I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night...

...and Joe said, "you people need some new tunes."

Any self-respecting social movement needs a repertoire of decent songs. The American left, despite its relative political weakness, has given the world a treasure trove of political hymns and radical anthems. Spirituals and gospel songs associated with the labor and civil rights movements are now sung all over the world."We Shall Not Be Moved" is now sung by striking workers and cheering soccer fans alike. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays' "If I had a Hammer" has been translated into several languages was turned into a Latin American classic, "El martillo," by Chilean folksinger Victor Jara.

In the English-speaking countries, "The Red Flag," written by James Connell, was a traditional anthem of socialist parties. My main problem with The Red Flag is that it is usually sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum," perhaps the lamest of Christmas carols. The lyrics are also a bit gruesome:

The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyr'd dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its ev'ry fold

Scanning the internet, I found a few good parodies. Here's one for sell-out social democrats:

The People’s Flag is palest pink
It’s not as red as you might think
But just to prove that we’re sincere
We’ll sing the Red Flag once a year.

And one for the anarchists:

The workers’ flag is blackest black
The red one’s just for bureaucrats
We’ll organize to smash the State
And shoot the vanguard while we wait

The other classic is "The Internationale," which has been translated into practically every language from its original French. In English, we have lyrics for both American and British versions of the song. The American variation, written by Charles Kerr and popularized by the Little Red Songbook, goes like this:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation
Arise ye wretched of the earth
For justice thunders condemnation
A better world's in birth!

Does this song need an update? To my mind, "wretched of the earth" sounds a bit too pathetic. And while global hunger remains a real problem, I (who could stand to lose a few pounds) can hardly identify myself as a "prisoner of starvation." As it stands now, the Internationale is a song of Dickensian misery expressed in unsingable and archaic language. Of course, the Internationale is too precious and too universal to abandon...but how about some fresher lyrics? We already have competing versions and variations so it wouldn't be too much of a betrayal of tradition to update the words. There are plenty of new political songs out there, especially coming out of political hip hop, but these songs are just not easy to sing en masse. Bottom line is, we new troubadours and some new songs to fan the flames of discontent. Am I right?


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