The following article by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh was first posted by Socialist Democracy (Ireland). It examines the complex links between music, religion and opposes the approach taken by many Liberals and Anarchists struggle, which can reinforce the Right in social struggles of the oppressed.
MUSIC, RELIGION AND STRUGGLE
Religion, struggle and music have gone hand in hand, though, for quite some time. It is not that surprising. Many lefties would be surprised to find out where some of their favourite songs and tunes come from or what happened to them afterwards.
That religion and music should blend easily in periods of struggle is not that surprising. Old man Marx gave us more than a hint in his oft abused quote on religion and opium. He wasn’t condemning religion in that particular quote, he did quite a lot of that elsewhere, but was rather explaining what its social role had been. He described it thus.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.(1)
So, it should come as no surprise that some, not all religious or religiously inspired music, should deal with social issues or a yearning to be free from oppression. Nor should it surprise us that some of these songs have crept into the secular vernacular at times of heightened struggle, sometimes in conjunction with believers in religious superstition and on other occasions in direct opposition to them.
The US folk singer Utah Phillips once remarked that the Salvation Army used to break up public union meetings by marching their bands down the street playing religious tunes. According to him the Wobblies (the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World) used to borrow the tunes and put new lyrics to them because the tunes were pretty and people knew them and they wrote lyrics that made better sense and thus thwarted the Salvation Army’s attempts at union busting. However, one of the songs he sang from that period was Solidarity Forever. The tune is a religious tune, Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us(2) (I have included links to songs where available). It went on to become associated with a song celebrating the life of the abolitionist John Brown, in the song John Brown’s Body. Though a song about a political struggle against slavery, it was unsurprisingly full of religious imagery, and Brown himself was quite the fervent evangelical. His body moulders in the grave, but his soul apparently went marching on. Pete Seeger would revive this song.(3) And before the Wobblies ever did their own version it reached its maximum religious expression in The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a song written in a Union army camp during the American Civil War that cast that war in a religious almost apocalyptic light of the final fight between good and evil, with its lines of “As he died to make men holy. Let us die to make men free.” For many outside the folk circuit, it is this version that is not only sung in the US as a patriotic song, but is sung in many churches around the world as a religious anthem. With the Wobblies it came full circuit and was rid of its religious imagery and was neatly a song of struggle calling for the destruction of the established order and not the individual religious transformation.
When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run.
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.
It is not the only time religious songs have dealt with earthly suffering as part of what Marx referred to as an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Other religious tunes would find their way into the secular world and even stay there, thanks to struggles and not religious superstition, though in some cases the lyrics changed. Pete Seeger was not only one for singing such songs with no changes, he also revived others and changed them to make more sense as Utah Phillips would put it.
Seeger’s revived a version of How can I keep from singing? a Christian hymn written in 1868 is one such example. It is very religious, but in Seeger’s version he makes some changes. The lines
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
Become a bit more secular with love replacing Christ as the dominant force in life, that saves, redeems and guides us.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
He also incorporated later verses added by Doris Plenn in the 1950s
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?(5)
Here of course, singing is also raising your voice, and making it heard on issues, very often involving political prisoners. This might be an obscure example, even for the generation that first heard it sung in the 1950s & 1960s during protests. However, there are other examples of secular movements borrowing religious songs whole hog, and turning them into anthems albeit with some changes such as substituting the word heaven with freedom and so forth. We shall not be moved, became a protest song in the 1960s, not only in the US, but also in Ireland and other parts. The Freedom Singers version sung at the March on Washington in 1963 managed to hang on to that religious feeling.(6) Other versions by Pete Seeger not so much.(7)
This song though is often sung in a religious context as I shall not be moved.(8) It did not require much to become a political song, just a political context and some minor changes. Its origins are disputed to some degree, though it is a spiritual song attributed to black slaves before emancipation.(9) It was popularised in 1930s labour struggles before it became popular again in the 1960s. It was even translated into Spanish and recorded by Adolfo Celdrán as an anti-francoist song.(10) His version is very upbeat and the lyrics are somewhat changed, though the chorus is a straightforward translation of the original.
Of course, the 1960s was a period of musical explosion with the folk song, jazz and blues revival and the mainstreaming of them all along with new musical forms such as soul and of course the mainstreaming of gospel. So, it should come as no surprise that old songs, some with a very religious flavour were revived, nor that gospel should give a voice to black communities fighting against Jim Crow in the South and discrimination throughout the US. One such song was Oh Freedom, which mixed religious salvation in the hereafter with freedom from slavery in the here and now.
Oh, freedom over me!
And before I’d be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.
And of course, there is that most famous of protest songs from the 1950s and 1960s, We Shall Overcome. It has a longer and more convoluted history than some of the others. The tune itself comes partly from two religious songs, Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners and O Sanctissima,(11) taking the lyrics also from a gospel song I’ll Overcome Someday,(12) undergoing some changes in the black tobacco workers strike of 1945-46. Then Pete Seeger got his hands on it, changed some the lyrics again and made it into what it is now known as,(13) echoing what he claims his father used to say to him, that plagiarism was the basis of all culture.
Though some songs went in the opposite direction. One of the most popular country/gospel songs is I’ll Fly Away.(14) The lyrics are clearly escapist, they are a perfect summary of religion being the opium of the people that deadens the pain and makes it all that more tolerable. Despite what is being said about the influence of religious songs here in this article, religion is not a force for liberation, even though people have turned to it on occasions in times of struggle.
Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, oh Glory
I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joy shall never end
I’ll fly away
It couldn’t be clearer. Death relieves all pain (technically true, as the corpse no longer feels) and there is some free from pain reward in the afterlife, one that is not available in the current actual real life. But this song was inspired by some lines from a secular song The Prisoner’s Song,(15) recorded by Vernon Dalhart in 1925(16) and later by various country artists such as Johnny Cash.(17) This crossover or inspiration was less common.
