Bänkelsang – What’s that?

Albert Zweistein can explain everything. – Photo: Olaf Hais

People often ask: “Bänkelsänger? Never heard of it. What’s that?”

Bänkelsänger is a German word for a balladeer – a singer of ballads – who sang his ballads while standing on a little stool, a Bänkel. He usually would sing at the market square, and standing on the stool made him more visible.

The Bänkelsänger appeared at markets, city festivals and wherever else a crowd would form. Their ballads told stories in as dramatic, exciting, sentimental or funny a style as possible. The results could be even more entertaining when a sentimental story was mixed up with some surprising rhymes – or with really bad poetry, which made them unintentionally funny.

The Bänkelsänger’s topics were carefully chosen. He only sang about events of general interest: innocent virgins’ misuse, fine widows’ brutal murders, unscrupulous assassins’ horrible bloodbaths, refined criminals’ suicides, proper punishments for bad boys and true love in high society featuring a Cinderella and a Prince Charming if at all possible.

In any case, the Bänkelsänger was the most important conveyor of news. It was from him that the simple people who couldn’t read or write heard about wars, revolutions, changes of power and everything else that was happening in the world.

Hieronymus Hess (1799-1850) “Der Moritatensänger”

Today Bänkelsängers can only be observed on stage in pieces by Wedekind or Brecht. Some Bänkelsängers still earn their keep today as protest singers or singer-songwriters – two terms that are almost as extinct as the corresponding career. But here and there we may see one around … think about Bob Dylan!

Or they tell about the olden times, like Dresden’s Bänkelsänger Balthasar Briesemuth Biedermann.