One of the first questions that comes up is “Is it really a German song?” It doesn't do any good to ask a
German, because they usually won't know or will give a wrong answer. The answer is yes. The first published
version was printed about 1830 in Karlsruhe and various later versions were also printed in Germany. Then
and now the song and its many variants and cousins seem based in the southwestern-most part of Germany and
across the border into Switzerland. Today these are mostly thought of as either a children's song or adult
Carnival songs depending upon the version. But the Schnitzelbank did not stay there, it came to America with
German immigrants in the mid-19th century. Two places where the song particularly took hold were among the
Pennsylvania Dutch and the large German community in Buffalo, New York.
Around 1893, Lizzie Wilson, a singer
and comedienne from Buffalo first sang the Schnitzelbank song at Tony Pastor's in New York City, the original
home of Vaudeville. She became known as “the Schnitzelbank Girl” and performed her German act around the
country for years, even returning for old timer
nights in the 1930's. Meanwhile the song became popular,
other vaudeville performers including the Marx brothers and Alfonse and Gaston performed it. Various versions
were published and recorded on all sorts of media, including piano rolls, Edison cylinders, and many 78's.
After Prohibition, the charts were used as advertising by breweries and German
restaurants (see example below). The song is popular
to this day at German heritage events and Oktoberfests throughout the US and Canada.
Another common question is “Just what is a Schnitzelbank anyway?” Again, it doesn't do any good to ask a
German because they usually won't know or will give a wrong answer. The problem is that the correct English
translation is a “Shaving horse” and if you ask an American what a shaving horse is most of them won't know
either. But, when the song was becoming popular many people had one in their barn. The schnitzelbank is a
very handy, easy to construct and use woodworking device that combines a place to sit with a foot operated
vise. It is especially good for making and repairing barrel staves. You can see them being used today by
woodworkers at heritage festivals and historic villages around the country.
The other questions are usually about what the items are in the song. Well, the items are each depicted in a
picture on the singing chart, or on the stein in this case. So what you see is what the words are. A few can
use further explanation. An Ochsenblas is depicted as an ox bladder (balloon), but it actually means ox blast,
or flatulence. A “Schnickelfritz” is 19th century slang meaning roughly “little rascal”. The
Tannenbaum is a
fir tree, not specifically a Christmas tree. The “Gefaehrliches Ding” depicted by a dragon is a
If you have not seen the Schnitzelbank performed you should try to do so. There is a leader who sings and
points to the items on the chart, while everyone else sings along as best they can. It is best appreciated
with lots of beer; but, kids like it too. If you have a Schnitzelbank stein, you can sing along without being
near enough to read the chart!