Surabaya Johnny

Nov 28th, 2010, in History, by

Is there any non-Indonesian song that has the name of an Indonesian city in its very title? The only one I can think of (and if it is not the only one it is certainly the most famous one) is Brecht and Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny”.

Here is a mixed English-German performance by a well-known interpreter of Kurt Weill’s songs: Ute Lemper (even in the English bit she betrays her ethnic origin by referring to this Javanese port as Zurabaya):

And here is a fully English performance by an anonymous singer. If her portrayal of Johnny’s teenage love has any realism about it one rather understands why he made himself scarce:

What is the origin of the song? I have always assumed that it was part of Brecht’s and Weill’s Dreigroschenoper, the most successful theater performance of the Weimar Republic, and that it was right up there with the song of Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) and that of Pirate Jenny. But no – the Brecht canon usually places the song in the other Brecht-Weill co-production “Happy End”. It can indeed be found there but this is somewhat strange because that story is set in Chicago and deals with a tug of war between the Salvation Army and a bunch of gangsters. What is a song with such “exotic” place names as Burma, the Punjab and Surabaya doing there?

If one digs a bit deeper one comes to a more likely setting and one that usually is not ascribed to Brecht: Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1925 play “Kalkutta 4 Mai” which was a rewrite of his “Warren Hastings, Gouverneur von Indien” that dated from 1914. It seems certain that Brecht cooperated in this rewrite and though opinions differ about his share in it the cognoscenti agree that he at any case contributed “Surabaya Johnny” (the full text of which can apparently only be found in the first edition of the play). Feuchtwanger-Brecht made a certain Marjorie Hilke, in the play Hasting’s mistress, sing the song to divert her troubled lover.

I have never seen a copy of this play but I can’t imagine that the text of “Surabaya Johnny” there is similar to the one we know. For one thing Johnny had lied about working for the railways – a rather futuristic occupation in the eighteenth century.

The “Asian” roots of the song go however more deeply than its chance placement in a play about a British-Indian governor. It is supposed to be an adaptation of one of Kipling’s “Barrack-Room Ballads” viz. “Mary, Pity Women!”. It turns out that the Marxist Brecht was an avid reader of that glorifier of British imperialism: Kipling. His use of the British writer was not limited to “Surabaya Johnny”. We are told that in the very first performance of the Dreigroschenoper the spoiled Berlin public was initially rather distrustful and distant until the performance of the “Kanonen Song” turned the tide. This was greeted by wild applause and after that it was uphill all the way. Now this “Kanonen Song” is also an adaptation of one of the Barrack-Room Ballads namely “Screw-Guns”. It didn’t take long for the critics to find out because this literary theft, if it was one, was not the only one. There were other adaptations of Kipling (and Villon for that matter) and one critic even took to talking about Rudyard Brecht.

How did Brecht get to this for him unlikely author? According to one close friend his knowledge of English amounted to next to nothing. This seems to me a bit exaggerated. He was at one stage enrolled at a University, thus must have finished high school and it is unlikely that he would not have been taught some English there. But probably it was some limited school English. However, early in the twenties, Brecht had met a gifted female translator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, whose futile love for him (he married other women) rivaled that of Surabaya Johnny’s would be lover. It was, in fact, her translation of John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” (then exactly two hundred years old) that he used for his Dreigroschenoper text (this was originally fully acknowledged). And equally so he used her Kipling translation for some of his songs.

There is a literary dispute about this. It is now the fashion with some to blow up Hauptmann’s share in his productions as if she were an unacknowledged ghostwriter of Brecht’s stuff. I have no desire to further research this but to judge from what is supposed to be the Kipling “original” of “Surabaya Johnny” I think there is some exaggeration here. If Hauptmann was a faithful translator, which by all accounts she was, Brecht used her text in his own creative fashion. You can judge this for yourself by comparing the text of “Mary, Pity Women!” with the English translation of “Surabaya Johnny” of which that exuberant lass from Sacramento in the video above gave a clear rendering, that is fairly close to the German original:

Mary, Pity Women!

You call yourself a man,
For all you used to swear,
An' leave me, as you can,
My certain shame to bear?
I 'ear! You do not care --
You done the worst you know.
I 'ate you, grinnin' there. . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

Nice while it lasted, an' 
now it is over --
Tear out your 'eart 
an' good-bye to your lover!
What's the use o' grievin', 
when the mother that bore you
(Mary, pity women!) knew it 
all before you?