The US, a deeply religious society was not the only one to find such musical influences in songs of struggle. Ireland’s canon of songs of struggle and indeed ordinary folk and traditional songs is replete with references to gods, faith etc. Though it is not as common as you would think and I know of no examples of religious songs becoming secular songs of struggle, other than some of those borrowed from movements in the US where this transition had already taken place. I don’t have enough knowledge of other parts of the world, but it is safe to say some such crossovers took place. The ANC anthem N’Kosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was a religious song.(18) The title means God Bless Africa, though it was incorporated as the new national anthem with verses from the previous Apartheid anthem as part of the deal with white and transnational capital.
In Latin America, given the influence of Liberation Theology it is not surprising to find lots of religious references in songs of struggle, from Argentina up to Mexico with Cuba being a notable exception to this. Nicaraguan musicians such as the Mejía Godoy brothers were famous for it with songs such as Christ from Palacagüina.(19) In the song the child Jesus defiantly tells his mother that he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a rheumatic carpenter, but rather wants to become a guerrilla fighter. Of course, when the guerrilla priest Camilo Torres joined Colombia’s ELN and was killed in combat, it lead Uruguayan singer/song writer Daniel Viglietti to write his song Cross of Light.(20) Camilo Torres had famously stated that it wasn’t important whether we believed the soul was mortal or not, as we all agreed that the human body was.
They say that following the bullet a voice was heard
It was God shouting: Revolution!
General, inspect the cassocks
A sacristan has a place in the guerrillas.
There were of course other responses that were more unforgiving of not only the reactionary role of the Catholic Church and religion in general but even questioning the idea of the Christian god. The Argentinian, Atahualpa Yupanqui in his song Little Questions for God, famously recorded by Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, murdered by Pinochet, puts it very bluntly.
There is an issue on earth
More important than God
And it is that nobody coughs up blood
For someone else to live better…
Does God look out for the poor?
Perhaps he does, perhaps not
But he surely dines
At the boss’s table.(21)
So, what is the purpose of this article? Other than an interesting historical perusal of the origins of certain popular songs. To say that our cultures are complex and are woven with a fabric made of many threads, some of them obscured in the haze of history by now. There are those on the left who moralise and see themselves as being above it all and holier than thou (pun intended). Pious priestly anarchists and woke types for the most part, who think they have cast off all vestiges of the past and institutions that they, correctly reject. But our society is a complex mix of the social forces that produced it, from the Methodist preachers involved in the first attempts to set up trade unions, such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs to liberation theologists in Latin America praying out of the barrel of a gun, having in many cases, the same negligible effect as praying to the mythical invisible man in the sky, but that is a matter for another day. Theology is theology at the end of the day.
The other part of Marx’s quote on religion that is often ignored by people who have either never read him or get their politics from Facebook memes is.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo…
When people engage in struggle, they embark on a path towards tearing down that halo, but it is not an overnight process, something the Anarchists could never get their head round in their discussions with Marx, who was not in favour of wasting too much time convincing people that there was no soul, but rather in fighting for their real material bodies. So, people in struggle adopted some of the songs to the new circumstances or continued, as they fought, to seek solace in the songs of their particular religious superstition. What should they replace them with?
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
Yes, there are lots of songs from cultures all around the world that have no religious references. But this is a process and does not happen overnight. Rejection of religious superstition generally flows from people engaging in struggle, it is not the impetus to struggle. Many famous atheists such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or Stephen Fry are reactionary dyed in the world imperialists with a penchant for singling out Islam above all religions. Dawkins once infamously remarked whilst sitting in a stereotypical English park setting that the tolling of Anglican bells was somehow genteel when compared to the Muslim call to prayer, which he described as harsh.(22) The man’s musical taste is shite, to put it bluntly, but it is not the case that people who reject religious superstition embrace more progressive ideas.
Stephen Fry for example, had little to say about Palestinians and accepted Israeli propaganda in his Alternative Christmas Address. Hitchens was all gung-ho for the Iraq War and Dawkins in his book The God Delusion claims what he terms the “educated elite” are more prone to atheism, which is a highly suspect affirmation for which he, the scientist offers no evidence. He goes on to then describe the Anglican Church (established church as he put it) as a pleasant pass time. His condescension for the working class and contempt is barely disguised through his book, he says less educated as he is too posh to say Chavs, or maybe even too posh to have heard the term.
Rival churches compete for congregations – not least for the fat tithes that they bring – and the competition is waged with all the aggressive hard-sell techniques of the marketplace. What works for soap flakes works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today’s less educated classes. In England, by contrast, religion under the aegis of the established church has become little more than a pleasant social pastime, scarcely recognizable as religious at all.(23)
So, these religious songs that talk of the human condition and those that were adopted and/or adapted in the process of people’s struggles are to be celebrated, not mocked or frowned upon. It is through their struggles that they will leave religious superstition behind, and not just the rational result of education. Meanwhile, open some wine, put on some music and if you can’t enjoy Mahalia Jackson singing some gospel, then you are wasting both the wine and the electricity and need to broaden your musical horizons and stop hanging around with Pious Priestly Anarchists.
(1) Marx, K (1844) A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right www.marxists.org
(9) See Hawn, C.M.(02/02/2023) History of Hymns: ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-i-shall-not-be-moved
(10) Sabatella, M. (n/d) We Shall Not Be Moved: About the Song. https://balladofamerica.org/we-shall-not-be-moved/
(23) Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London. Bantam Press p.41