Saturday, November 29, 2014

Various Artists – Songs of the Spanish Civil War, Volumes 1 & 2

Songs of the Spanish Civil War, Volumes 1 & 2
Smithsonian Folkways

Between 1936 and 1939, prior to the Second World War, as fascism spread through parts of Europe, Spain’s fascists under Francisco Franco, with the military support of Hitler and Mussolini, fought a civil war against Spain’s democratically elected government. While the governments of the Western democracies in Europe and the Americas were not yet prepared to stand against the fascist evil that was seeking to conquer the world, about 40,000 young men from 52 countries went to Spain as volunteers in five International Brigades to fight fascism on behalf of the Republican, or Loyalist, side.

Among those volunteers were more than 1500 Canadians who formed the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XV International Brigade and about 2800 Americans who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. (One of the highest ranking members of the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, its political commissar, was John Gates (Solomon Regenstreif), who later became editor of the Daily Worker newspaper.)

Songs of the Spanish Civil War, Volumes 1 & 2 is a new CD that compiles two LPs of released by Folkways Records in 1961 and ’62. Those LPs were compilations of Spanish Civil War songs drawn from a variety of sources.

Volume 1, Part 1, originally released as Songs of the Lincoln Brigade, comprises six selections recorded in 1943 or ’44 in New York City by a group put together by Pete Seeger (then on a furlough from the U.S. Army). The section begins with Tom Glazer singing “Jarama Valley,” a song in English to the tune of “Red River Valley,” that was popular in Spain among members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Most of these songs – including “Viva La Quince Brigada (Long Live the 15th Brigade),” sung by Pete, and “Si Me Quieres Escribir (If You Want to Write to Me),” sung by the entire ensemble – would remain inspiring standards of the folk revival for many decades to come. I think Pete included at least one or more of them in virtually every one of the many concerts I saw him do over the years.

Volume 1, Part 2, originally released as Six Songs for Democracy, was recorded in Spain in 1938 in the midst of the war by Ernst Busch, a German singer and actor who was a volunteer with the International Brigades. Busch had fled Germany after the rise to power of the Nazis and his contributions include both Spanish songs like “Los Cuatro Generales (The Four Generals)” and German pieces like Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s “Das Lied Von Der Einheitsfront (Song of the United Front).” Among the most poignant songs Busch sings is “Die Moorsoldaten (The Peat Bog Soldiers),” a song written by prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp at Börgermoor and smuggled to Spain.

Volume 2, Part 1, begins with Woody Guthrie’s version of “Jarama Valley” and then continues with for more songs sung by Ernst Busch. From the sound quality, and because a couple of them feature an orchestra, I’m sure these were recorded much later than Busch’s selections from Volume 1.

Volume 2, Part 2, subtitled Songs We Remember, is a set of two songs and an instrumental are field recordings, each recorded in a different part of Spain during the 1930, featuring unidentified singers and musicians. Although these selections do not particularly pertain to the Spanish Civil War, they were included as a tribute to the feelings the members of the International Brigades had for the people of Spain.

Volume 2, Part 3, is a set of four songs from Behind the Barbed Wire, an album recorded in New York City in 1938 featuring Bart van der Schelling, a Dutch singer who had been wounded while fighting in Spain, and the Exiles Chorus, led by Earl Robinson. The songs from Behind the Barbed Wire, variously sung in Italian, German and French, were all songs that had been sung in concentration camps where anti-fascists had been imprisoned.

The recordings reissued on Songs of the Spanish Civil War, Volumes 1 & 2 are an inspiring reminder of a time when thousands of idealists from around the world did what they believed needed to be done to save the world from the scourge of fascism that would soon lead to the Second World War and the Holocaust – despite the fact that their own governments were not yet prepared to take a stand.

Two other albums of Spanish Civil War songs that I highly recommend, and which include much later interpretations of many of these same songs are Pasiones: Songs of the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Jamie O’Reilly and Michael Smith and Spain In My Heart: Songs of the Spanish Civil War sung by a variety of contemporary artists.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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