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In the wake of the Baltimore Uprising, blogger Ryan Harvey looks at international folk songs that remember martyrs killed by police and those repressed by the state while fighting for liberation.
Last week, my hometown saw the
largest riots and protests since 1968, ignited by yet another killing of an unarmed black man by police. After a number of street fights, massive demonstrations, and fires in Baltimore, the Maryland State’s Attorney announced that all
six of the cops involved had been arrested and brought up on charges. Since it has been
well documented in the press and in social media, I won’t go into details here about last week (also, I am exhausted from it and don’t know where to start in telling that story in writing).
But, I did put together the following list of folk songs from all over the world to remember martyrs killed by police and those repressed by the state while fighting for liberation. From the Nazi concentration camps to the fight against the destruction of Palestine, from the U.S.-backed dictatorships of Egypt to the American South and Apartheid South Africa, these songs reflect on the sadness of loss but also on the strength it takes to face your enemy with a clear clear conscience, keeping your eyes on the prize.
As you watch, read my descriptions below, and familiarize yourself with some of these amazing artists and revolutionaries.
Odetta- Gallow’s Pole
Originally recorded by Lead Belly in 1939, this song is from the perspective of a black prisoner facing execution for not having enough money to pay his way out of jail. As Lead Belly said, “In olden times years ago, when you put a man in prison behind the bars in a jailhouse, if you had fifteen or twenty-five or thirty dollars you could save him from the gallows pole 'cause they gonna hang him if you don't bring up a little money.”
Ciáran Murphy - 9 Hours
Ciaran Murphy is based in Belfast and was a dissident-Republican political prisoner from 2003-06 in Northern Ireland. While he was in jail his father died and he was paroled for nine hours to attend the funeral in South Armagh. Nine Hours tell that story. Many of his songs were written during that jail period, though he has many recent songs covering a broad spectrum of left-wing/libertarian socialist/Irish Republican topics and perspectives.
Sheikh Imam - اتجمعوا العشاق (The Lovers Gathered)
The lyrics to this song were written by Egyptian poet, activist, and then political prisoner Zein al-Abinie Fouad (The Poet of the Peasants), and were smuggled out of his cell in 1978 during his imprisonment for “writing poems that incite against the regime” under Anwar Sadat. Still an activist, Zein said recently “I am always present in the street and in Tahrir Square at all the critical moments and all the protests. I cried the day I heard people singing The Lovers Gathered, which became an anthem of the revolution.” The song here is performed by Egyptian poet Sheikh Imam.
Pete Seeger - Sacco’s Letter to his Son
Pete Seeger took words that Italian anarchist Nicola Sacco had written to his son in the years leading to his execution (1927), and turned them into this song. A chilling, peaceful melody, the song was meant to inspire those fighting for freedom to not live in fear of repression if they were doing work that needed to be done. The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti saw massive protests, and a number of bombings targeting people close to the case. Ten thousand people attended the funeral, and strikes and violent demonstrations broke out across the United States, Europe, South America, Japan, and South Africa.
Sweet Honey in the Rock - Biko/If You Had Lived
The corner stone of social justice gospel and Black spirituals Sweet Honey in the Rock memorializes the South African anti-Apartheid activist and student leader Steven Biko in this song. Biko was active in Black self-determination groups, in supporting political prisoners, and he played a role in the Soweto Uprising of 1976, where tens of thousands of students demonstrated and hundreds were killed. Biko was arrested three years later and tortured to death in custody at the Port Elizabeth prison. The song talks about other heroes and martyrs of black liberation movements, and draws connections between Apartheid and the American South.
Tom Paxton - The Death of Steven Biko
Greenwich Village legend Tom Paxton’s ballad about South African radical and black liberation activist Steven Biko (described above). Recorded in the early 1990’s, Paxton’s ballad was originally penned in 1979 and released as a single on Vanguard Records.
Fabrizio de André - Nella Mia Ora di Libertà (During my Hour of Freedom)
The last song of a concept album released in 1973 by Italian anarchist singer Fabrizio de André. The album, Storia di un Impiegato (Story of a White-collar Worker) is based on the social unrest of 1968. It’s the story of a 30-year-old white collar worker, who initially doesn’t understand why people are fighting in the streets, but later comes to sympathize with the rebellious. His new born anger against the system takes shape in an individual act: he becomes a “bomber,” attacking the Parliament. As a consequence of his action he ends up in prison. Nella mia ora di libertà’ talks about his experience in prison, where he finally finds the collective dimension he couldn’t see before.
Buffy Sainte-Marie - The Big Ones Get Away
Canadian-Cree folk singer and electronic musician Buffy Sainte-Marie was writing songs about Vietnam before the anti-war movement really caught up, and fell into the scene with the Greenwich Village folkies by the mid 60’s. Unfortunately, the racism and sexism of American culture meant the her most popular works with made most famous when white men covered them. After transitioning away from folk music and taking a 16-year hiatus, she recorded the album “Coincidences and Likely Stories,” a dark, political look at the American Indian Movement, the FBI’s role in disrupting Native activism, and the framing of Chippewa/Lakota political-prisoner Leonard Peltier. The Big Ones Get Away is a cut from that album, and it sums up the general theme.
