This year is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict remembered in mythic terms by many on the Left. Called the “Good Fight”, it was the opportunity that the West failed to take to defeat Fascism in its tracks, leading to the vicious Second World War.
One element of the war remembered fondly by both members of the International Brigades and their comrades is the music. During this period, artists like Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Ernst Busch, and others recorded and performed songs in solidarity with the Second Republic. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Peter Glazer. He is a Professor of the University of California Berkley and has done a great deal of scholarship on this topic. His father performed on the original recordings featuring Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers created by Moses Asch and he has written a musical using these songs titled Heart of Spain and the book Radical Nostalgia: Spanish Civil War Commemoration in America.
There are two points worthy of discussion. First, one can find in these songs a type of radical lineage that has continued throughout the generations. These recordings were some of Pete Seeger’s earlier recordings and this chapter was particularly targeted by the McCarthyite witch hunts during the Cold War as an instance of subversion. The next generation, beginning with first the Beats and then Bob Dylan, embraced this heritage of radical politics in art. This continued on through the rise of punk rock and rap/hip-hop music. When one listens to Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, or Jedi Mind Tricks, in the background can be heard strains of Paul Robeson’s Die Moorsoldaten (The Peat Bog Soldiers). In between the lines of the lyrics of The Clash, it is possible to discern the socialist thrust of Pete Seeger singing Viva La Quince Brigada. This is a vital part of Left wing history and culture worthy of embrace.
Second, Dr. Glazer’s notion of “radical nostalgia” is one to be valued. Nostalgia today is being utilized to invoke reactionary notions. Yet there is a progressive thrust to nostalgia about the Spanish Civil War. This can be extended further in the timeline and utilized to counter the reaction. The late Howard Zinn understood this with his People’s History project, creating an honorable lineage that remembered the Left regardless of ideological constraint. When people talk about the “good old days” of the 1950’s, instead of replying with a negative about how it was the final decade of Jim Crow segregation, we should instead speak with pride about how a generation of men and women stood up against the onslaught of McCarthyism and refused to repudiate their anti-racist ideals despite the cowardice of a select few informers that named names. We must reclaim the past for the Left and honor it despite whatever flaws there may have been in the Communist movement. Only then will be be able to forge a brighter future.
This year will see a series of commemorative events throughout the country. The Berkley campus in particular will see events including an October staging of Dr. Glazer’s play Heart of Spain. For more information about events in Berkley, visit Dr. Glazer’s department website. The other source of information remains the always-helpful website of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.
This program is approximately one hour and is available for download in a variety of formats at https://archive.org/details/SongsOfTheSpanishCivilWar. It is available for free and all permissions are granted to non-profit and educational organizations to use and broadcast.