Willie McBride vs. the Fortunate Sons

Folksinger Eric Bogle

Folksinger Eric Bogle

Tom Waits once said that writing songs against war was like throwing peanuts at a gorilla. Which may be true, but no one said gorillas liked peanuts in their face.

After all, the veteran American songwriter made the comment as a self-deprecating reference to the anti-war songs on his 2004 album Real Gone -- inspired by the Bush administration's wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Waits noted: “But then I think, look how important soul music was during the civil rights movement."

“Sometimes I feel we are way outnumbered and the dark side has one more spear. But folks in the arts -- it's their job to put a human face on the war.”

Clearly no song, no matter how well-written, is going to stop a war. But that doesn’t mean songs have no role to play.

Popular culture is an expression of how society views itself -- and a weapon in the struggle between contesting visions and memories.

And few aspects of society are more hotly contested than the matter of war -- and of how to remember those who die fighting them. Recent controversies over new performances of two iconic anti-war songs -- one in Britain and one in the US -- highlight the point.

The first case is outrage driven by anti-war sentiment over a new version of Scottish-born Australian-based folk singer Eric Bogle’s 1976 song “No Man’s Land” (also known as “Green Fields of France”).

The second is right-wing outrage over a rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic 1969 song “Fortunate Son”.

The context is the 100th anniversary of World War I ― a four-year-long bloodbath in which 9 million soldiers were slaughtered as Great Powers fought for control of lucrative territory and markets.

English soul singer Joss Stone recently released a version of the much-covered “No Man’s Land”. Bogle's song was inspired by a visit to mass graves in northern France and Flanders of those who died in World War I. Recorded on behalf of the Royal British Legion, Stone's version was released to promote its “Poppy Appeal”.

In Britain, people are encouraged on Remembrance Day each November to wear red poppies to, in the words of the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport, “commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts”.

Given Britain's role as a colonial power, and the clearly imperialist nature of so many of its wars, it is no surprise wearing poppies remains controversial. For instance, Wigan footballer James McClean, who is from Derry in Ireland's north, received death threats last year when he refused to wear a poppy.

This year, he wrote a letter explaining his stance: “For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different …

“For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles.”

In 2010, fans of Glasgow's Celtic FC famously (or infamously depending on your stance) raised large banners during a football game that declared: “Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No bloodstained poppy on our hoops [in reference to their jerseys].”

Any version of a song about the horror of war released to promote the Poppy Appeal was always going to be controversial. But such was the level of outrage that Bogle himself felt compelled to write an article in The Guardian, expressing his disapproval of Stone's version.

The problem is not just that Stone's rendition is near unlistenable, it's that it completely guts the song of its anti-war content.

The song contains four verses that tell the thoughts of the narrator as he sits by the grave of 19-year-old Willie McBride -- among “countless white crosses”.

Bogle’s lyrics shift from what could be mistaken for wistful nostalgia -- wondering whether McBride had left “a sweetheart behind” -- to denouncing the horror of “a whole generation that was butchered and damned”.

In lines that capture an almost unbearable sense of loss, Bogle poses the question: “Did you really believe them when they told you 'The Cause'? Did you really believe that this war would end wars?”

Bogle gives the brutally simple response: “Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame, the killing, the dying it was all done in vain.

“For Willie McBribe, it all happened again. And again and again and again and again.”

Followed by the chorus’ refrain of “Did they beat the drums slowly, did they play the fife lowly?”, these lines are gut-wrenching. They are meant to hurt so badly that tears well in the listener's eyes.

These lines are as essential to the song as the second half of a film or the final chapters of a book. And those two verses were dropped from Stone’s rendition.

“Believe it or not,” said Bogle in his response, “I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement.

“Missing out two-and-a-half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention.”

Stone reduces the song to an empty shell, transformed from a cry of horror into an over-produced piece of sentimentalist nostalgia -- bloodless in all senses.

It should be no surprise. The message pushed by our rulers -- busy waging fresh wars -- is that we must “remember the sacrifice” of dead soldiers without ever asking “sacrifice for what and for whom?”

Bogle’s excluded lines are unacceptable because they pose the question of “us” versus “them” -- did you really believe them, he asks of McBride.

If World War I was not really a “war to end wars”, what was it actually for? Bogle's song does not try to answer that question -- the closest it gets is denouncing “man’s blind indifference to his fellow man” (another line you won't hear Stone sing).

But across the Atlantic, a mirror opposite controversy broke out over a song that does.

In the US, November 11 is marked as Veteran’s Day. At an official “Concert for Valor” in Washington DC in honor of US military veterans, Bruce Springsteen, Zac Brown and Dave Grohl performed Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”.

The performance was predictably slammed by right-wingers, who insisted it was anti-patriotic and disrespectful to soldiers.

