Brecht and his Opera – Phantom Dancer 25 September 2018

I remember, maybe inaccurately, a verse by satirist Barry Humphries‘ character, Sir Les Patterson, that went like this, “Singing songs by Brecht needs the memory of an elephant / But what they lack in tune, they gain in relevance.” Brecht’s original 1930 radio-like recording of the Threepenny Opera is this week’s Phantom Dancer feature.


The Phantom Dancer is your non-stop mix of swing and jazz from live 1929 – 65 radio.

Mixed live-to-air by 1920s – 1930s singer and actor, Greg Poppleton, on radio 2SER 107.3 Sydney since 1985, The Phantom Dancer is re-broadcast on 23 radio stations of the Community Radio Network and online at

You can hear lots of past Phantom Dancers, too, at


The Brecht feature and a whole mix of swing and jazz from live 1920s-50s radio. Read the full play list below.

Remember – the ALL VINYL FINYL HOUR.


With song lyrics by Kurt Weill and book by Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera (Dreigroschenoper), ‘a play with music’, was based on an Elisabeth Hauptmann translation of John Gay’s 18th-century English ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera. Hauptmann was Brecht’s girlfriend. Brecht did not credit her work.


1. Brecht claimed he did the translation, not Hauptmann
2. Brecht added four songs by French poet François Villon, without crediting Villon.
3. For these songs he used the translations by K. L. Ammer, without crediting Ammer.

When questioned by critics about these lapses, Brecht said he had, “a fundamental laxity in questions of literary property.”

Mack the knife


On this week’s Phantom Dancer we hear Lotte Lenya (married to Weill), Kurt Gerron, Erich Ponto, Willy Trenk-Trebitsch and Erika Helmke sing songs from Brecht’s play. the recordings are from an album of 78rpm records with radio-like announcements, made in Berlin in 1930.

Two of these songs you’ll now recognise as standards. They are, ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ (Mack the Knife) a jazz standard, and ‘Seeräuberjenny’ (Pirate Jenny) a cabaret staple.


Opening on 31 August 1928 at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, The Threepenny Opera, is a socialist critique on the capitalist world.


But despite its socialist credentials, Brecht’s ‘play with music’ was panned after its 1930 Soviet premier. Izvestia scowled: “It is high time that our theatres ceased playing homage to petit-bourgeois bad taste and instead turned to more relevant themes.” Oh, Sir Les!


Composer Weill’s artistic gave his intent for the music in a dense statement he issued in 1929, “Opera was founded as an aristocratic form of art. If the framework of opera is unable to withstand the impact of the age, then this framework must be destroyed. In the Dreigroschenoper, reconstruction was possible insofar as here we had a chance of starting from scratch.”

He also opined, “music cannot further the action of the play or create its background but achieves its proper value when it interrupts the action at the right moments.” This was much copied by subsequent Western doyens of agitprop-style worthiness.


The Threepenny Opera was slow to pick up audiences, but then it became a huge success in Berlin with 400 performances in its first run.

And ironically, the first run of Brecht’s socialist work was the place to be for Berlin’s monied classes. Socialites, bankers, industrialists and diplomats saw Brecht’s play as the place to be seen.

Productions elsewhere in the world in the 1930s were flops. Weill described a 1935 BBC broadcast of the play as totally misunderstanding what it was about. The 1930s Broadway production was described as dreary, though the music was praised, and closed after 12 performances.


As you’ll hear, Weill’s music borrowed heavily from 1920s German jazz and dance band music, and this is its most interesting attribute.

Like Greg Poppleton’s 1920s-30s band, the original Lewis Ruth band in the 1930 album recording of The Threepenny Opera you’ll hear on this week’s Phantom Dancer were all multi-instrumentalists.

The seven-piece ensemble played 23 instruments.


Max Raabe introduces Bertolt Brecht…


Play List – The Phantom Dancer
107.3 2SER-FM Sydney, Live Stream, Digital Radio
Community Radio Network Show CRN #333

107.3 2SER Tuesday 25 September 2018
After the 2SER 12 noon news, 12:04 – 2:00pm (+10 hours GMT)
National Program:
ArtSoundFM Canberra Sunday 7 – 8pm
and early morning on 23 other stations.

