Radical Music: 'He lived like a shooting star'

IssueOctober - November 2018
Comment by Penny Stone

Hamish Henderson (Scotland), and Victor Jara (Chile), were both singers, songwriters and traditional-song-collectors in the mid-20th Century. They were both social activists working towards a more just society for all people, recognising the marginalisation of the working people of their respective countries.

The collecting and sharing of traditional songs was a political act for both singers, taking the time to listen to songs that might otherwise have been lost in time, and valuing the stories and traditions that connect with these songs. These are the stories and songs of everyday working people, and if these oral histories hadn’t been recorded by Victor and Hamish, they may well have been lost.

Hamish Henderson is famous throughout Scotland for his songs and his social activism. For him, these two go hand in hand, striving to make the world a better place and writing new songs to envisage this possibility.

‘The Freedom Come All Ye’ is an anthem for the left in Scotland, a peace song written to a military pipe tune, given more meaning because Hamish served in the army during the Second World War. It is an internationalist anthem, written in 1961 as the first nuclear weapons came sailing up the Clyde, referencing places in Scotland and South Africa, recognising our complicity in bloody colonialism, and seeking a different way. ‘So come all ye at hame wi freedom…’ begins the last verse.

From the 1950s, Hamish collected songs and stories, oral histories of Scotland’s diverse communities: travelling communities, Gaelic-speaking communities, rural communities. People sang and spoke to Hamish because he met them eye-to-eye, as people. He was committed to listening to their traditions, and sharing them with others. He valued the traditions and wisdom connected with the songs and stories he recorded.

This is part of Hamish’s social activism – shining a light on those voices otherwise sidelined in our communities – listening and, crucially, helping others to listen to more diverse perspectives and experiences.

Victor Jara was troubadour to the radical left in Chile from the late 1950s until his premature death. Victor, alongside thousands of other citizens of Chile, was murdered by the military during the coup d’état of 1973.

Victor’s use of folk music and social activism mirrors Hamish’s. He went to the rural areas of Chile and learnt traditional songs and stories, bringing them back to a wider audience to amplify the voice of the working people. At the same time he wrote and sang songs of new possibilities. Victor Jara’s song, ‘Manifiesto’, speaks clearly of how and why he uses music to support social justice, singing about the ‘spring smell’ of social change:

‘I don’t sing just to sing... I sing because the guitar... has a heart made of earth and wings of a little dove... a working guitar with a spring smell, a guitar that doesn’t belong to the rich ones... my singing comes from the scaffolding used to reach the stars...’

A recent, and long-fought-for, victory to be celebrated is the conviction, after 45 years of campaigning for justice, of eight retired Chilean military officers for the murder of Victor Jara.

Victor was both an ordinary man and an extraordinary musician and social activist, and when he was killed, along with thousands of others in the stadium in Santiago, they also broke his fingers to send a clear message to others of the price to be paid for singing truth to power.

As well as enjoying the legacy of beautiful music recorded by Victor Jara, for many years musicians in the international solidarity community have been singing a beautiful poem of Adrian Mitchell’s set to music by Arlo Guthrie:

Victor Jara of Chile
He lived like a shooting star
He fought for the people of Chile
With his songs and his guitar
And his hands were gentle
His hands were strong

This is a song we have been singing for many years celebrating the life of a man who believed in a better world and sang out strong.

The story of the coup is so distressing to hear about, that were it not for the beautiful music of Victor and his colleagues, it might be unbearable to hear.

Salvador Allende’s last words, broadcast on 11 September 1973, urged the Chilean people to: “Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.” And it is song that has helped this to happen.

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