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The Weill Project blog: What Keeps Mankind Alive? (song)

(Blog post by Joe Mabel)

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Below is the second of four rough-cut videos we plan to post over the next few weeks. The song is "What Keeps Mankind Alive" from Threepenny Opera. Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics nominally by Bertolt Brecht (but see below), in the Manheim/Willett translation. I sing this one solo; Juliana will be back for our next recording.


The Weill Project began with "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" In November 2020, about six months away from a more-or-less planned retirement, despite very good precautions, I got Covid-19 due indirectly to an apparent failure of protocols at my girlfriend Michelle's workplace. I had a "Mild to moderate" case. Four days of high fever and sometimes excruciating pain, sleeping more than I was awake, drinking a lot of water when I was awake, eating almost nothing even for a couple of weeks afterward. There was exactly one night when I might have been better off in a hospital, but I made it.

Joe Mabel, self-portrait, June 15. 2021

Joe Mabel, self-portrait, June 15. 2021. Black ink and white Conte crayon on paper. All rights reserved.

I was in a really dark mood when my health began to recover. I gather I scared the shit out of a few people, and two different friends called Michelle to tell her to please try to make sure I didn't kill either myself or someone else. (She knew me better; a few days later she remarked, "Joe, I was married to two manic geniuses; you're easy.")

I had come out of a sickbed into a world where it was not yet clear that Trump's attempted post-election coup would fail. Then right at the start of December, Attorney General William Barr distanced himself from the coup attempt. Barr is a completely amoral man with far better access than I to information. If Barr was distancing himself from the coup, that meant he thought it would not succeed.

The day after that, probably a bit hypomanic, I picked up my classical guitar (I also have a steel-string, but didn't need to have my uncalloused left hand bleed all over the fretboard) and started playing. Maybe the second thing I tried was "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" I'd never played it in my life. I didn't remember the second verse. I was still in an appropriately dark mood for the song. No left-hand strength, a little sloppy but, still, I think that very first time would have been unembarrassing on stage, making up in sincerity anything I lacked in dexterity. I hadn't played much in the last year or two. Istarted trying to improvise; at first I could only improvise in G and C, then their relative minors, then E, scales started coming back (maybe not E♭ the first few days. How do you get the guitarist to sit one out? Put a chart in front of him; if he's still playing, say "This next one's in E♭").

A day later, messing with "Youkali Tango" in A minor (Juliana made me put it back in D minor where it belongs, for which I thank her, she's simply right), I had conceived the Weill Project, and immediately thought of Juliana as the singer I wanted to do this with: a very smart soprano whom I had heard do both Bach and Frank Zappa, as well as crossing opera and burlesque. What more could you possibly want for Kurt Weill? To my amazement, she took only days to say yes to the project, which we publicly announced December 13. She did balk once after that when she found out how much rehearsal I thought we needed (I suspect that by now she would say I was simply right), but we worked it out with one phone call. Not an easy phone call, mind you, but one phone call.


"What Keeps Mankind Alive?" comes from Threepenny Opera. It is one of at least four songs in that work whose lyrics come directly or indirectly from the fifteenth-century French poet François Villon via a loose German translation by K.L. Ammer (Karl Anton Klammer) that Brecht pretty much plagiarized (Brecht and Ammer/Klammer settled a lawsuit over this; more on Villon soon in another post). Sadly, nothing on K.L. Ammer in the English-language Wikipedia, but here's the German Wikipedia article on him 🔗

Like so many of the songs in Threepenny Opera, although sung by two of the characters (Macheath and Mrs. Peachum), "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" is really more of a commentary on the action and on the world than anything about those two characters in particular (in keeping with the "epic" conception of the role of music in theater); it's more like something coming from a Greek chorus 🔗. Indeed, like so many songs in the play, in a given production this one can be moved to a different character or characters, depending on who can best put it over, without really damaging the integrity of the play.

It's a bitter song. I don't think Brecht, or K.L. Ammer, and certainly not Villon himself entirely believed what it says about the world. To me, it expresses a feeling of rage, more against those who would paint things as rosy and easy than against the world itself. I take it as an even harsher version of A.E. Housman's 🔗 "There is in this world still / much good, but far less good than ill." And, of course, it is directed specifically at those who would tell others to behave under a moral code that ignores their basic needs: those who have plenty but call for self-abnegation from those who already have nothing. The line that is rendered in English as "Food is the first thing / Morals follow on" is, in the original German, "Erst kommt das Fressen / Dann kommt die Moral." "Fressen" is what an animal does when it eats, and when applied to a human, suggests something coarse and animalistic, as against "essen," the normal word for a human eating. (The word has passed into at least New York English via Yiddish: "Stop fressing your food!" Also—file under "the Germans have a word for it"—unlike "schlingen", it doesn't necessarily suggest mass quantities, just eating rapidly and without any delicacy.) So it is not saying that "dining" comes before morality, just the most basic nutrition that keeps you alive, that fends off desperation. Don't preach morality to a starving man.

Right at the start of December, Attorney General William Barr distanced himself from the coup attempt. Barr is a completely amoral man with far better access than I to information. If Barr was distancing himself from the coup, that meant he thought it would not succeed.


The music: it's a simple song, at least by Weillian standards. I've approached the arrangement in a way that probably owes as much to Richard Peaslee's 🔗 score for Peter Brook's Marat/Sadeas to Weill. I probably couldn't help being a little influenced by Tom Waits' version from 1986, on Hall Willner's Lost in the Stars tribute to Weill; all I consciously took from that was pitching it in a key where my voice would go a little gravelly at the bottom. You'll notice I mess with the tempo in several places. If you hear me do this again, it will probably sound different: I don't have any one "canonical" version of this, and I play it at least a little differently every time. The intro is my own and might owe a little (but not its tempo) to Leonard Cohen's song "Famous Blue Raincoat," another truly great song, which I've played for at least forty-five years.

The recording was done first thing in the morning; I set up around 7:30 AM, put a DSLR with video capability on a tripod in my living room, and used its internal recording mechanism. I did maybe five takes over the next 30 minutes, of which I liked this best. Sorry that the volume is a little low: this is pretty primitive, more about showing our work in progress than about presenting stage-ready material, though (unlike for Schickelgruber) I amplified the guitar a little.




All materials copyright © 2021 Joseph L. Mabel unless otherwise noted.
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Last modified: 15 July 2021

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