“Some are going, wait a minute, this is all about the vets, and that particular song was intended to be an anti-war anthem,” Fox News host Steve Doocy said, referring to widespread criticism of the performance on Twitter. “Is it really appropriate to be performing it in front of so many vets who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

Despite right-wing claims, the song is not “anti-soldier”. The song’s author, John Fogerty, is himself a veteran, drafted into the army in 1966.

The real cause of the outrage is that the song nails the “born-to-rule” elites -- the “fortunate sons” -- who create and profit from wars they force others to fight on their behalf.

In fact, Fogerty himself said the song speaks “more to the unfairness of class than war itself”.

Unlike “No Man's Land”, the horror of war does not feature in the lyrics at all. In 1969, it didn’t need to -- the horror was all over Americans’ TV screens.

Instead, over three verses, the song caustically describes and denounces the political, business and military elites whose much-vaunted “patriotism” extends only as far as letting others die on their behalf.

As the third verse puts it: “Yeah, some folks inherit star-spangled eyes, oh they send you down to war. And when you ask them ‘How much should we give?’, they only answer, more, more, more.”

“It ain't me, it ain't me,” insists Fogerty in the furious chorus, “I ain't no fortunate one.”

No wonder pro-imperialist right-wingers lost their minds at this song being sung at an “official” veterans’ event. For all their claims of “honouring” the “sacrifice” of ordinary soldiers, their real cause is using propaganda to push permanent war.

The crime of Springsteen, Brown and Grohl was to actually sing a song truly on behalf of ordinary soldiers.

They spoke directly to the deadly hypocrisy that allows deaths in one war to be used to push fresh killing in others -- so Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed-Martin, Goldman Sachs and the rest can get richer.

Taken together, these two songs tell the story of the nightmare of capitalist-driven wars. The contrasting outrage reveals that popular culture remains a battleground between conflicting interests -- those of the Willie McBrides and those of the fortunate sons who profit from their death.

A version of this article first appeared at Green Left Weekly.


Stuart Munckton is a writer for Green Left Weekly in Australia.

What May Come: Radical Printmaking from Mexico

Angel Bracho. Victory!, 1945

Editors' note: In a first for Red Wedge, and in acknowledgement of the subject matter, this commentary piece appears in both English and Spanish

* * *

The exhibition What May Come: The Taller de Gráfica Popular & the Mexican Political Print, displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago this past summer and early fall, brought with it an accessible overview of radical printmaking history spanning various regions in Mexico. Coordinated in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the first groundbreaking acquisitions of Mexican prints by the Art Institute. Groundbreaking because, as the Art Institute claims, these would be the first acquisitions made by a U.S. museum from the Mexican government. Truly this exhibition could not have  come at a more politically apropos time. Our current political landscape is charged with images of undocumented immigrant women and children caged in border-lining detainments facilities; to see images of those same faces defiantly combating fascism and asserting themselves as brave, formidable fighters creates an empowering atmosphere.

As confirmed in both the wall vinyls and the exhibition catalog, this exhibition actively sought to reestablish the professed commitment the museum has to the tradition of Mexican printmaking- the styles, techniques, and history. All of the associated materials, both audio and visual, were provided in English and in Spanish. This was only one facet of accessibility, another was the interactive screens that the Prints & Drawings Department of the Art Institute are known for. Their inclusion of texts or images that the attendee can peruse digitally, provide a more in- depth experience with the cased objects behind glass, or those hung from the walls.

The exhibition itself focused on several leading makers in the TGP collective. Specifically Leopoldo Méndez, Ángel Bracho, Isidoro Ocampo and of course the influence that José Guadalupe Posada had on this print workshop. Certain aspects of the exhibition also highlighted the connections between the workshop and Chicago. The Artist’s Union of Chicago was the first foreign venue for the workshop in 1938. This decision seemed to stem from the cross cultural travel between these places due to political, and artists motivations that was mentioned in the descriptions of the pieces and their makers.

Most of the works exhibited were lithographs, woodcuts, and linocuts. There is a mass audience appeal to these pieces. They are emotive, employ a kind of expressive realism, and are unabashedly radical. Certainly the majority of the works on view were focused on the anti-fascist movements within Mexico and abroad. They were expressly anti-Franco, anti-Hitler, and anti-Mussolini. The pieces visually advocated for a worker’s Internationalism, and demonstrated solidarity with persecuted peoples- specifically the Jewish population.

The post-war themed pieces that were included focused on another, later tendency within the workshop to return to images of popular history or cultural tradition. Indigenous influences were romanticized and they depicted rural or urban labor-especially the labor of women and mothers. These prints created an air of celebration and pride in folklore, superstition, trade–scenes from daily life. TGP print collective members were not entirely uncritical in their depiction of these themes however, some artists alluded to the distracting quality that superstition and tradition can be used to create when people are confronted with the possibility of change.

