Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Long live the Fifteenth Brigade!

It's a great song, a rousing song, but Malcolm has severe doubts that many in fact marched off cheerfully to the Jarama Front singing:
Viva La Quince Brigade—
Rumbala, rumbala, rumbla
Viva La Quince Brigade—
Rumbala, rumbala, rumbala
Che se a cubuerto de gloria—
Ay Manuela, ay Manuela...
The third stanza implies a vague link with the actuality:
At Jarama we're still standing
Rumbala, rumbala, rumbala:
And we have no planes above us,
Not a tank, not any cannon
Ay Manuela! ay Manuela!
As will become clear in a moment, the XVth did not have no planes above us at this time.

The history

Antony Beever records that:
On 12 February [1937] Asensio's troops captured the commanding feature of Pingarrón, while to the north XI International and 17 Brigade just held on at Pajares. The newly formed XV International Brigade was thrown into the breach on the San Martín-Morata road to face Sáenz de Buruaga's troops. They consisted of a British battalion, commanded by Tom Wintringham, the Dimitrov battalion and a Franco-Belgian battalion. The American battalion was being hurried through induction at Albacete to be ready to reinforce them.
When Beevor's verson is set alongside Hugh Thomas's earlier history (and Malcolm's more favoured reading), it seems little more than a terse summary:
Asensio... the next day, the 12th, stormed and captured the heights of Pingarrón, on the other side of the river [Jarama]. Sáenz de Buruaga's brigade crossed also at San Martín and joined Asensio in a new offensive at the south of the front towards Morata de Tajuña.

The ensuing battle was marked by Republican control of the air for the first time. Nationalist Junkers were driven out of the sky by Russian fighters. It also marked the first fight of the XVth International Brigade, commanded by Colonel 'Gal', a naturalized Russian, of Hungarian birth like Kléber and Lukacz. Gal was incompetent, bad-tempered and hated. The central figure in the formation of the brigade was the Chief of Staff, the gallant English Captain Nathan—shortly promoted to the rank of Major. The Political Commissar was a French Communist, Jean Chaintron, who passed under the name of 'Bethel'. The brigade comprised volunteers from twenty-six nations. The first battalion of the brigade consisted of 600, chiefly Englishmen of the Saklatvala Battalion—so called after the Indian Communist of that name who had been briefly a Member of Parliament in the twenties, but was usually known as the British Battalion. In command was the 'English Captain', Tom Wintringham, once of Balliol College, Oxford, more recently editor of Left Review, a communist and military correspondent of the Daily Worker. The Political Commissar was a rugged Scottish communist, George Aitken.

The British Battalion included a large number of Scots and some Welshmen. There were also some Americans in the battalion at this stage, sixty Cypriots (from London), an Abyssinian, an Australian, a Jamaican, a South African and a Cuban. The other three battalions of the XVth Brigade were 800 mixed Balkans of the Dimitrov Battalion; 800 French and Belgians of the 6th of February (or Franc0-Belgian) Battalion; and 500 Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion including many Negroes. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion was still training at the village of Villa nueva de la Jara, near Albacete. The Irish were divided between the Abraham Lincoln and the British Battalions. Those who joined the former did so because they had objected to the British Daily Worker's omission to mention that many of the fallen on the Córdoba front at Christmas had been Irish. They had then been serving with the British No. 1 Company, and had rioted when their first request for a transfer had been refused. Frank Ryan, their leader, also had a public quarrel with Marty...
Malcolm quotes this at length not just because it is more detailed, but because it is delightfully cadenced. For example, the detail of Tom Wintringham, once of Balliol College, Oxford brings the man to life, as does the concealed-meaning in a rugged Scottish communist, George Aitken; while the recital of the national origins leads the reader to wonder Why? How?

Back to Viva la Quince Brigada

As far as Malcolm can determine, the song was wished on the folk-music scene by one Bart Van Der Schelling, a musician, activist and member of the Dutch segment of the International Brigade.

Time Magazine has this from 4th August 1941:

World War II has yet to produce a great song, but last week some of its saddest were heard in the U.S. The League of American Writers produced an album of records ($2.75) called Behind the Barbed Wire—six songs of the French, Spanish, Italian and German anti-Fascists who now rot in the French concentration camps of Gurs, Vernet d'Ariège, Argelès-sur-Mer.

The six songs were recorded in Manhattan by a Netherlands-born fighter in the Spanish Civil War, Bart van der Schelling. He wears his chin in a brace, is called "official singer" for the U.S. survivors of the International Brigades of the Loyalists. Singer van der Schelling is backed by an "Exiles Chorus" directed by Earl Robinson (Ballad for Americans). Some of the songs—the Spanish Joven Guardia, the Italian Guardia Rossa, the German Thaelmann-Bataillon, the French Au Devant de la Vie (music by Soviet Composer Dmitri Shostakovich)—were composed during the Spanish War. Most of them are in rough, plodding march time. The one which gives the album its name was composed by a German, Eberhard Schmitt, in the camp at Gurs. Its chorus, translated (not quite so lame in the original):
Behind the wire, our courage is unbroken;
We yield to no one! We're not broken reeds!
Jail or internment, we're masters of our lives,
Nothing counts with us but deeds!
For where Germany's and Austria's sons may be,
One goal they cling to: Liberty! . . .

