Anatomy Of A Song – A War Ballad Beloved By Both Sides

Our recent post about British singer Anne Shelton mentioned that she was the first to record an English version of the German song, “Lili Marlene,” a World War II musical piece that has a fascinating history, including the fact that it became a favorite for fighting men on both sides. That fact alone makes it a worthy subject for Anatomy of a Song. lil

The song actually began life during World War I as a German love poem with a title that translates as “The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch.” Not much happened for the next couple of decades, but in the late 1930s it was set to music and recorded by a relatively unknown German singer named Lale Andersen, under a title that translates as “The Girl under the Lantern.”

As the war progressed, the song — by now known as either “Lili Marleen” or “Lili Marlene” — began to find favor among  German troops after the record was repeatedly played on the radio in occupied Belgade. As its popularity grew, it also caught the attention of the Allied forces on the other side of the battlelines, and even if the language was unfamiliar the message came through. Before too long, the song was being heard and appreciated by both sides all over Europe and even into the North African theater of combat.

Not surprisingly, other singers jumped on board, and English versions of the song from Anne Shelton, Vera Lynn, and others did well, but Marlene Dietrich was destined to be most closely identified with the song — and not just because of her name. The German-born actress and singer had already spent more than a decade as a Hollywood star, and despite lucrative offers from film-makers in her native land, was openly anti-Nazi. She spent a lot of time during the war performing for Allied troops, and often included the song in her shows. She also recorded it in both German and English versions.

(The video below is of a short film made during the late stages of the war, and it has a few things wrong — including incorrectly saying Lale Andersen was Swedish. It also seems to occasionally get heavy-handed and melodramatic, but we have to remember the life and death struggle that was taking place at the time. In any case, it provides a fascinating look at the era.) LATER: video removed at source.


Marlene Dietrich – “Lili Marlene” (English)

Marlene Dietrich – “Lili Marlene” (German)



2 thoughts on “Anatomy Of A Song – A War Ballad Beloved By Both Sides

  1. What an interesting column.
    I’m glad you mentioned Lale Andersen; hers was the first version I heard as a friend of mine had a 78 of it when we were whippersnappers – it probably belonged to his parents but we weren’t discriminating in our music back then, we’d listen to everything.


  2. Bet they didn’t keep the record on a nail on the wall like the guy in the film. 😉 Funny, when I saw that it reminded me of a childhood memory — an aunt who used to take old 78’s and heat them over a flame, bend them into a cone shape, and hang them on the walls as floral sconces. True story!


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