Sunday, January 22, 2017

My favorite things 4

My paternal grandmother played the harmonica, but she called it a "mouth organ."  As a kid I was terribly impressed that you could get tunes out of a tiny box (somehow I wasn't quite in awe of getting tunes out of the large box piano).  I'm sure she never had a music lesson in her life and I don't know where she learned to play the harmonica.  I don't think she had a very large repertoire; the only tune I recall her playing was "Home, Sweet Home."

But the harmonica was a part of our bedtime ritual (we lived with her until I was five), along with several songs in German.  The one best remembered is "Müde bin ich, geh zur Ruh," a traditional child's bedtime prayer ("I'm tired and going to rest...).  The way we pronounced it, the name of the song was "meedee beenee."

Although everybody in my grandmother's generation (all born in the US) was bilingual, they spoke German in the home and in the church.  But they largely abandoned it during World War I.  It was my father's first language, but he switched to English at age five when we entered the war and never was very fluent despite a lot of time spent in Germany in later life, as a soldier, teacher and tourist.

By the time I came along, German was used for bedtime songs, for talking about things that children shouldn't hear, and for the occasional curse.  When I got to college and took German I once asked my grandmother why she hadn't taught me German in infancy; it would have been so simple.  She said it never dawned on her that an American child should speak anything but English.

Her harmonica was made in Germany by the Hohner Company and was the "Unsere Lieblinge" model -- "Our Sweetheart."  The writing is faint, worn down by years of use.  I found several on eBay advertised as 80-90 years old but I'm sure this one is a lot older.  If you still have the original box you can get $75 or maybe even $95, but I'm not going to sell mine.


  1. Delightful post and a family memory that will be "revisited" time and time again. So many things that I would like to get my mother and dad to expand on ... but they are now gone.

  2. From Kathy's sister: I think Home Sweet Home was the only song she played in English. I know she played all the hymns in German.. don't you love the concept?

  3. I used to play some kind of harmonica when I was younger, had a lot of tunes. You never 'learn' by being taught, you just try, listen, and because they are not tuned 'right' it always sounds a bit off anyway. But I don't have mine anymore, it wasn't as special as this one either.
    The words for Müde bin ich...:
    Müde bin ich, geh zur Ruh,
    mache meine Augen zu,
    Vater, lass die Augen Dein,
    über meinem Bette sein

    Hab' ich Unrecht heut getan,
    sieh' es, guter Gott, nicht an,
    Deine Gnad und Jesu Blut,
    macht ja allen Schaden gut.

    Alle, die mit mir verwandt,
    halte fest in Deiner Hand,
    alle Menschen groß und klein,
    sollen bei Dir geborgen sein.

    Kranken Herzen schenke Ruh,
    Nasse Augen schließe zu,
    Lass den Mond am Himmel steh'n,
    und die stille Welt besteh'n.

    I'be been singing this to my son at bedtime since he was born (and several others as well), and although he is getting to be rather pubertarian, he still likes having it sung to him when he is going to bed..