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Singing Songs of Resistance

Jacob Perl
October 9, 2017


by Jacob L. Perl

JUST BEFORE ROSH HASHANAH in Madison, Wisconsin, someone spray-painted swastikas on a monument to the Wisconsin volunteers of of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. The battalion was one of the international volunteer brigades that had come from across the world to try to defend the Spanish republic from the fascist military coup undertaken in 1936. “Trump rules,” the graffiti read. “Antifa sucks.” The monument stands next to an old shul, now owned and rented by the city to contra-dancers, wedding parties, groups holding shabbos potlucks and the like.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, with hard rain outside, I spoke to musician Dan Kaufman of the NYC-based band, Barbez, in Madison, where he had grown up and was visiting. We spoke about the band’s new album, For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from The Spanish Civil War. Kaufman had agreed to the interview before the vandalism, but the events of the day colored our conversation.


Hi Dan, where are you coming from?

Bizarrely, there was a swastika painted on the Lincoln Brigade monument in Madison. I was there at this vigil, because I knew Clarence Kailin -- the legendary vet that got that monument built.

He was a wonderful man. I first got enamored with the story of the Lincoln Brigade through a visit he made to my high school. His granddaughter was at the high school and was a friend. So he spoke to us and it stayed with me. And when I got to New York, I found out about these reunions they were holding still. I was kind of surprised by that. I did not realize that there would be many left, and when I first started going in maybe 2004, there was maybe 30 vets that were present, and maybe still 100 alive across the country. They have an annual reunion and celebration in the Bay Area, too. So anyways that is how it started. And I started writing about them and got to know several of them, and wrote a couple of long pieces for the Nation and for the Times, more profile pieces.

Can you describe the album for us?

The album is a collection of songs sung during the Spanish Civil War by the International Brigades. The International Brigades were volunteers from 52 countries, I think -- about 35,000 people came to Spain to defend the democracy against the fascist revolt that was backed by Hitler and Mussolini. These songs were sung there and they were learned by the American volunteers, and some of them were created by them. One of these songs is called “Peat Bog Soldiers” in English. It was the song written in the first concentration camp in Germany by the prisoners there. They were mostly leftist and communist prisoners. Paul Robeson, when he went to Spain, sang that to the International Brigades. A lot of these songs are Spanish folk melodies with new lyrics that were written to reflect the conflict.

The songs were taken back by the Lincoln Brigade veterans. Some of them were friendly with Pete Seeger, who famously recorded them in the early ‘40s for a predecessor to the Folkways label that was owned by the same man -- Moe Asch. It was released as Songs of the Lincoln Battalion, an iconic document of the American left. Several of the songs from our album were on that collection.

The Lincoln Brigade might have been the most important touchstone of the ‘30s for the American left. In the 60s they often marched in civil rights demonstrations, and against the Vietnam War. They were incredible people.

We recorded the album live at the annual celebration of the Lincoln Brigade in New York. And it is sponsored every year by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, which is a scholarly nonprofit group which tries to preserve and promote the legacy of the Lincoln Brigade for new generations.

The singer is a wonderful woman named Velina Brown who is from the Bay Area and has led the singing at the reunions there a lot. And the singing is always a high point for the community. It is kind of a communion for some very secular people. During “The Internationale” people will stand and they will sing along. It is a moving event, and the story of the Lincoln Brigade is told, and photographs are shown.

To my lay ears, the songs feel emotionally complex. The marimba feels like it is doing something different emotionally than the guitar, which is doing something different emotionally than the singer. Can you talk about the collaboration process?

I think we were going for a kind of rock feel. We tried to honor these songs more literally than we might have because of the community we were singing them for. But we also wanted to make them our own. So we added touches. I tried to bring a rock energy to the music, but not push it too far away from what the community was familiar with.

Velina is a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. She comes out of the theater world and is an amazing singer. All of us come from different backgrounds: Jazz, Classical, Rock. We are an odd, hybrid group.

It was a really magical day and we were also responding to the audience.

There is more directness about the songs than what we usually do. It was the ‘30s, right? They went to Spain to fight fascism. It was a clear objective and they were forceful and committed people. It is different in modern times, although some of those themes are re-emerging. In music probably since the mid-’60s, a lot has been about the personal -- the singer-songwriter. When Dylan changed from talking about other people to more talking about his own experience -- he made great music doing both things, and one is not superior, but there was more of an inward-looking-ness. These songs are more outward looking.

Part of it has got to be hard. Some of the songs refer to things like fighting the “final battle.” But we know now that the Spanish Republic lost. That has got to add emotional complexity to it.

Absolutely. It is a very, very heavy story. Men and women went there to risk their lives, and to fight for a cause that was probably pretty clearly not going to come out well. They probably knew they were going to lose when they went. I think Abe Osheroff [a vet whose voice was featured on the album -- JP] captures their spirits very well when he says, “Spain was a place where I learned that it did not matter if you we were going to win or lose, you had to resist.” And I think that captures them. They were looking at the long game, and if they did not do anything, that was far worse than going there and trying. And many of them fought in World War II and they did help defeat fascism.

Ironically, they were called “premature anti-fascists” by the United States government in some cases, and not treated well at all. They were hounded during the McCarthy era, and they often had difficulty getting jobs. The vets’ organization was outlawed. Many of them were called before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. And in World War II, many of them were not allowed to have combat duty, even though they had combat experience.

It was tragic on many levels, but they did not see themselves tragically. They were very proud of what they did in Spain. They only thought they should have done more, which is kind of heartbreaking when you think of how much they did, and that they had such a commitment to the Spanish people, and a feeling of solidarity that is probably foreign to our 21st-century mentality.

To expand this theme, Abe Osheroff is dubbed over one of the songs saying “how can I get up in front of the crowd and talk about supporting the Spanish Republic when people are going over there to fight?” What does that mean for us today?

