The long tradition of protest songs | Music | DW | 04.05.2013
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The long tradition of protest songs

A demonstration has to make noise - and that's one reason musical accompaniment is often a must at protest marches. DW reviews some of the songs associated with International Workers' Day on May 1.

"The Internationale" is the quintessential hymn of the workers' movement. The French communist and transport worker Eugene Pottier wrote the lyrics in 1871. He belonged to the "Paris Commune," a municipal council representing proletarian-socialist interests that aimed to introduce revolutionary reforms for workers.

Unsurprisingly, the conservative central government in Versailles was less than pleased with the council's plans. Two months after the Paris Commune's founding, it was brutally suppressed by troops from Versailles in street fights.

Another bloody event came with the Haymarket massacre in Chicago, which began on May 1, 1886, as unions deployed a strike demanding an 8-hour workday. Until then, workers typically had to put in 11 to 13 hours on the job. But their efforts ended in disaster. Policemen stormed the square where they protested, leading to some deaths and many injuries. But the Haymarket incident only marked a brief interruption in unions' fight for better working times.

Haymarket Square riot, Chicago, 4th May 1886 United States (c) picture-alliance/KPA/Top_Photo

An artist's rendering of the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago in May 1886

International Workers' Day

In 1889, the Second International was formed - a worldwide coalition of socialist parties. In honor of the victims of the Haymarket riots, the group established May 1 as International Workers' Day. A year later, that day was marked by massive strikes and demonstrations in many parts of the world. In the song "Talking Union," Pete Seeger urges workers to join in unions, arguing that only by working together can their demands be met.

The American strikes for better working conditions spread to other countries. In Italy, Carlo Tuzzi wrote the words to "Bandiera Rossa" in 1908, set to the melody of a Lombard folk song. With its celebration of the red flag, the symbol of the socialist movement, it would go on to become one of the world's most famous labor movement songs.

Drawing inspiration from injustice

Any time workers protested against the conditions they faced, business owners countered with massive pressure. In their view, union activists and strike leaders were undesirable agitators. One such "agitator" was the Swedish-American itinerant worker and songwriter Joe Hill, who liked to pack his criticism of working conditions into cynical songs. To dispose of him, someone falsely accused him of murder in 1910. Just before his execution, he reportedly said, "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize!"

Joe Hill achieved immortality by way of a song named after him, which was sung, among others, by Joan Baez at Woodstock.

Protestors in Dresden march with drums and other instruments (c) ullstein bild / Conrad Huenich

Musical protestors at a May 1, 1911 demonstration in Dresden

In times of financial crisis, workers often feel it first. And that became a theme of Woody Guthrie's work. In the 1930s, he lived as a hobo, tramping around the US and taking various jobs, including on plantations. A harrowing drought at the time led many farmers to abandon their land in a desperate search for new work. Their fates have found an echo in Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads."

Inseparable: Music and demonstrations

Until the Soviet bloc collapsed, May 1 was celebrated for decades there as a major holiday. Taking part in demonstrations that marched by leading party dignitaries and other guests of honor was required of schools and businesses. In the former Soviet states, workers always sang a Russian song whose title translates to "Bravely, Comrades, in Lockstep" - the hymn of the Russian Revolution.

After World War II, the German version of the song became the most often sung labor song. In the early 21st century, the fight for job security, minimum wage and higher salaries is as topical as ever. Just like their parents and grandparents, demonstrators in many parts of the world sang labor songs to mark May 1.

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