These differing currents of theme and focus spurred, in part, the splitting of the print collective. One dominant current wishing to rely heavily on themes of the international working class, and anti-imperialist organizing, and the other strong current wanting to return to specific expressions of Mexican identity, found in tradition, the Mother, and site-specific labor. Neither current able to reconcile with the other, or fully incorporate these threads which are so complimentary. That which a people can take pride in, can be their reason and cause for uniting and fighting forces who wish to destroy it.

Alfredo Zalce. In the Hammock, from Estampas de Yucatán, 1946.

Exhibitions such as these are refreshing to see within institutes that so often rely on appropriation and very little context to convey the art of another culture. Much more could have been done however to complicate the major trends within the TGP, giving it a more dynamic history. For instance, the tone used to describe the beginnings of a shift within the TGP toward a romantic past seemed borderline condescending as if there wasn’t a valid cause or context. The accessibility of language, coupled with the detail to various artist’s contributions to the workshop and the origins of the political influence of the Mexican Broadside style did however contribute to the success of this exhibition.

* * *

La exposición lo que pueda venir: El taller de gráfica popular y la impresión mexicana política, en exhibición en el Art Institute of Chicago hasta el 12 de octubre, presentó una visión accesible de la historia grabada radical que extiende diversas regiones de México. Coordinada conjuntamente con el 70 aniversario de las primeras adquisiciones revolucionarias de estampas mexicanas por el Art Institute, la exposición se consideró pionera porque, como afirma el Art Institute, estas serían las primeras adquisiciones realizadas por el museo estadounidense del gobierno mexicano. Esta exposición llegó en un momento apropiado políticamente. Nuestro panorama político está cargado con imágenes de mujeres inmigrantes indocumentadas y de niños enjaulados y detenidos; ver imágenes de estos mismos rostros que luchan contra el fascismo afirman a sí mismos como los valientes, formidables, y combatientes pueden crear un ambiente de empoderamiento.

Como confirman los vinilos de pared y el catálogo de la exposición, esta exposición buscó activamente para restablecer el compromiso profesado entre el museo con la tradición mexicana de los grabados- en estilos, técnica, y en historia. Todos los materiales asociados, tanto de audio como visuales, fueron disponibles en inglés y en español. Esto fue solamente una faceta de la accesibilidad; otras incluyeron las pantallas interactivas que el Departamento de Impresiones y Dibujos dirigieron. Su inclusión de textos o imágenes que el público pudo hojear digitalmente, proporcionaron una experiencia más significativa que con las piezas detrás de vidrio, o que cuelgan sobre los muros.

La exposición se centró en varios líderes fabricantes del colectivo TGP, específicamente Leopoldo Méndez, Ángel Bracho, Isidoro Campo y por supuesto la influencia que José Guadalupe Posada tuvo sobre este taller de impresión. Ciertos aspectos de la exposición también descubrieron las conexiones entre el taller y Chicago. El Chicago Artists Union fue la primera sede extranjera para el taller en 1938. Esta decisión vino del viaje intercultural entre estos lugares debido a motivaciones políticas de los artistas y creadores mencionados en las descripciones de las piezas.

La mayoría de las obras expuestas fueron litografías, xilografías y linóleos. Hay una atracción para la audiencia masiva de estas piezas. Emotivas, ellas emplean un tipo de realismo expresivo y radical. Ciertamente, la mayoría de las obras expuestas se centraron en los movimientos antifascistas en México y en el extranjero. Eran expresamente antifranquista, anti-Hitler, y anti-Mussolini. Las piezas laboraban visualmente para el internacionalismo de los trabajadores y para demostrar solidaridad con el pueblo perseguido- específicamente la población judía.

Leopoldo Mendez, The Firing Squad, 1950

Las piezas con temas de la posguerra incluidas en la exposición se centraron en la tendencia más adelante del taller a regresar a las imágenes de la historia popular o la tradición cultural de México. Influencias indígenas eran románticas y representaban la mano de obra rural o urbana-especialmente el labor de las mujeres y madres. Estas impresiones crearon un aire de celebración y orgullo en el folklore, la superstición, el comercio – escenas de la vida cotidiana. Miembros del colectivo del  TGP no eran totalmente acríticos en su descripción de esos temas; sin embargo, algunos artistas se especializaron a la calidad de distracción que la superstición y la tradición ofrecieron enfrentados con a la posibilidad de cambio. Estos corrientes de tema y enfoque diferente estimularon, en parte, la división del colectivo de impresión. Una corriente deseo basarse en temas de la clase obrera internacional, y la organización anti-imperialista dominante, y la otra corriente con deseo a regresar a las expresiones de la identidad mexicana que se encuentran en la tradición, la madre, y el trabajo de sitio específico. Ninguna corriente pudo conciliar con la otra, o incorporar esas relaciones que son tan fraternales. En lo que el público se puede enorgullecer es que la razón y la causa de la unión y la lucha contra las fuerzas que querían destruirla no ganaron a borrar el espíritu de la gente.