Having known them, I think it means be involved in your community, in whatever way that is right for you. Don’t be passive. Everybody has a different path, but I think they would encourage a kind of forceful activism.

There is a bitter irony and maybe a weird symbolism that the last veteran died last year and then you saw the re-emergence of the exact kind [of thing they were fighting against]. People talked about fascism emerging for a long time, but this is... they just vandalized a monument to the Lincoln Brigade with a swastika! So there is definitely something about this time that is tying itself to the ‘30s.

That is one of the motivations of making the record. I wanted people to think about that, and remember that people did not just stand by and take it. They pushed back in this incredible, heroic way. They did not have any arms. The Soviet Union and Mexico were the only countries to help, and yet they did it anyway. I just hope the record might inspire people to do something -- whether it is protest in Charlottesville, or just be a more active member of your community.

Are there any groups today who are brave or out there in a similar way to the Lincoln Brigade?

A lot of people. I do not think of leaders. I think of the first travel ban, when people all showed up at the airport. That reminded me of the kind of no pasaran spirit. We are not going to let you do that to people. And [the people who protested at the airports] were people who were not going to be affected necessarily at that moment, but they sought a kind of solidarity with the other people who were affected. I thought that really embodied a similar sentiment [to the Lincoln Brigade volunteers]. These were just ordinary citizens. And most of the Lincoln Brigade members were not celebrity volunteers. They were working class people, a lot of them, and trade unionists. Some students, some artists, some intellectuals, and a lot of people in the labor movement. Committed communists some, and some not. The Communist Party did organize a lot of them, but not everyone in the Lincoln Brigade was a communist. But the communists had the most effective organization.

So you brought up this sentiment earlier from Osheroff. On the album you hear him say you resist whether you win or lose, and that struck me as very Jewish. “The work is not ours to complete but neither are we free to desist from it.”

Listen, a third of the [Lincoln Brigade] volunteers were Jewish. So there is definitely a thread there. I am not saying more than that, but it is interesting. And obviously it was a way to fight against Hitler, too, before World War II.

I think also Jews know that we lose often. This is part of what we remember.

Right. Maybe we are OK with it. We have lost so many times, it’s like, Let’s just keep fighting, because what else can we do?

But I do think pushing back is important as a symbol. Spain presaged World War II in a lot of ways. It did cost [the fascists], and I think that was important as strategic resistance. It rallied people. It awakened them to something terrifying that was soon going to [be] much more widespread.

Some people refer to World War II as the continuation of the Spanish Civil War. Spain was just the first battle. At the time, it was called a dress rehearsal for World War II in French magazines. And sometimes you will lose. There’s an amazing quote by Camus:

Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts. It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.

It was a rude awakening. Because the moral sides were very clear. A lot of vets who I talked to only wanted to talk about the politics and the morality of it. They had had inquiries from military historians and some of them would talk about that, but they did not want to decontextualize it from why they were doing it. And most of them joined Veterans for Peace. They were not a warlike group. They went reluctantly, but they went committedly. Not reluctantly because they did not want to help, but war [for them] was really the last resort. What else could they do? Franco killed half a million people, 36 years of dictatorship, so it was a terrible, terrible outcome.

You are an important figure in Jewish music. What other bands do you think the Jewish community should be noticing today?

I do not think I am such an important figure in the Jewish music community -- in all honesty, my stuff is somewhat tangentially related to Judaism. Our last record was more directly so, and actually the previous one too, which was about Paul Celan. Musically, I come out of American underground music, punk rock, and classical music. So I am not versed in that much. I knew the synagogue music because I grew up with it. So that is there.

I think the people around John Zorn [are worth noticing]. There is a great clarinetist, Jeremiah Cymerman, in New York. But everybody is straddling a lot of genres. I do not think Jewish music exists in the same self-contained way that it did maybe twenty years ago. But there are some amazing Jewish musicians who do embrace Jewish music. People like Anthony Coleman. I love his band Sephardic Tinge, although they are kind of defunct, I think. All of Zorn’s Masada work is brilliant. Marc Ribot is a friend and inspiration. He does it in a more oblique way, but he is informed by his Jewishness, and Jewish tradition, as well as many other things. I am kind of tied into the New York scene -- avant-garde, experimental. This record is a little more straightforward.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The music is a tribute to the veterans of the the Lincoln Brigade. It is an homage. Any sales from the records go to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, a nonprofit that does wonderful work preserving their legacy and promoting human rights.

I think it is important that people reflect on that time, and the choices that other people made when things also appeared very dark. It is worth revisiting that story, because it has something to teach us. This music can be a rallying cry. If they start sending people who were born here, or brought here as small children back to Mexico, or another country they have never been to, that is a kind of fascism.

We need to think about that message of solidarity that was so strong in that era. There is a famous quote that Hemingway uses that is pretty amazing by John Donne. Donne said, “ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” But the rest of the quote is really interesting. He says, “each death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” I think that is the spirit of the volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War. It was this practically hopeless endeavor going against the machinery they were going against. Yet they tried, and they set a moral example that will endure. And nothing of the other side endures in any meaningful way. It is a testament to the bravery of human beings. Even though they lost, they won so much.

Spain is now a democracy and now they are venerated. They went back there and they were greeted with flowers, as they should have been. And I hope that people will just enjoy the music – you can just listen to it without knowing any of that history too. They are great songs. I hope that we do them justice.


For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War came out on October 6. It is available for order by clicking here. For a list of upcoming shows, click here. To listen to a preview track for the album, “Venga Jaleo,” click here. To listen to “L’Internationale” performed by Barbez with Velina Brown, look below.

Jacob L. Perl, a member of our editorial board, is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin, and working in the medical field.