Amerikalied

(Research, preface, translation, and performance by Urs Hostettler)

 

This song is an adaptation of an excerpt from a letter that a former Swiss citizen that had

emmigrated to America, Hans Hostettler, had sent home to a cousin, Frau Eisenhändlerin

(meaning "iron merchant").

 

She had a shop dealing with all kinds of useful items for kitchen and household) Streit who

lived in the village of Schwarzenburg in the Canton of Bern in Switzerland.

 

Hans Hostettler - called "Chäpps Hans" (for the interest of the reader, ä translates from German

to English as ae, so in English his name would have been Chaepps Hans) - was a teacher at

Kalchstätten near Guggisberg (which is in Schwarzenburg County, Canton Bern, Switzerland).

Born in 1805, he emigrated in July 1833 together with his young wife Anna (maiden name

Zwahlen) and her brother. They arrived in Buffalo, New York, then moved to a village named

Elk Creek and eventually settled in Middlesboro in Erie County, Pennsylvania. Hans worked there

as a "tailor's merchant".

 

Hans wrote several letters home to Schwarzenburg, telling his friends and family about his

everyday life in this strange new country called America. Within these letters he sent two poems.

One of them began with "Was ghört me da im änge grüene Tal?" ("What's that sound in the

narrow green valley?"). It was a kind of lovesong for his old County of Schwarzenburg. The people

who received his letters back home put the words to a melody, and it was sung by patriotic song

clubs of Schwarzenburg for a long time. The other poem he wrote was the one I have sung here,

called Amerikalied (Song of America). This one became much more popular spreading over the

whole rural region of Berne and was put to a variety of different melodies.

 

The song was first published in‚ 'Die Schweiz' in 1855. The Reverend of Beatenberg in the Berner

Oberland made mention of it in his writings. He erroneously wrote, in fact, that the song came

from the Obersimmental (Upper Simmen Valley), from an author "J.K." (a wrong transcipition of

J.H. - making wrongful reference to Johann Hostettler). The reverend's error shows that knowledge

and use of the song had become widespread and that the correct knowledge about its origin had

vanished by this time.

 

There are other references to the song in the Swiss Folksong Archive and one in particular from

the nearby Canton Freiburg. As late as 1936, Friedrich Wenger wrote from Burgdorf (in Emmental):

"My grandmother told me that she often heard this song sung. The most beautiful version was

the one by a farmer with his hammered dulcimer." Then, in 1961, Alfred Binggeli published the

song in his Schwarzenburg songbooklet named 'Drum singe, wem Gesang gegeben'.

 

I, myself (Urs Hostettler), visited this Alfred Binggeli when he was 85 years old. He told me that

the song was not sung anymore by the patriotic song clubs but he had the original letters of Hans Hostettler, and he allowed me to make some copies of them.

 

There were at least three different melodies given to this song, none of them chosen or approved of by Hans Hostettler himself since he had sent the words to the poem only. Binggeli told me that the most well-known melody in the Schwarzenburg area was created by a certain Mrs. Boss, the Uhrmacher's wife (Uhrmacher means clockmaker or watchmaker).

 

Friedrich Wenger wrote in 1936: "The song has no original melody. But it is well known with the melody of Gottlieb Jakob Kuhn's Sigriswilerlied", so that's the tune I chose to sing it to. The variety of the melodies that the words were put to demonstrates that the lyrics were more important to the people than the music. The people who remained in Switzerland used the song as a type of newspaper that told them about the adventure of emmigration to America.

 

The song was exceptionally long and Hans was not a brilliant poet, so I have taken the liberty of cutting it down from 23 verses to 14. The original text also contained many words that no longer exist in the German language, so I had to improvise a bit on the translation. Nonetheless, I have included all the most humorous and relevant passages. Nothing of importance to the significance of the song was deleted. I sang this song once for Swiss Radio and sing it for you now all by myself (solo) with my trusty Hanottere (an old instrument of 5 chords from the Emmental area). My young son Michi did the recording.

 

I hope you like it.

 

Urs Hostettler [Editor's Note: The actual recording of this song was offered at one time and will be offered again. Be patient or write Urs directly for a copy of it. He is very happy to receive communication about these types of heritage inquiries]

 

Translation

 

Listen, I want to tell you something

about the new land of America.

I've wanted to write you for a long time,

but I never could for some reason.

Nearly one year has passed

since I said goodbye to you.

 

When I left you there

it hurt more than just a little.

I nearly died from the heartache

because I was missing you.

Then we went through Paris

and over the sea on the water.

 

That ocean is an awfully large puddle,

whoever hasn't seen it, would not believe it.

And it is so deep that you can't reach the bottom

entirely with a stone tied to a rope.

You can sail around on it for a year,

and yet only have seen a part of it.

 

Nearly all of us who took the ride on the sea,

got ill in the first hour.

By the time you feel your stomach shaking,

you have to vomit like a dog.

It overwhelmed me heavily,

and I got a big piece of the sickness.

 

Up into the sky or down into the water,

you can look as far as your eyes can see.

You don't many beautiful things,

only a big fish from time to time.

Then there came big waves, too,

that rose higher than the side of the boat.

 

The one morning it happens,

that you hear someone yelling to you:

"Now we are finally here", and quickly the boat turns

towards the new shoreline.

You are instantly struck with joy,

when you hear the words "Land, Land, Land!".

 

First you go and look at the countryside,

at the towns and at the people, too.

"Help youself" says the Yankee,

but "Help yourself" means another thing in German:

Who has money is on top here,

Who has none finishes on bottom here, too.

 

Most of the people go further inland,

but nowhere do they really like it.

There is no place, where they can stay,

for good land is too expensive and the people are too selfish.

Finally you buy a bit

of the wild growth and you build a house on it.

 

Building is a funny thing

for the ones in the bush, who hardly can afford it.

You pull a lot of logs out of the woods

and lay them according to their length.

Then you ask your friends to help you for a day,

and you put them up and in a row.

 

You need nothing more than roof and floor

and maybe two windows and a door.

Then you have to fill the holes with mud,

otherwise the wind would blow through.

Then you put a chimney into it,

that will stand and will not crash.

 

You have cattle here, too, that you milk and butcher,

and you can cut down fairly many trees in the forest.

If the cattle run away, it's a bad shock.

Searching to find them again is a bad dream

because this country reaches all the way

from Greenland to Mexico.

 

It is not, as many people think,

completely flat over here.

He who wants flatland had better stay at home

near his old place.

But for able people, who want to work,

it's fine to come over, if they have the will to.

 

Anyone who comes over should bring bells

and handfuls of money, so it's better for them

to get cows and rent some grassland.

Swiss cheese is at a good price.

It will be a happy life here

for one who really likes to yodel.

 

I wish you could peep over here

and see for yourself how it is.

Most of you would certainly like it,

but some of you would say, "No, no, for sure!

If I have to choose, I would rather

lose my last penny at home."

 

I can't really advise you

by saying to come or to not come.

For our lives are uncertain

till we all go to eternity.

There we will find each other well,

if God wants it so, fit and happy.

Amerikalied - Urs Hostettler
00:00 / 00:00

I'm a Swiss citizen that lives with my wonderful family in Bern, Switzerland, although we spend most of our summers at a house we have on a nearby lake. I'm 50 and work as a games inventor, a writer, a director and performer of criminal theaters (Mystery Weekends). Before this I used to be a songwriter and Swiss folksinger. My main hobby, of which I am passionate, involves researching original folksongs and 17th century history focusing on the Swiss Peasants War. I would like to invite anyone who has an interest in myself or my work to write me at: urs@fatamorgana.ch

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