Ver exposiciones como éstas dentro de los institutos que tanto usan apropiación y poco contexto para transmitir el arte de otra cultura es refrescante. Mucho más se podría haber hecho para explicar las tendencias principales dentro del TGP para darle a la exposición una historia más dinámica. Por ejemplo, el tono utilizado para describir los comienzos de un cambio dentro de la TGP hacia un pasado romántico parecía condescendiente, como si no tuviera causa o contexto válido. La accesibilidad del lenguaje, junto con el detalle de las contribuciones de los varios artistas del taller y los orígenes de la influencia política del estilo litografico mexicano sin embargo contribuyeron al éxito de esta exposición.


Brit Schulte is on the Red Wedge editorial board, blogs at The Hour Glass, and studies at School of the Art Institute Chicago. Jael Montellano is a writer of fiction, essays, and poetry. Her short stories have appeared in Camera Obscura, and she has had non-fiction essays appear on Red Lemonade’s Red Reader and The Rumpus. 

Dia de Los Muertos vs. Halloween: Know the Difference Or Get Checked

As yet another Halloween creeps up on us — get it? — so does the yearly wave of racism and misogyny reflective of the fucked up society we live in. Each year, Halloween costumes range from the annoying and ridiculous — sexy firefighter, sexy nurse, sexy ladybug (seriously?), etc., — to the openly racist and misogynistic — “Native American Princess,” “Muslim Terrorist,” and this year’s lowest couple’s costume which depicts Janay Rice and her abusive football-player husband, Ray Rice, complete with blackface and a black eye because racists and misogynists are really good at being the scum of the earth, making Halloween — the entire month of October, really — a time of high anxiety for basically anyone who is not a straight white dude.

For Latinxs* — especially Mexicanxs and Xicanxs — however, Halloween also means the appropriation of Dia de Los Muertos by people who don’t know the first thing about the holiday. So in the spirit — ha! — of making this a learning opportunity, I’d like to take this moment to clarify a few misconceptions. First thing’s first: Dia de Los Muertos is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Yup. That means that when you paint your dumb face to look like a sugar skull you’re not “honoring” my culture, you’re appropriating it and disrespecting it.

 You see, there’s a big difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. For example: purchasing a sugar skull and building an altar to celebrate and honor the life of a friend or family member who has passed? Totally fine. Dressing up as a Dia de Los Muertos sugar skull for a Halloween party? Nope; don’t do it. Why? Because again, Dia de Los Muertos is not the same celebration as Halloween.

Dia de Los Muertos is actually one of the most important holidays celebrated in Mexico, Latin America, and by Latinxs in the U.S. and abroad.  Its origins trace back to the rituals of the pre-Columbian indigenous populations of Meso-America who celebrated and honored their dead with a month-long celebration during the month of August where they built altars and made Hanal Pixan– (Nahuatl for food offerings for the souls traveling from their world back to ours for their annual visit). The death-fearing Church and its Crown saw this celebration as a threat to their rule and domination and went to great lengths (i.e. genocide) to extinguish it. They were, of course, met with fierce resistance by the indigenous populations and eventually had no choice but to create a hybrid holiday to take its place. (For a more detailed history of the origins of Dia de Los Muertos, check out the piece I wrote for Red Wedgemagazine two years ago.)

The reality is that we live in a highly globalized world and that means that trans-culturation — the blending of two or more cultures to form a new one– is inevitable, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there is much value in trans-culturation; for it allows the experiences and customs of cultures to merge and synthesize into something new, something which has barrier-busting potential and can show us why we have more in common with each other than we’re made to believe. Trans-culturation also means that we can turn our suffering into productive action like in the case of sex-workers in Mexico City who for a number of years now have paraded down the streets of the city wearing skull masks to raise awareness of the violent misogyny they face on a daily basis and to remember those who’ve lost their life to this violence. And the families of those who have fallen victim to the “war on drugs” and the violence committed in its name by both the cartels and the state. Or in the U.S., the immigrant rights movement which observes Dia de Los Muertos by channeling its anger and discontent at barbaric treatment of undocumented workers and families by raising awareness of these issues and commemorating the victims of this country’s broken immigration system through these celebrations. These are examples of the evolution our customs and traditions go through, and of the ways in which we are constantly learning to transform our collective pain into collective action to finally bring an end to our oppression.