It aren't no false alarm,
The finish to your fun;
You -- you 'ave brung the 'arm,
An' I'm the ruined one;
An' now you'll off an' run
With some new fool in tow.
Your 'eart? You 'aven't none. . 
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

When a man is tired there is 
naught will bind 'im;
All 'e solemn promised 'e will 
shove be'ind 'im.
What's the good o' prayin' for
 The Wrath to strike 'im
(Mary, pity women!), when 
the rest are like 'im?

What 'ope for me or -- it?
What's left for us to do?
I've walked with men a bit,
But this -- but this is you.
So 'elp me Christ, it's true!
Where can I 'ide or go?
You coward through and through! . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

All the more you give 'em the 
less are they for givin' --
Love lies dead, an' you 
cannot kiss 'im livin'.
Down the road 'e led you 
there is no returnin'
(Mary, pity women!), but 
you're late in learnin'!

You'd like to treat me fair?
You can't, because we're pore?
We'd starve? What do I care!
We might, but ~this~ is shore!
I want the name -- no more --
The name, an' lines to show,
An' not to be an 'ore. . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

What's the good o' pleadin', 
when the mother that bore you
(Mary, pity women!) knew it 
all before you?
Sleep on 'is promises an' wake 
to your sorrow
(Mary, pity women!), for we sail 

Surabaya Johnny

I had just turned sixteen that season
When you came up from Burma to stay.
And you told me I ought to travel with you,
You were sure it would be OK.
When I asked how you earned your living,
I can still hear what you said to me:
You had some kind of job on the railway
And had nothing to do with the sea.

You said a lot, Johnny,
All one big lie, Johnny.
You cheated me blind, Johnny,
From the minute we met.
I hate you so, Johnny,
When you stand there grinning, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, 
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny,
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny,
My God - and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny,
And I still love you so.

At the start, every day was Sunday,
Till we went on our way one fine night.
And before two more weeks were over,
You thought nothing I did was right.
So we trekked up and down through the 
From the source of the river to the sea.
When I look at my face in the mirror,
There's an old woman staring back at me.

You didn't want love, Johnny,
You wanted cash, Johnny.
But I sewed your lips, Johnny,
And that was that.
You wanted it all, Johnny,
I gave you more, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, 
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny.
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny.
My God — and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny.
And I still love you so.

I would never have thought of asking
How you'd got that peculiar name,
But from one end of the coast to the other
You were known everywhere we came.
And one day in a two-bit flophouse
I'll wake up to the roar of the sea,
And you'll leave without one word of warning
On a ship waiting down at the quay.

You have no heart, Johnny!
You're just a louse, Johnny!
How could you go, Johnny,
And leave me flat ?
You're still my love, Johnny,
Like the day we met, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, 
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny.
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny,
My God - and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny.
And I still love you so.

Thank you! Thank you very much.

35 Comments on “Surabaya Johnny”

  1. madrotter says:

    Well, there is of course Willy Derby’s Hallo Bandoeng which was a pretty big hit in the 30’s, he even did a tour in Indonesia, wildly popular with the Dutch back then….

  2. madrotter says:

    oops posted that already

  3. Andrew Stevens says:

    I was first drawn to this song by the Marc Almond version (on A Virgin’s Tale – Vol II). Although it is a woman’s song = and has been sung by many different women = he wanted to do from a (gay) man’s point of view, in order to give it a dark, nasty edge. But despite the criticisms levelled above, I enjoyed the Sacramento singer’s version, particularly her injection of outraged passion into the song. Spine-chilling!

  4. sticksnstones says:

    There is a more obvious implication, too. Surabaya probably still has more brothels than any other place in Indonesia. It catered to sailors. Johnny takes the young woman, who is only 16 when they first meet, to his various haunts and dives around the world. But he cares only for money, and she soon sees an old face staring back at her from the mirror. Johnny is obviously a pimp, a rat of the first order. Its the old story of a naive young woman who is manipulated, used and abused. But there is a companionship among thieves, and that is the economic milieu – that of mutual exploitation – that they jointly inhabit. Miraculously, even in this seamy world, love is irrepressible, a timeless force.

  5. Tim Tomlinson says:

    Coming into this years after the buzz. I first heard the song on “Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill,” a gathering of artists’ tributes including tracks by Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Sting, and others. Dagmar Krause contributes “Surabaya Johnny.” I find its theatrical over-the-topness hilarious and quite moving. It captures the end-of-the-world feeling of first love, first fleecing. It seemed to be so much a part of a larger drama but, as Arie Brand’s discussion points out, that’s not the case. Scrolling through the thread, I’m not finding any reference to the “Lost in the Stars” collection, nor to Ms. Krause’s rendering, so I include the link here:

Comment on “Surabaya Johnny”.

RSS feed

Copyright Indonesia Matters 2006-2023
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Contact