“Alabama Song” sung by Lotte Lenya, for whom it was written
“Alabama Song” also known as “Moon Of Alabama” is a very interesting song. The lyrics are by Bertolt Brecht and the music is by Kurt Weill, both written in 1927. In the original version, the song is sung by a female character, a prostitute who is seeking opportunity in a lawless new town.
It is an excellent example of Verfremdungseffekt—also know as the “distancing effect” or “alienating effect”— which was integral to Brecht’s theatrical aesthetic. This effect seeks to prevent the viewer from becoming emotionally involved with the characters and story being watched. He used a number of methods to repeatedly jar the viewer so to maintain the awareness that the story is not real and to prevent any passive enjoyment of the work.
With that in mind, listen to the changes of key, rhythm, vocal style in the song. It is quite unsettling and deliberately so.
The Doors’ version made the change from “Show us the way to the next pretty boy” to “Show me the way to the next little girl”, which Bowie subsequently retained. This intrinsically alters the meaning of the song, and yet, I can’t help but think that Brecht and Weill would have approved. To me, Bowie would have been an excellent Mackie in The Threepenny Opera—this irresistibly handsome and utterly amoral antihero—and I wish he had played the part, or at least sung the Moritat (Mack the Knife) at least once.
For me, this is the Bowie version of “The Alabama Song.” In some ways, I see this as the counterpoint to “Beauty and the Beast”. Underneath the beautiful outside is the beast—this creature of intense, selfish desire. He lusts and covets and needs. He seems filled with self-loathing, but still can’t stop himself, still must have the next little girl, oh you know why. There is an almost accusatory edge to “Beauty and the Beast”: I’m trying to be good, but it’s so easy when no one says no. Why don’t you say no? Why don’t you stop me?