This is what Dia de Los Muertos ultimately is: a hybrid celebration meant to honor our dead; one which also reminds us that our history may be one of colonization and conquest, but it is also one of resistance and resilience. And this is why you don’t fuck around with people’s culture. This is why Dia de Los Muertos is not a Halloween costume. This is why it’s imperative that we understand the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. For while the former can lead to better relationships between cultures and to the forming of new and radical customs, traditions, and bonds; the latter often leads to pain, the further marginalization of communities, and the unnecessary divisions of our movements.

And ultimately, this is why we need a conscious radicalism that goes beyond inclusivity and actually makes room for the most oppressed among us to heal and transform our pain and anger into productive energy that can help grow the movements and organizations we need in order to overthrow this bullshit system. Why issues of identity, of cultural appropriation, and of privilege matter within our left-spaces, because failure to take a nuanced and conscious approach will, without a doubt, lead to the alienation of the people who we most need in and leading our movements. The reality is that many people of color are currently radicalizing around these very issues and then coming to revolutionary and Marxist conclusions through an organic process, however, many of them quickly become disillusion and turned off (and rightfully so) at leftist/socialist/Marxist people and movements when they fail to take these concerns seriously. This is a big problem and one which we must take swift and serious action to correct, for The Left cannot afford to (and shouldn’t as a matter of moral and political principle) regard these issues of culture and identity as peripheral, petty, or divisive when these are issues which have real life consequences for those of us who are affected by them.

So there you go: if you didn’t know, now you know — the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, that is. So next time someone tries to play off cultural appropriation as something harmless, or argue that our anger at these offenses is petty or divisive you can explain to them why they’re wrong and what’s at stake.

Feliz Halloween and Happy Dia de Los Muertos, homiez! ¡Y Adelante, que la lucha sigue!

* The “x” in Latinxs, Mexicanx, and Xicanxs indicates the plural form for all genders, not just the binary male/female.


Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based Xicana activist and writer. She is currently an editor at Red Wedge and is a contributing writer for Socialist Worker, In These Times, and Warscapes,where she writes about race, feminism, education, and the intersection of politics and culture. Find her blog at LaMarxista.com.

Introducing Victor Jara

Mural of the late Victor Jara

Mural of the late Victor Jara

The shadow of Victor Jara looms large, and it’s only gotten larger with time. Just last month it was announced that a court in Chile had indicted three retired army officers for their involvement in the legendary folk-singer’s death in the wake of the coup that overthrew then-President Salvador Allende. Certainly, the open-endedness of Jara’s saga (more than forty years after his murder, nobody has been brought to justice) has contributed to his legend, intertwining his impressive skills with songwriting. The beauty of one combines with the horror of the other; like it or not, the two have become inseparable.

All of which is to say that if there is anyone whose stature approaches that of a modern martyr-saint for the social justice set, it’s Victor Jara. Why then, at this juncture in time, would it make sense to release a pamphlet on him? Venceremos, penned by Gabriel San Roman and published by PM Press, is just such a pamphlet.

It runs a scant 23 pages, and there is little here that will be news to those familiar with Jara’s story. A comprehensive tome on the musician’s life this isn’t. It is, however, a solid and sympathetic overview: the social struggles and conflicts in Chile in the decades leading up to Allende’s election, the gestation of the Nueva Cancion movement, Jara’s rise through that movement along with the groups Inti-Illimani and Quilapayun, the intrigue against Allende’s government, the coup that overthrew him and finally Jara’s defiant last moments before his gruesome death in the Estadio Chile.

San Roman relates all of this in the broadest of strokes (he would have to if he can do it in only 23 pages!) and though it may not seem apparent at first, there is a virtue in this kind of story-telling. That virtue is of straightforward agitation.

Naturally, a pamphlet can’t be read in a vacuum. As the author points out toward the pamphlet’s end, Chile’s own legacy of protest has been revived in recent years with the movement against neoliberal education measures. Across the continent there’s been a similar revival over the past several years. And of course to a greater or lesser degree it’s also played out in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

As recently as five years ago the lay of the land seemed calm enough that we could distinguish between those spurred into activism via the songs of a left-wing artist and those whose activism would introduce them to left-wing art. Now the distinction has been blurred; art and politics are both moving too quickly for either to be neatly separated to one side or the other. One hopes that readers will walk away from a pamphlet like Venceremos having confirmed their own instinct that there is no separating politics from culture, protest from art.

* * *

This is particularly prescient, seeing as how despite a great many significant recent upsurges, there seems to be little collective memory of art movements that take hold as a result of and in tandem with mass movements. There are certainly plenty of people for whom the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960’s are synonymous with the Beatles and Stones, Dylan and Joan Baez. But past that there is a broad lack of awareness of just how deep the interconnectedness ran, how many artists saw their words and sounds as directly responding and calling back to the events in Paris, Saigon, Chicago and Mexico City, even seeking to influence the participants.

