrymen!
Let’s withdraw from the banks, then
Audit their accounts, then
And close their accounts, men.

When you find there’s no work to do
You roam the city, poor and blue
Like an ex-con whose freedom stumbles.
No piece of bread, no sip of beer
And how our stomachs always rumble
Outside every bakery door!

It seems almost that the men in suits
The financiers and the factory groups
Only repeat the old clichés.
They drive the poor to bankruptcy
With ruthlessness so cold it makes you say
“When I can do that, wait and see.”

But when the day of reckoning comes
Make sure to see where they cut funds
And close their bankbooks like a door.
So you can see how it is done
How we let robberbarons take more and more
While they have got us by the short ones!

“A musician with integrity must be an activist in his or her society, and stand up and say loudly what is wrong in that society and try to fix it. It is not right to make pretty, docile music.” Hanns Eisler