Jim Page - Leonard Peltier
Seattle’s Jim Page takes on the story of Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier, an activist of the American Indian Movement accused of a 1975 killing of an FBI agent at the height of the American Indian Movement. Leonard’s case has long been criticized by human rights groups, and he has long been a hero of activists and radicals across the United States.
Hannes Wader - Die Moorsoldaten
German leftist activist and songwriter Hannes Wader performs one of Germany’s most infamous folk songs, written by leftist prisoners of the Nazi regime. The lyrics were originally penned in a concentration camp outside Börgermoor by the miner Johann Esser and actor Wolfgang Langhoff. This recording is from a metal worker’s union meeting in the late 1980’s. Though he has left his political song behind, for the better part of two decades, Wader penned many topical folk songs, including one about kidnapping a business magnate that got him investigated for terrorism (the German left was quite militant in the 70’s and 80’s, and bombings, kidnapping, and armed-attack were not rare).
Barry Gilder - Matola Song
A number of years after writing this song, Barry Gilder became head of intelligence for the African National Congress struggling against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. After the fall of Apartheid, Gilder entered politics, holding a number of top-level intelligence positions. Matola Song is about the police murder of Gilder’s friend and fellow revolutionary Mduduzi ‘Manitoba’ Guma during a raid on ANC safe-houses in the Mozambique capital Maputo in 1981. The two had met in an ANC training camp in Mozambique before Gilder fled into exile.
Leadbelly - Duncan and Brady
Originally written in 1929 by Wilmer Watts & The Lonely Eagles, Duncan and Brady, the song is based on the true story of a barkeeper killing a cop in St. Louis. This recording was recorded in 1947 by Lead Belly, who spent over a decade in prison (and once escaped). Many of his original recordings were done in the Angola Prison in Louisiana, a former slave-plantation turned State prison.
Sinéad O’Connor - Black Boys on Mopeds
Written after the death of Black teenager Nicholas Bramble during a police chase in England in 1989. Like Freddie Grey, Bramble had committed no crime but was chased down, and during the pursuit crashed his moped (which police falsely claimed was stolen) and died. The song touches also on the economic policies pushed onto England by Margaret Thatcher.
Joan Baez - The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti
Similar to Pete Seeger’s Sacco’s Letter to his Son, Joan Baez constructed this song using letters written by Sacco’s fellow martyr, Italian anarchist martyr Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The lyrics were excerpts from letters he wrote before his execution in 1927.
Bob Dylan - Only a Pawn in Their Game
A song about the death of Medgar Evers, in which Bob Dylan paints a portrait of Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered of Medgar Evers. Dylan contextualizes the murder within the history of the purposeful, top-down positioning of the white American working-class along racist, xenophobic lines. Beckwith was not finally convicted of Evers’ murder until 1994, 31 years after the crime shook the Civil Rights movement, after already serving another prison sentence for a planned assissnation of a local Jewish leader in New Orleans.
Palestine Traditional - من سجن عكا
A traditional Palestinian folk song about three martyrs executed at Akka prison during the Arab Revolt in 1930 (Fouad Hejazi, Mohamad Jamjoum, and Atta Al Zeir), before the Nakba drove almost a million Palestinians from their homes to make way for the creation of Israel. The martyrs had been participants in the uprising.
Jack Warshaw - No Time For Love
Made famous both as a cover by Ireland’s Christy Moore, the chorus of this song was also used by early 80’s British anarcho-punk band The Mob as the first verse of their song “Cry of the Morning.” But it was originally recorded by Jack Warshaw in 1979. Warshaw grew up in the United States but moved to England as a young man, where he stayed and participated for decades in radical left causes and as a protest singer.
Ali Primera - Canción Para Los Valientes
A song by Venezuelan leftist and Nueva Cancion legend Ali Primera memorializing some of the heroes and martyrs of Chile, some of whom died in police/military custody. Among these individuals were Violeta Parra, who took her own life in 1970; President Salvador Allende, who was murdered during the 1973 coup; Víctor Jara, who was publicly executed shortly after the coup; and Pablo Neruda, who died two weeks later.
Phil Ochs - Too Many Martyrs
Phil Ochs penned this song about Medgar Evers, a World War Two veteran and Civil Rights activist who was assassinated by a member of the White Citizens Council named Byron De La Beckwith (also a World War II veteran) in 1963. Evers was active as a student at the University of Mississippi and with the Mississippi NAACP.
Tracy Chapman - Behind the Wall
Performed live during the 70th birthday celebration for Nelson Mandela, Tracy Chapman emphasizes the implicit reality that police often ignore calls for help from those experiencing domestic violence.