Victor Jara was part of this same broad epochal breaking of cultural barriers. “The strength of the NCCh [New Chilean Song movement] as a phenomenon at the time is, in part, attributable to the strength of the Chilean Left,” writes San Roman, “particularly of the Communist Party, and the peculiarity of la via chilena al socialismo (the Chilean path toward socialism).”

The author doesn’t spend much time elaborating on the strengths or shortcomings of this path that may have contributed to things turning out differently (its overemphasis on electoralism, the bureaucratization and so on). To do so would admittedly pull away from the illustration of how Jara, Nueva Cancion and the NCCh weren’t just products but at times part and parcel of a pitched social battle over the future of the country and its people. San Roman continues:

Changes in the overall political climate of Chile during the 1960s and seventies are extremely important in fostering an understanding as to why the NCCh resonated with many Chileans and arguably became the strongest political folk music movement in Latin American history. The historical impact is lasting as Isabel Parra, daughter of [folksinger and Nueva Cancion innovator] Violeta Parra, has said, “‘La Nueva Cancion’ was a movement and still is one that has a tremendous importance to make a connection with Chile.”

In fact, what the author lays out is that as an artistic ethos Nueva Cancion — and Jara in particular — consciously shared a historical viewpoint with the movement that gripped it; both possessed balanced sense of acknowledgement toward what Chile’s elites thought better left in the past and the role of such elements in a radical future. One of the pamphlet’s most interesting sections is “The Rural Roots of Nueva Cancion,” in which the music of the Chilean countryside is elucidated upon. Like much rural popular music, it was looked down upon by “respectable society” precisely because, quoting San Roman again, it “highlighted the symbolic imagination of the poor, in effect making them a cultural interstice where the ruling elite did not establish full hegemony and where and where future counterhegemonic cultural movements such as NCCh could spring forth.”

This notion of the “cultural interstice,” the physical and expressive spaces that capitalism has neglected and underdeveloped is certainly, and not coincidentally, key to understanding popular culture in times of inequality and struggle. Jara clearly understood that this exact culture, the art created in the cracks and crevices and empire, can easily find itself launched into the position of vanguard during such times of struggle. In some ways he and the rest of NCCh consciously fostered this dynamic in songs like “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz,” which combined instrumentation instantly recognizable in 1960’s American psychedelia over rural folk arrangements:

 

"El Derecho de Vivir en Paz," by Victory Jara

 

San Roman’s description of these musico-cultural realities are what make his brief story cohere. They provide a foundational depth one might not expect to see in an introduction to Jara’s tale, through the way in which Quilapayun poked fun at the right-wing opposition to Allende in songs like “The Little Pots” to his tragic last song performed in front of fellow leftists rounded up by Pinochet’s soldiers right before they summarily executed him. The idea of music being “dangerous” is bandied around quite a bit, but this was an artist and a musical movement that, because of what it represented, was quite literally viewed as a threat.

* * *

Which brings us back to the original question: Why bother publishing a pamphlet on all this? San Roman provides an extensive bibliography at the end of the booklet for those interested in more in depth reading, which means there is clearly the intent of readers learning more. Why then, doesn’t PM Press just recommend these other books on Jara, Chile and Nueva Cancion on its website?

There is, I would think, a hope that copies of these pamphlets would make their way into the “freshly initiated,” the young MC who has recently read his first Chomsky, the aspiring poet who got a job at a coffee shop to make ends meet and now finds herself walking out to demand a living wage.

What these folks would glean from Venceremos is often unacknowledged: that art doesn’t just have a role to play in agitating people, but that it can be agitated over. It’s not hard to find attempts on the part of less-than-honorable elements to take over the “cultural interstices” on society’s margins, from the push by record labels to figure out “the next big thing” to Nazi boneheads showing up a punk gigs. But, as with everything, this can be resisted.

Hammering this home seems to be in the wheelhouse of a pamphlet like this. But again, only if it gets into the right hands. That so many of Jara’s killers still have avoided punishment seems to underline the importance of this happening. San Roman ends the pamphlet by pointing out that one of the men charged in 2012 with the artist’s death, Pedro Barrientos, is residing in Florida. The US government has no plans of extraditing him so that he might face a court. It is worth wondering what might happen if more musicians, artists or just artistically-inclined workers were to demand that Barrientos finally stand trial. A cultural movement like this isn’t as far-fetched as it might have once seemed.


Alexander Billet is a writer and arts critic in Chicago. He is on the editorial board and writes the RW blog Atonal Notes. He can be reached through his Twitter.

