The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Die Gedanken Sind Frei

A 16th century German protest song, recast with wit and defiance

Music: 16th c. German protest song, arr. Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Traditional, additional lyrics by Elizabeth Alexander

“Die Gedanken sind Frei” (“My thoughts are free”) was the rallying cry and protest song of the 16th c. German Peasant Wars, class uprisings which predated the French Revolution by two centuries. The song reappeared in the 1960s, popularized by Pete Seeger. In this feisty new vocal arrangement, the timeless demand for freedom of thought is given an updated English translation, plenty of wit and color, and a good dose of healthy defiance.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

Most people are familiar with the 15th century Protestant Reformation and the 18th century French Revolution, but far fewer know about the German Peasant Wars of 1524-25. This is probably because they weren’t all that successful! Nevertheless, these economic and political rebellions set the stage for what would come later. In particular, they created a fertile environment for the Reformation’s demand that people be free to interpret scripture for themselves — a notion referred to as “the priesthood of all believers.”

The folksong Die Gedanken sind Frei is thought to have predated the German Peasant Wars, but it quickly became their rallying cry. Centuries later, this song would be popularized by Pete Seeger, who sang an English translation by Arthur Kevass.

Desiring to create my own arrangement of this feisty song, I sought permission to use Arthur Kevass’ lyrics, but was not able to reach an agreement with the copyright owner. I’m embarrassed to admit that I sulked about this rejection for nearly five years before realizing that I was free to create my own English translation from the original German lyrics!

Early in the process of translating the lyrics it dawned on me that the original singers of Die Gedanken Sind Frei lacked not only freedom of religion and assembly, but also free speech. 16th century peasants reveled in the right to “think what I wish, but always discreetly,” and to “laugh and joke and think in my heart,” because to disagree openly was to invite not only ridicule, but also imprisonment or death. Thus, a completely literal translation of the song’s opening line reads: “My thoughts are free; no one can guess them.” However, modern protesters typically call for change through open vocalization of their thoughts! Thus, my translation proclaims: “Die Gedanken sind frei; I proudly profess them.”

This more overt tone notwithstanding, my translation of the first three verses is quite faithful to the original German lyric. But after the first three verse, the creativity of this 20th century lyricist could no longer be held captive. Starting with “They’re liable to change as I become older…” through the final “Fie!”, the lyrics are entirely my own.


Die Gedanken Sind Frei

Die Gedanken sind frei, I proudly profess them.
As hard as you try, you cannot suppress them.
No fence can confine them,
No creed undermine them,
They ring from on high:
Die Gedanken sind frei!

They laugh like a child, and sing and make merry,
They bloom ever wild like flow’rs on a prairie,
They wind and they wander,
They pensively ponder,
They soar to the sky.
Die Gedanken sind frei!

If you try to bind my thoughts in a prison,
The next day you’ll find that they have arisen!
A brainstorm will thunder,
And burst chains asunder,
And off they will fly,
Die Gedanken sind frei!

They’re liable to change as I become older,
So don’t think it strange if they become bolder!
They won’t remain static
Packed up in some attic;
To that, I’ll say: “Fie!”
Die Gedanken sind frei.

Tho’ you may despise them,
I shall not disguise them,

You can’t codify them,
And I won’t deny them,

Go on and deride them,
I’m not going to hide them,

Assail me or jail me,
My thoughts shall not fail me,

It’s useless to ban them,
Or pan them or can them,
So don’t even try —
Die Gedanken sind frei!

German 16th c. protest song
English translation and additional lyrics by Elizabeth Alexander
© 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander



Premiere: Walden Hill Vocal Ensemble / Joe Mish (St. Paul, MN)
Albion College Choir / Clayton Parr (Albion, MI)
Choir of Church of the Messiah / Rick Rosen (Gwynned, PA)
Choir of Community Church of Chapel Hill / Glenn Mehrbach (Chapel Hill, NC)
Choir of East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church / Marjorie Hill (Kirtland, OH)
Choir of First Unitarian Church of Chicago / Jeff Hamrick (Chicago, IL)
Choir of The Ethical Society of Saint Louis / Marcia Hansen (Saint Louis, MO)
Choir of Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Washington County / Susan Peck (Hillsboro, OR)
Walden Hill Vocal Ensemble / Joe Mish (Rochester, MN)

Vocal Duet
Premiere: Susan Peck and John Hubert. Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network National Conference (Madison, WI)