Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The refrain from Spain still not plain

Just when Malcolm's attention was moving on, a response to what is now an antique post came from Geoff Lawes.

Since it revives a niggle that Malcolm has also had for some time, here is Geoff's message in full :
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.
Right, then. That's as concise and complete a history of the song as we have so far.

As Malcolm recalls, his original post, now some nine months old, derived from the likes of Gabriels's Unrepentant Communist blog, reading history, and listening to the Bear Family boxed set of Songs for Political Action.

About the only thing Malcolm contributed to the discussion of the origins of ¡Viva la Quince Brigada! was the link to the Time Magazine Article of 4th August 1941, which bought up the name of Bart van der Schelling as the original recording artist for the song:

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 antiFascists 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.
A passing thought: is it significant that ¡Viva la Quince Brigada! is not one of the he songs listed here as "composed during the Spanish war"?

Hot stuff

Then, out the the blue, Malcolm hit upon The Flames of Discontent, a New York based radical duo, offering serious leftist stuff.

They do (and it is available for download as an mp3), a convincingly and appropriately fiery version as:
... the showcase selection from our latest CD, Revenge of the Atom Spies. Viva La Quince Brigade is one of the great anthems of the Spanish Civil War, the war between freedom fighters of the Spanish Republic and the fascist regime of Franco.
Their description of the song is:
This song, Viva La Quince Brigade was written by Bart Van Der Schelling, a musician, activist and member of the Dutch segment of the International. It addresses the plight of the Spanish militias in light of the frightening take-over of their land by a fascist dictator. Our recording of it opens with guest percussionist Rafael Figueroa singing the intro in Spanish, accompanied by John Pietaro's acoustic guitar. Once the tune proper begins, John is singing lead in an English translation, accompanied by his own solid-body electric banjo, Figueroa's frantic congas and Laurie Towers' powerful lead electric bass, including a searing distorted solo midway through. The song was composed in the late 1930s, during the time of the United States' second Red Scare.
Notice, again, the implication that the song is an after-thought: "in light of the frightening take-over of their land by a fascist dictator".

This version is going to shock the pants off the purists (and, yes, Malcolm could spare the "searing distorted solo midway through"); but it has the combination of authenticity, poignancy and anger missing so often from too many performances. This is not a song to be preserved in aspic, or brought out as a "tribute" to past heroes and present "success": it should be as violent and angry and painful as the time in which it was created.

Continuing agenda

A Google search on the name "Bart van der Schelling" produces enough "hits" to suggest he had a valid place in the radical fringe of New York during the 1940s.

As late as the early '60s, Folkways are re-issuing that 1941 recording, mentioned in the Time piece. It seems still to be included in Songs of the Spanish Civil War, volume 2, which concludes with four tracks by "Bartholomeus van der Schelling" (mp3 samples available).

There are aspects here still to be explored: not all are Geoff Lawes's musical interests. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

JohnPietaro said...

Hello Malcolm, et al...

I came across your blog after being contacted by Geoff concerning Bart van der Schelling (guess you thought you were done with this topic). After reading the entries here, and seeing mention of my group, The Flames of Discontent, I thought i'd love to jump in.

I thank you kindly for mention of the anger in our performance of the song; yes, there is anger. Remember, we recorded this song after dealing with years of encroaching oppression in the US and a horrible, illegal war waged by our illegitimate president. Progressives in the US, and beyond, have reason to be fed up with the Bush administration----God, look what he's done to us all. So this album, "Revenge of the Atom Spies", is a real statement on contemporary issues but is largely handled through a Cold War metaphor. And while the Spanish Civil War surely preceded the Cold War, it has the honor of being both the first war against fascism and that which was almost completely fought by Communists, Fellow Travelers, Trotskyists, various socialists and unaffilated Leftists. Hence, the forces of reacion all over felt the need to disappear this noble war and when this was not possible, to simply sully up its veterans. This song was too good to pas up, both historically and based on current events.

When I chose to record it, i copied the basic arrangement of Pete Seeger's, that which he recorded on the Songs of the Spanish Civil War album. I have never heard any recording by the composer himself, though now I must seek this out. However, I am in my mid-40s, not my mid-80s, so clearly Pete and I (or for that matter, Van der Schelling and I) have very different influences. Sure, i enjoy Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers, Leadbelly, Phil Ochs and Richie Havens, but I also enjoy the Clash, Billy Bragg, Television, Elvis Costello and Patti Smith. And the Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, garage punk and rockabilly. Further, when not performing protest songs in this capacity, i am a jazz and experimental music drummer/composer, so I carry this with me always. Sorry if we "shock the pants" off of anyone, but as you have pointed out, we respect the importance of keeping the emotion real. For me, there'snothing worse than a tepid performance about radicalism!

The solo was played by my wife, the other half of the Flames of Discontent, Laurie Towers. She's a master bassist who serves as our lead instrumentalist. Up until the recording, the solo had usually been sans distortion, but she became inspired during the session and laid it down with the fuzz-tone, as it felt more appropriate for both the music and in response to news broadcasts of rising death tolls in Iraq.

In addition to this song, the CD includes selections that are quite acoustic and others that are more rocked-out. Hopefully, we achieved our goal of bringing together various resources and genres into a carefully arranged package. All of it is emotional, though often displaying a variety of feelings---but the heart of the revolutionary must always be present.

In Solidarity,

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