The Street Parade: Sandinista! as Revolutionary Sonic Consciousness

“Bankrobber,” the Clash’s standout non-album single from 1980, was produced by Jamaican reggae artist Mikey Dread. It was a special moment in the Clash’s discography because it eclipsed their previous tributes to the Jamaican sound by finally having the courage to work directly with the culture, specifically its musicians, through mutually consented radical inclusiveness. As a key member of the Black Jamaican community, Mikey Dread recognized the Clash as allies and invited them to participate directly in the culture of resistance cultivated by reggae instead of just honoring it through tributes.

“Police and Thieves” and “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”, both released three years earlier, were the Clash’s most prominent reggae experimentations up until “Bankrobber”, but had treated dub and reggae like religious relics to be worshiped from a safe distance with an almost holy reverence. The cultural and racial divides that separated middle-class English punk from Jamaican dub were intimidating and substantial. Records like “Police and Thieves” and “Hammersmith Palais” show an enormous amount of respect towards reggae, but since no representatives of Jamaican culture were part of the recording, they were nonetheless restricted by the figurative barbed wire fences of statehood. They were not able to achieve the revolutionary sound that radical inclusivity makes possible and the creation of an authentic global people’s music was still, at this point, not fulfilled.

“All religions,” states Bakunin in God and the State, “with their gods, their demigods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties.” Up until this point, the Clash, in simply giving tribute to Junior Murvin rather than working in solidarity with him not only passively upheld cultural and racial divisions created by capitalism and state-ism, but in the objectification and worship that a tribute necessarily generates, dehumanized their idol and in turn disempowered themselves. And although the Clash did invite Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry to produce the punk powerhouse single “Complete Control”, it would not be until “Bankrobber” that the Clash recorded reggae in solidarity with a reggae artist.

Thus “Bankrobber” marks the Clash’s moment of progress from living in the prison of religious objectification; seizing power of their creative process and moving forward in actively dismantling the capitalist concept of the non-white or the oppressed as “other.” In the act of destroying the “other” through artistic collaboration across state and cultural borders, the Clash had found themselves. They realized their own identity, as I believe we all can, via active solidarity and collaboration with the oppressed.  This active solidarity is the logical conclusion and true fulfillment of the punk ethos, and what has made Sandinista! their greatest acheivement.

The template for revolutionary consciousness that the Clash set up in “Bankrobber” is one of the most important contributions to punk ever made. Punk, therefore, becomes fully realized when it no longer cares about fitting in with a prescribed punk sound, trend, or culture, but instead identifies all forms of folk or street music as reflections of self. The traditional targets of radical punk rage – politicians, greed, prisons, corruption, state violence, hierarchy, oppression – are shared by all forms of folk music.

In Sandinista! the Clash seems to ask, “Why not tear down the artificial walls that divide us and make music together?” In “Washington Bullets” for example, the Clash write:

Oh! Mama, Mama look there!
Your children are playing in that street again
Don’t you know what happened down there?
A youth of fourteen got shot down there
The cocaine guns of Jamdown Town
The killing clowns, the blood money men
Are shooting those Washington bullets again
As every cell in Chile will tell 
The cries of the tortured men 
Remember Allende, and the days before, Before the army came
Please remember Victor Jara,
In the Santiago Stadium,
Es verdad — those Washington Bullets again…

In 1977, those lyrics would have likely been accompanied by vicious, traditional punk instrumentation like that of “Complete Control” or “White Riot”. But on Sandinista! they were accompanied by marimbas and steel drums instead.

Sandinista! is filled with this determination towards radical solidarity; in fact, it is its central message. Hip-hop is paired with nursery rhyme radio pop; marimbas transition swiftly into celtic fiddles; gospel sets the stage for punk re-bakes of 1950’s rock n roll standards decrying the terror of the police state. This is the landscape of Sandinista!.

As a personal friend stated to me not too long ago, Sandinista! operates more as a switchboard than an “album” in the traditional sense. This may be the reason why it’s taken so long for Sandinista! to be appreciated as a classic like London Calling, which has become virtually unassailable, has. The simplest reason for this is that for all of its brilliance and all of its innovations, London Calling is still a conventional rock record. It is, as the phrase goes, “nothing but smashes”, delivering one brilliant track after another on a sixty minute locomotive of power.

In contrast, Sandinista! actively works to upend the ways in which music is sold and consumed under Western capitalism. Spanning three LPs and at almost two and a half hours in length, it’s almost impossible to take it all in in one sitting – and you’re not expected to. Sandinista! is not an album in the same sense that London Calling is: it is pirate radio. Sandinista! asserts itself as an environment, a playground, a street parade that you choose to enter and reenter from any angle. One you can leave when circumstances are right for exit. This manner of sound construction from the Clash allows Sandinista! to become a virtually inexhaustible listening experience.

