Franz JosefDegenhardt: Musician and hero of the counter-culture

Click to follow
The Independent Online

With his chanson-like songs, Franz Josef Degenhardt was so ingrained in the consciousness of German speakers that it is impossible to think of an appropriate British comparison. His eloquence, seniority and track record elevated him to quasi-Dylan status wherever German is spoken. A goodly proportion of several generations knew and could sing his songs.

Degenhardt's death made the front page of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper; the day after his death, his fellow Liedermacher [song-maker] Wolf Biermann turned 75; only Biermann matches Degenhardt in status.A hero of the counter-culture, Degenhardt waged what was termed Klassenkampf mit Klampfe [class war with guitar]. At points between 1965 and 1974 it seemed as if a whole generation of politically aware German youth was studiously absorbing, dissecting and drawing succour from his every word. Albums such as Spiel Nicht Mit Den Schmuddelkindern ("Don't play with the grubby children", 1965) and Väterchen Franz ("Little Father Franz", 1967) – the latter one of many with exquisite artwork by his sister-in-law Gertrude Degenhardt – were obligatory listening for anyone with a left or liberal leaning. As an individual, I can attest that he was unfailingly courteous and approachable.

Born in 1931, after graduating in law, he took up a post at the Institute for European Law in Saarbrücken in 1961. He became a Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1966. Defending social democrats, communists and, in 1972-73, members of the Baader Meinhof gang, did not endear him to conservative West Germans.

His legal mind and training equipped him to hit home with precision in song; his writing was direct and demotic, ironical and barbed, his songs literate and literary. He admitted that, as the family breadwinner, the need to augment his salary motivated his early songs, and by the early 1960s he was making money. By 1963 his first album Zwischen Null Uhr Und Mitternacht ("Between zero hour and midnight") was delivering squibs with a chansonnier élan that would have done Brassens and Brel proud.

He became a stalwart of the Burg Waldeck Festivals, the shoaling ground of politically engaged singers, appearing every year between 1964 and 1969. With typical flair, in 1968 he turned his back on what David Robb, in hisbook Protest Song in East and WestGermany since the 1960s (2007) calls the "liberal bourgeois circles" thathad taken him to heart. His manifesto was contained in the elegant simplicity of "Zwischentöne sind bloss Krampf im Klassenkampf" ("Nuances arejust convulsions in the class war") – a counterblast, he sings, to peole, telling him, "You only paint in black and white".

By 1975 it was estimated that he had sold 400,000 albums in West Germany, an extraordinary feat for a nationattuned to sentimental or boom-bang-a-bang Schlager, dodgy Volksmusik, second-rate beat music and James Last instrumentals. It was doubly impressive because, as part of the 68er-Bewegung [1968 Movement], he targeted West Germany's pernicious Berufsverbot ("banning from a profession") system which chiefly barred those withradical views from working for thegovernment. Displays of wry humour were as likely as his rolled rrr's. Inevitably, his work also appeared on East Germany's state-controlled Amiga record label, alongside the likes of Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, Ravi Shankar and Phil Collins.

He also wrote prose including the novels Zündschnüre ("Fuses", 1973) about the pre- and post-Nazi-era, the anti-fascist Edelweisspiraten ("Edelweiss pirates") and, closer to home, Der Liedermacher (1982). Fictions fed or bled into swathes of his songs. The lengthy title song of the magisterial Café nach dem Fall (2000) remains a masterpiece, an alternative Desolation Row confabulation with interjections about Bach, the Rolling Stones, smoking crack, Rudi Dutschke, Auschwitz and more.

His sons Jan and Kai continue the family trade of Liedermacher.

Franz Josef Degenhardt, songwriter, novelist and lawyer: born Schweim, Germany 2 December 1931; married (two sons): died Quickborn, Germany 14 November 2011.