A Man’s a Man (Bertolt Brecht/Dave Van Ronk)

The title song from Bertolt Brecht’s early play Mann ist Mann, this was my professional recording debut, arranging and playing guitar for Dave Van Ronk. Dave was a great interpreter of Brecht’s songs, and even appeared in an off-Broadway production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, singing the “Alabama Song.” He recorded that, and “Mack the Knife,” and his own fine translation of “As You Make Your Bed,” and then in the early 1980s Gary Cristall arranged for him to do a Brecht workshop at the Vancouver Folk Festival with the English singer Frankie Armstrong, and then for them to do an album together for his Aural Tradition record label.

I happened to be in Vancouver in the summer of 1982 or thereabouts when Dave came to record and, since he didn’t have any of his New York stalwarts around, I figured it was my chance to get on a Van Ronk session. So I volunteered and Dave — by way of gently brushing me off — said, “If you can come up with a decent arrangement for ‘A Man’s a Man,’ I’ve always wanted to do that one.” He added that it would have to be an arrangement that could be capoed up the neck, since he didn’t know what key was good for him, then left to play at the Edmonton folk festival.

In those days before the internet, it wasn’t easy to find a recording of the song, but fortunately my friend and hostess Maggie found a copy of Eric Bentley’s Brecht album in the library at Simon Fraser University. Fortunately, again, Bentley was a pretty rudimentary pianist and played a simple ragtime accompaniment that transferred easily to the bottom five frets of the guitar… so when Dave got back to Vancouver, there I was with an arrangement and he was stuck.

Brecht wrote Mann ist Mann in 1924, and described it as a comedy, apparently taking Chaplin’s films as a model. He directed the most famous production of it in Berlin in 1931, starring Peter Lorre, who performed during breaks from the shooting schedule of M. It was meant to exemplify Brecht’s theories of modern theater, and was acted in a highly stylized manner, fitting his theory of “alienation” — which in this case apparently meant “purposefully presenting the character in an episodic and incoherent manner in order to emphasize the changing nature of social relations.”* Berlin audiences were effectively alienated, and it closed in five days.

Dave also considered alienation a useful performance technique, though what he meant was that you can make a lyric more effective by framing it in a way that goes directly against its meaning: singing a tender lyric in a rough voice, or a brutal lyric over a gentle accompaniment. This song is a perfect example, using a perky ragtime tune and cheery chit-chat to underline the dehumanizing horror of war. The soldiers are interchangeable cogs, all named Dan, all having the same experiences, and all meaninglessly expendable.

I worked this out for Dave and had no plans to sing it myself, but my friend Monte fell in love with it while I was practicing for the session and made me do it whenever I was back in town, and I got to like it.

As for the Brecht album, it came out in 1989 and this song was Dave’s weakest performance on it — he had very little practice time, and sounds rushed — but he’d been singing the other songs for decades and did them brilliantly, in particular an a cappella version of the title song, “Let No One Deceive You”:

 

*Sarah Thomas, Peter Lorre, Face Maker