8 Revolutionary Songs You Should Know

by Michelle Schusterman Dec 6, 2011
Love is arguably the biggest inspiration for musicians; war seems to be a close second.

OR IF NOT WAR, then rebellion. Music can give people a feeling of unification, understanding, this sense that we share something fundamental, that we can change things if we work together. While not always the intent of the composer, these songs had enormous influence on revolutionary times.

The voice of Egypt

That’s Mohamed Mounir’s nickname. The Egyptian singer wrote two songs during his country’s revolution earlier this year. Much like the protests and rebellions weren’t televised, his songs were not played on Egyptian radio stations – but they reached an international audience thanks to the Internet.

The two most famous Mounir songs during this time, according to NPR, were “Ezzay,” (or “How come?”), which compares Egypt to a lover, and “#Jan25,” named for the trending Twitter topic, which begins with the lyrics “I heard them say the revolution won’t be televised / Al-Jazeera proved them wrong / Twitter has them paralyzed.”

Bread And Circuses

The Brazilian army assumed power of the country in 1964, with Castelo Branco as military president. Brazil would be under military dictatorship until 1985.

Musicians voiced their discontent over these developments through a style of music that became known as Tropícalía. Bossa nova and samba, the popular and traditional styles at the time, were fused with blues, rock, jazz, folk, and many other genres in an attempt to create a “universal sound,” along with politically and socially charged lyrics.

The movement was led by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, who were imprisoned by their government for seven months in 1969 before being released under exile. The two lived in London for four years before returning to their home country.

There was no specific charge for their arrest – we can chalk it up to them generally pissing the government off through their music. Arguably the most influential and famous album of the Tropicália movement was “ou Panis et Circenis,” (Latin for Bread and Circuses), a 1968 collaboration which drew influence from the Beatles’ 1967 album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Other artists featured on the album included Gal Costa, Nara Leão, and Tom Zé. Os Mutantes, a psychedelic rock band, performed the title track, which was written by Gil and Veloso.

The other Lady Macbeth

Although he was only a child during the Russian Revolution of 1917, Dmitri Shostakovich was, in my opinion, absolutely a composer both influenced by and who influenced revolutionary times in the Soviet Union.

His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (not to be confused with Verdi’s opera based on the Shakespearean play), premiered in 1934 to positive reviews. But in 1936, the Pravda (a Soviet newspaper run by the Communist Party) published an unsigned review of Macbeth, surprising the public and the composer by condemning the opera as “the crudest naturalism,” and dismissing its success abroad by stating that it suited “the perverted tastes of the bourgeois audience.”

While the review was published anonymously, many attribute it to Andrei Zhdanov, a close friend of Stalin’s, and some believe the piece was written by Stalin himself. The dictator did indeed attend a Bolshoi Theatre production of Macbeth, at which Shostakovich was also present and witnessed his country’s leader shuddering at the music and laughing at the scenes that contained love-making.

Shostakovich may not have written Lady Macbeth with rebellion on the mind (although his hatred for Stalin was well-known), but this work was the start of the Communist Party’s denunciation of his music. And on a larger scale, it saw the beginning of the “Great Terror,” which claimed the lives of many of Shostakovich’s own friends and family members.

Like I said, perhaps he didn’t create this music with revolutionary intent…but if you’re pissing off someone like Stalin, you’re probably doing something right.

The bloody standard is raised

Revolutions are massive by definition; the French Revolution was massively massive. A centuries-old monarchy collapsed in just a few years time. Aristocracy was abandoned for equality. A new type of opera was invented – “rescue opera,” in which the hero (often a political prisoner) is rescued from danger and resistance to oppression triumphs.

The leaders of this revolution understood the power music can play in such times. Composers were encouraged to write songs that would spur rebellion – the most famous of which is, today, the French national anthem.

Composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, “Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (“War Song for the Army of the Rhine”) was first sung by volunteers from Marseille, and the name was soon changed to “La Marseillaise.” The song was banned by Louis XVIII and Napoleon III, and was reinstated as the country’s national anthem in 1879.

The Cockroach

It’s been done by everyone from Charlie Parker to Speedy Gonzales to car horns to ring tones. But La Cucaracha first became popular during the Mexican Revolution – which is why the song is still associated with Mexico, despite originating in Spain.

There are seemingly infinite verses and versions; in fact, the lyrics were and are often changed to reflect current political or social situations. According to The Straight Dope, this song is the Spanish equivalent of “Yankee Doodle.” One of the more well-known verses:

The cockroach, the cockroach
Now he can’t go traveling
Because he doesn’t have, because he lacks
Marijuana to smoke

Some claim that last line was aimed at Mexican’s president-dictator Victoriano Huerta, rumored to love weed more than Hobbits. Others say Pancho Villa is the cucaracha. Either way – surprisingly political origins for a little ditty about a roach.

There’s a lot of versions to choose from…let’s try Liberace.

Why not take all of me

It’s hard to pick just one song that represents The Great Depression. E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney’s tune “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”and Barbecue Bob’s performance of “We Sure Got Hard Times Now” are pretty on-the-nose, while the Casa Loma Orchestra’s October 29th, 1929 performance of “Happy Days Are Here Again” is maybe a bit sarcastic, considering the headlines that week.

My personal favorite is “All of Me,” by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, and Louis Armstrong is my choice of the many (many many) recordings. Why? Because for years I thought of it as a love song. Then I listened to it while considering the state of the country during that time. The lyrics manage to be both tongue-in-cheek and even more heartbreaking.

No difference in the fare

Speaking of jazz, blues, gospel, and many (most?) genres of American music can be traced back to the spirituals and work songs sung by slaves. While the spirituals have African roots, work songs were often sung at the demand of the captors in their effort to raise morale and improve productivity.

Eventually, these songs became warning signals, coded instructions – secret messages that allowed slaves to communicate to one another without their captors knowing, leaving no evidence behind.

Many were used to share directions on escaping the South to free states and Canada via the Underground Railroad. The code name for the railroad itself was “Gospel Train” – as in the spiritual “The Gospel Train’s a Comin’.”

I do believe

Those same spirituals also played a role in a later revolution – the civil rights movement in the US during the 1960s. Speaking during the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated:

“The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”

Of all the songs that were sung at protests, rallies, and marches between 1955 an 1968, We Shall Overcome was arguably the anthem of the entire movement. According to NPR, this work song morphed into a hymn, and was first used politically at the tobacco workers’ strike in South Carolina in 1945.

And today?

Looking back on revolutionary movements, it’s usually easy to find iconic tunes that represent the times. As for Occupy Wall Street – is there a song yet? A style? A specific sound, even? Musicians are certainly a part of the protest – Hawaiian guitarist Makana comes to mind – but I’m not sure if this movement has an anthem yet, or what it will be.

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