There are, of course, the other awesome things about Sandinista! that make it so lovable. Most obviously the title is a reference to the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, and the album’s Columbia Records catalogue number is “FSLN1” for “Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional”. It’s the only Clash album to feature a lead vocal from every member of the group and the only one in which every member of the Clash is given equal writing credit. The band sacrificed royalties on the album in order to release a 3-LP package for the price normally given to a traditional one or two LP package. These are all instances where the Clash chose to discard capitalist norms of pop music profiteering to achieve the creation of a musical movement of intersectional global street music; to get those middle-class English white boys and girls to listen to Jamaican dub; to bury their beloved and famous punk sound so deep within six sides of vinyl that you have to wade through skiffle and disco to get there; to reclaim music itself as the sound of the people coming closer together.

Make it all folk music!

Now, is Sandinista! a perfect album? I think perfect is unproductive. God is perfect. But when we discard the notion of perfection as something to strive for, discard the desire for worship, and instead replace it with a genuine radically inclusive collaboration as the Clash did, that’s when we come closer to finding ourselves.


Dave Toropov is a writer and activist.

Michfest Is Dying of Bigotry

The 39th annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michfest) came to an end on August 10. But a bigoted policy of excluding transgender women from attendance threatens the future of the festival.

As she does every year, founder Lisa Vogel wrote a post-festival letter of gratitude and “next steps” to attendees. Her outpouring of love and admiration for festivalgoers was juxtaposed with clear and deep concerns about the future of the fest.

As the largest all-women’s festival in the world moves towards its 40th year, organizers’ defense of exclusionary policies have created a climate that is the opposition of Michfest’s stated intention of creating a welcoming and healing space for people who desperately need it.

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Ce N’est Pas Mon Corps: Celebrity Photo Leaks and the Treachery of Images

Roland Barthes claims that the photograph repeats what can never be repeated existentially. It is the “That-has-been” or the Intractable. The moment, the person, the thing, which has been captured can no longer be again — and yet it will always be. Understanding the relationship between a photograph and its subject requires nuance, the image is after all of the subject, but is not the subject itself. Misconceptions organized around this contradictory status have flared up in the recent scandal involving images of nude celebrities that have been leaked to the internet.

Yet before another piece about this photo leak can begin, it must be said that there was absolutely no adequate media response about this breach of privacy for these celebrities. More importantly perhaps, was that some of the women whose photos were made public — namely the black celebrities — were hardly mentioned at all. Women’s bodies are never granted protection in this society. However countless more abuses are visited upon the bodies of women of color. This is because black women’s bodies have always been seen as the common property of America. This is why Jill Scott, a black vocalist whose images were also leaked along with those of Jennifer Lawrence etc, was left out of the initial outrage.

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Labor Intensive: In Defense of Sex Work

The attempted murder of Christy Mack is sickening. On August 8th, Mack’s former partner Jonathan Koppenhaver (also known by his Mixed Martial Arts name “War Machine”) broke into Mack’s house; for hours he viciously beat her, threatened to kill her and sexually assaulted her. Only after he left the room did Mack manage to escape with her life. At the end of it all she had 18 broken bones in her face, shattered and knocked out teeth, broken ribs and a ruptured liver. Her leg was so badly injured by Koppenhaver that Mack has trouble walking.

The public response to this heinous act has been equally gut-wrenching. Right-wing pundits and internet commentators have trotted out a predictable but no less destructive line: that Mack’s history as a pornographic actor somehow made her deserving of this horrifying abuse and torture. It is unfortunately par for the course, a continuation of the vicious and disgusting cycle of victim-blaming and slut-shaming that normalizes violence against sex workers.

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Kathleen Hanna Saved My Life

“I’ll resist with every inch and every breath, I’ll resist this psychic death.”

I fell in love with punk rock when I was thirteen and I had a very brutal and jarring entrance into the scene. I was protesting the war in the Middle East and going to anti-fur rallies and fighting for reproductive justice, but in the punk rock scene, as I experienced it, being political wasn’t considered “punk.” The Clash, one of my favorite bands, incorporated elements of rockabilly, reggae, ska, and funk into their music. Much of their music was charged with a leftist political ideology. They pioneered the advocacy of radical politics in punk rock. But then I wasn’t considered punk because I was “too political;” I was not accepted by the punk rock community. Something happened, something changed in those years between the Clash and me.  See there were currents running within Punk — it’s not that punk was dead or anything, it just seemed to have forgotten who it was.

I wasn’t a “real punk rocker” because I was obsessed with Kathleen Hanna and riot grrrl bands. Male punks told me that those chicks couldn’t play their instruments and that those bands were worthless. Punk rock women have even outright laughed in my face when I have attempted to discuss feminism, or riot grrrl music. Feminist was a dirty word in venues. The majority of the women I met in the punk rock scene would sneer at the word "feminist" -- to them, feminists were lesbian man-haters, or were gross for not shaving their legs -- feminists weren’t “real women.”

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