Set 1
Raymond Scott on 1940-41 Radio
Pretty Little Petticoat (theme) + Wellesley High Jump
Raymond Scott Orchestra
Blackhawk Restaurant
WGN Mutual Chicago
21 Oct 1940
Humpty-Dumpty Heart
Raymond Scott Orchestra (voc) Roberta Leigh
Burmuda Room
Hotel Brunswick
WBZ Boston
6 Dec 1941
Huckleberry Duck + Pretty Little Petticoat (theme)
Raymond Scott Orchestra
Blackhawk Restaurant
WGN Mutual Chicago
1 Nov 1940
Set 2
John Coltrane live on 1960s Radio
Afro Blue
John Coltraine
The Half-Note
26 Mar 1965
Set 3
Trad Jazz on 1940s Radio
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans (theme) + Original Dixieland One Step
Wild Bill Davison
‘This is Jazz’
WOR Mutual NY
17 May 1947
Song of the Wanderer
Muggsy Spanier
‘Eddie Condon’s Jazz Concert’
17 Feb 1945
I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling + Way Down Yonder In New Orleans (theme)
Wild Bill Davison
‘This is Jazz’
WOR Mutual NY
24 May 1947
Set 4
Dreigroschenoper 1930
Overture + Mack the Knife
Lewis Ruth Band (voc) Kurt Gerron
Dreigroschenoper Album
Comm Rec
Berlin 1930
Ballad of the Agreeable Life + Love Duet + Cannon Song
Lewis Ruth Band (voc) Willy Trenk-Trebitsch, Erika Helmke, Gerron
Dreigroschenoper Album
Comm Rec
Berlin 1930
Pirate Jenny + Finale Act 1
Lewis Ruth Band (voc) Lotte Lenya, Erika Helmke, Erich Ponto
Dreigroschenoper Album
Comm Rec
Berlin 1930
Set 5
Harmonists on 1930s Radio
Swingin’ on the Strings
The Inkspots
9 Aug 1935
Swing for Sale
Mills Brothers
‘Norge Program’
Radio Transcription
Why Don’t You Practice What You Preach?
Boswell Sisters
‘Woodbury Show’
18 Sep 1934
Down Among the Sleepy Pines
The Three Ambassadors + Jean Shark
Cocoanut Grove
Radio Transcription
Los Angeles
Set 6
Cab Calloway
Shout, Shout, Shout
Cab Calloway
Comm Rec
New York City
30 Aug 1938
Hey Now, Hey Now
Cab Calloway
‘One Night Stand’
Club Zanzibar NYC
AFRS Re-broadcast
We, The Cats, Shall Hep You
Cab Calloway
‘One Night Stand’
Club Zanzibar NYC
AFRS Re-broadcast
16 Jul 1945
Cab Calloway
‘Guest Star’
Radio Transcription
New York City
17 Sep 1950
Set 7
Royal Garden Blues
Royal Garden Blues
Muggsy Spanier
Club Hangover
KCBS San Francisco
11 Apr 1953
Royal Garden Blues
Ray Miller Orchestra
‘Sunny Meadows Show’
Radio Transcription
26 Jan 1929
Royal Garden Blues
Louis Armstrong
‘Damon Runyon Memorial Jazz Concert’
Blue Note
ABC Chicago
11 Dec 1948
Royal Garden Blues
Hot Lips Page
‘Doctor Jazz’
Stuyvesant Casino
Set 8
Women Singers Part 2
Rocking Chair (theme) + Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone + I’ll Never Be The Same
Mildred Bailey
‘Music Till Midnight’
As Long As I’m Dreaming
Peggy Lee
‘Peggy Lee Show’
Mad About The Boy
Lena Horne
AFRS Hollywood
Chewin’ Gum + I Wanna Be A Rug Cutter
Ella Fitzgerald
Savoy Ballroom
4 Mar 1940

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