Family, Memoirs, Music.

Das echte Lied der Alpenkräuter

When I was growing up, my father taught us a little ditty from his Mennonite boyhood:

Dar war ein Mann in Tode Loch,
Und kein er sahe Mann,
Und im dem letzen Stunden,
Stunden,
Hat er das Alpenkreuter gefunden.

 


Play the Alpenkräuter song (vocals and piano)

It was a charming little tune, and I would sing or hum it on the off occasion during my youth. At no time did it occur to my father to translate or to explain the song, nor did it occur to me to ask. I suppose sometimes the music is captivating enough. Some time in my teens, my curiosity was finally aroused regarding its meaning and perhaps its place in Midwestern Mennonite culture, so . . .

I employed my high school German to first produce the song lyrics above, then to produce the following rough translation:

There was a man at death’s door,
And there was no one around,
But in his last hours,
Hours,
He found an Alpine cross.

 

The compound noun Alpenkreuter had been a challenge, as the second word, Kreuter, did not seem to translate directly, so I had made my best guess as some Low German variant of Kreuz, or cross. Pondering this for a bit, I came up with the following interpretation: A dying man, wandering alone in the Alps, stumbled across an Alpine cross and thereby was saved, the cross being a Christian cross that either pointed his way to last minute heavenly salvation or was a last minute guide to a nearby house of penitents, or some such thing.

I suppose I leaned towards a religious interpretation because the Mennonite culture was hard shaped by their particular interpretation of the Luther Bible, so much so that from Luther’s time to my father’s boyhood in the 1930’s in Oklahoma, Mennonites favored closed communities where they could keep their religious traditions and speak and teach the German language, so that all citizens could read and understand the Luther Bible.

Years later, curious as to the accuracy of my translation and interpretation of this song, I approached my father and my Uncle Ron, who was visiting at the time, and ran all of this by them. They listened first to the translation, at the end of which smiles began to play about their lips, but they waited until I had finished my interpretation of the lyrics before they together, eyeing each other knowingly, burst into sustained laughter. Obviously, I had gotten something very wrong, and I waited patiently to be let in on the joke.

Together they pointed out first, that the translation was good save one word: The problematic Kreuter. It was actually Alpenkräuter, or Alpine herbs! [eu and äu have the same sound in German: “Oy”. I had neglected the second dipthong as a possibility.] Before I could start on a reinterpretation of the lyrics, they further explained that Alpenkräuter was in fact a patent medicine popular in the rural U.S., not always for its overripe claims as a cure all, but often as an “acceptable” or even legal source of alcohol in areas that either frowned on alcoholic consumption (e.g., Mennonite farming villages) or where it was prohibited altogether. They estimated that the alcoholic content was probably around 40%, and observed that it wasn’t uncommon to see empty Alpenkräuter bottles thrown to the side of the road at the end of a weekend.

So das echte Lied der Alpenkräuter, or the genuine Alpenkräuter song, was in fact an advertising ditty for an herbal cure-all, much like the more well-known Jägermeister, popular more for its alcoholic content than its curative powers. The song was pointed directly at the German-speaking population of the U.S., and its success as a reminder of the Alpenkräuter product was carried on to another generation strictly by the catchiness of the tune, well after the product itself ceased to be available or even recognizable.

The tunefulness of the song held my interest, enough to eventually become curious as to its meaning, which turned out to be even more interesting than my first confused attempts to understand it, and helped to soften the edges of my limited picture of what my father’s Mennonite heritage was, a picture drawn initially from the religious aspects of a group known first as a Christian sect, adding to a less formal and more human portrait.

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.


Play the Alpenkräuter piano accompaniment

 

Notes

1. When I mentioned my confusion recently over the word Alpenkräuter to my brother Craig, he immediately translated it correctly; his German is much better than mine.

-Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Gift of Gary P. and Sandra Baden

Note the use of English on the bottle label and of German on the box it was packaged in. Fahrney was marketing to German-speaking North Americans.. Attrib: Gift of Gary P. and Sandra Baden, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Click to view enlarged picture

2. The Alpenkräuter sold in the Midwest at that time was most probably Forni’s (or Fahrney’s) Alpenkräuter Blutbeleber, or Alpine herbal blood revitalizer. Fahrney’s made many similar products, including an Alpenkräuter laxative, which is pictured here. One of their advertising broadsides makes the typical claims of a panacea: “The old reliable family medicine that you have used years ago, and that was discovered by old Dr. Fahrney in 1780. You will remember that it is a sure cure for Impure Blood, Liver Complaint, Constipation, Biliousness, Indigestion, Dyspepsia, Headache, Malaria, Chills and Fever, etc., etc.; also a sure preventative from all fevers. Space forbids to give a full explanation of it . . .” [Perhaps more à propos: Belated modesty forbids any more exaggeration.]

3. There exists today an Austrian product called Gurktaler Alpenkräuter, at 27% alcohol a popular herbal schnapps product, which has similarly been advertised as a curative, remedy and panacea.