Malcolm has never come across hair nor hide nor shellac of that 1941 recording, but we find Quinte Brigada [sic] is track 14 on "Fighting the Fascists, 1942-44", which is Disc 4 of Bear Family Records 10-CD compendium of Songs for Political Action. The credited musicians and singers are Pete Seeger, Tom Glazer, Baldwin Hawes and Bess Lomax.

It next turns up in The People's Songbook, originally published by Boni and Gaer in New York in 1948. And from there it became a:
Traditional Spanish Folksong from 'The People's Songbook', also known as 'Ah, Manuela!' it is possibly the war's signature song.
Thereafter, it turns up repeatedly in Pete Seeger's repertoire, notably in the Carnegie Hall Concert of June 8, 1963.

Though fond of the song, Malcolm has some doubts about the honesty of its parentage. It sure ain't "traditional", but van der Schelling or Seeger: does it really matter?
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yourcousin said...

I've been pondering this one for awhile now. I would think that the war's signature song would be a las barricadas.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Good thought.

I once came across an LP of Italian revolutionary songs (this was back in 1966) which had a couple of super tracks, especially one: "La Bandana Rossa". I have never been able to rediscover it. Any clues welcome.

Some day I must comment (if OAC doesn't get there first) on Christy Moore's "Viva la Quinta Brigada", more reflective and more honest, perhaps, than the straightforward rabble-rousing of the earlier thing.

The more I think about it, the more it seems and feels like a Seeger 'modification': the kind of thing he did (and did well) to 'Wimoweh'/'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'/'Mbube'. While I find that quite acceptable inside the folk tradition, I wish he (of all people) had been clearer about copyright.

But, then, as Tom Paxton said of 'The Marvelous Toy', "How many of you thought Peter, Paul and Mary wrote that?"

Glad to hear we both survived past the Equinox, Zach. Keep cheerful. Keep agitating. Keep me straight on songs.

Gabriel said...

Interesting Obituary for Frank Graham who was involved in the fighting at Jarama at Unrepentant Communist. Frank was only definite on one aspect of song and that was that it was the Internationale which despite its apparently filmic qualities as a tale, did in fact rally the British and Irish XVth International Brigade to throw back the initial onslaught at Jarama.

GeoffLawes said...

Hi, I have been trying to track the provenance of the song Viva La Quince Brigada for some time. Your information about Bart Van Der Schelling was new to me and I have not been able to subsequently track down anything more about him on the net.But I shall continue to pursue this lead.

This topic has been discussed on many threads of the folk music site Mudcat and a lot of confusion has reigned as well as a great deal of clarification.

1 There is continuing confusion caused by the fact, to which your blog alludes, that Christy Moore wrote and recorded a completely different song about the Irish component of the XVth International Brigade, the Connolly Column, and to which he gave the same name, Viva La Quince Brigada.

2 The song that we are concerned with is based on a popular Spanish folk song dating back to the Peninsular War of 1808 when Napoleon invaded Spain. This song is often referred to as the Ay Carmela song and, as I understand the situation, it underwent variations through the 19th Century when it was adapted to suit events in Spain's turbulent history. This will account for the references to 'traditional folk song'in the reviews you quote.

3 During the Spanish Civil War, the Ay Carmela underwent transformations to produce at least two new versions on the Republican side, one also known as 'Crossing The Ebro' and the other aka 'Viva La Quinta Brigada' (Fifth Brigade)These can be seen and heard on this site;

4 Since the end of the Spanish Civil War there has been the song made famous by Pete Seeger in praise of the fifteenth Brigade 'Viva La Quince Brigada'. Pete Seeger says it was taught to him by repatriated Volunteers from the International Brigades and other people say that they heard it from former XVth members but I have not, before now, found any more-contemporary source that shows that the song in praise of the XVth may have been sung during the war itself. If Bart Van Der Schelling did record the song before Pete Seeger then this perhaps pushes the songs provenance back far enough for the song to have been written in the Spanish Civil War and therefore a song that repatriated IB volunteers could have come home singing. If Schelling did originate this variation of the Ay Carmela himself then there is at least a direct link to the International Brigades.It would be interesting to know whether Schelling fought at Jarama, where, as you show, the Republic had air superiority, or whether he only fought later in the war when the Germans and Italians had ensured the lack of Republican air support.
The evidence of the lyrics suggests that the writer of the XVth Brigada song was not at Jarama but given the traditional nature of the Ay Carmela song it seems likely that a version of the song would have been known, if not marched to, by the XVth Brigade prior to Jarama. ( It would have been strange if they had marched off to fight at Jarama singing a song about the then unfought Battle of Jarama.)

Here is a link to Pete Seeger recounting how he learned the song and you will notice that he sings Ay Manuela as a refrain and not Ay Carmela. I wonder when this variant first appeared.

Here is a link to the Mudcat site where you can see extensive discussion of the various songs I have mentioned.

I would be grateful if anyone is able to shed any more light.
Regards, Geoff

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Since Geoff Lawes is making a worthwhile plea, and because this post has aged, I have revived the topic with a later post.

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