American Left-Wing Music

Left-wing music has been a cornerstone of the American socialist movement throughout its entire history. Stemming from the early 1900s to the present day, a good number of musicians and bands have expounded socialism through their lyrics and song content. Whether it is in support of Marxism-Leninism or other various forms of leftism, music has always been there to get the idea across to the broad masses. Many of said artists have themselves been victimized by capitalist society and the capitalist mode of production, influencing them to spread the word on the injustice inherit in the profit motive and the damage it wreaks on workers, the environment, and the family unit.

While not American, what is likely the most widely recognizable socialist songs is, of course, the Internationale. The original French words were written in June 1871 by Eugène Pottier (1816–1887), previously a member of the Paris Commune. It was first publicly performed in July 1888. Since then, The Internationale has been translated in nearly every language and was even adopted as the Soviet Union’s original national anthem. It has also become a popular rallying song sung by students and workers.

Written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915, Solidarity Forever is a pro-union song originally created for use within the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), although other unions and some political parties have been known to sing it during rallies or demonstrations. Chaplin began writing the song in 1914 as he was covering the Kanawha coal miners’ strike in West Virginia, in which miners and their families were forcibly evicted from company houses by mine guards. The Preamble of the song makes a brilliant and simple class analysis of American society with, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” stating quite plainly that the contradictions inherent between the laboring and capitalist classes will continue until the workers take control of society and expropriate the exploiting classes. Throughout the years, stanzas have been added and/or modified to the original lyrics. For example in the 1970s, women members added their take on their involvement in the IWW’s affairs:

“We’re the women of the union and we sure know how to fight.

We’ll fight for women’s issues and we’ll fight for women’s rights.

A woman’s work is never done from morning until night.

Women make the union strong!

(Chorus)

It is we who wash dishes, scrub the floors and clean the dirt,

Feed the kids and send them off to school – and then we go to work,

Where we work for half men’s wages for a boss who likes to flirt.

But the union makes us strong!

(Chorus)”

Although Ralph Chaplin was an anarchist and opposed “state” socialism, we commemorate his work and his dedication to the class struggle and for taking the time to produce this work that would remain in the hearts of millions of toilers.

A lesser known left-leaning song, The Battle Hymn of Cooperation, was written by a baker (Elizabeth Mead) and a busboy (Carl Ferguson), who won a five-dollar prize for composing “the best song on cooperation.” The song was sung at the annual meetings of the Consumers Cooperative Association of Missouri, several thousand strong. It is the official song of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). It is notably sung also to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Bandiera Rossa became one of the most popular songs of the Italian labor movement. The lyrics were written by Carlo Tuzzi in 1908, obtaining the melody from two Lombardian folk songs. The last two lines “Evviva il comunismo e la libertà,” or in English “Long live communism and liberty,” were put in the text after the rise of Benito Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy. Since the song was first written and published, there have been many remakes of the song, especially by South American socialists and communists.

With the escalation of the wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, a new generation of anti-imperialist culture was born, leading to one what was quite possibly the most lively and active periods in American history. Marching, protests songs, and sit-ins were commonplace and became well practiced methods of civil disobedience. To compliment this, new forms of anti-imperialist music gripped the American left. In 1969, Country Joe and the Fish performed their I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag at Woodstock to many peace-loving youth’s ears. The song’s lyrics are satirical, yet they contain a strong anti-war message.

“Well, come on all of you, big strong men,

Uncle Sam needs your help again.

He’s got himself in a terrible jam

Way down yonder in Vietnam

So put down your books and pick up a gun,

We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,

What are we fighting for ?

Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,

Next stop is Vietnam;

And it’s five, six, seven,

Open up the pearly gates,

Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,

Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow,

Why man, this is war au-go-go

There’s plenty good money to be made

By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade,

But just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb,

They drop it on the Viet Cong.

[second stanza repeats]

Well, come on generals, let’s move fast;

Your big chance has come at last.

Now you can go out and get those reds

‘Cause the only good commie is the one that’s dead

And you know that peace can only be won

When we’ve blown ’em all to kingdom come.

[second stanza repeats]

Come on mothers throughout the land,

Pack your boys off to Vietnam.

Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate

To send your sons off before it’s too late.

And you can be the first ones in your block

To have your boy come home in a box.

[second stanza repeats]”

This is an obvious strike towards all the warmongerers in the Vietnam War-era U.S. government, as well an attack on all those taken in by nationalism who volunteer to die fighting for the wrong side.

In 1972, David Crosby and Graham Nash released their single, Immigration Man, inspired by an incident that occurred between Nash and an immigration official as he was making his way into the United States for a concert. A U.S. Customs official had held him up, and although Nash was allowed to go through after people started coming up to him for his autograph, he was indignant. The song speaks of getting stopped by the “immigration man.” The song then describes Nash’s trouble producing documents and filling out a form “as big as a blanket.” “Come on and let me in, immigration man. Can I cross the line and pray I can stay another day.” Towards the end of the song, he gives a warning to would-be global travelers, “So go where you will, as long as you think you can. You better watch out, watch out for the man, anywhere you’re going.”
In his discussion of his motivations for writing the song with Crosby, Nash stated, “I’m not against local colour, but why should you fight me just because you speak differently than I do?” Nash also expressed his reasoning as to why he chose a picture of the earth from space for the cover of the sheet music for their song. “When you look at a photograph of the earth you don’t see any borders. That realization is where our hope as a planet lies.”

Tom Paxton, a progressive-minded folk song writer, has written numerous songs that take a forward-thinking stand on such issues as racial injustice, fascism and finance capital. An anti-aggression song was written by him, titled Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation, in which he mocks LBJ’s promises of withdrawal from Vietnam, only to lead to further troop deployment and the increase in foreign aggression the small, former colonial country. The second stanza is as follows: “Lyndon Johnson told the nation have no fear of escalation. I am trying everyone to please. Although this isn’t really a war, we’re sending fifty-thousand more, to help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese.” Interestingly enough, one could substitute these lines for nearly any international conflict, and the core presentation still holds solid. From Grenada and Nicaragua to Afghanistan and Iraq, our politicians have always used the same excuses to justify their class based interests in other countries.

Revolutionary leftist music was carried over to the 80s, 90s, and 00s and given a hip-hop and hard rock makeover. Both working within the boundaries of and superceding a market dominated by gangster rap, a noticeable number of pro-revolution bands have gained prominence among the public.

To give an example, Immortal Technique has published numerous songs and albums portraying life in the third world, as well as life in the first world ghetto. His songs and views generally portray the socialist point view on issues such as class hierarchy, racism, colonialism, poverty and government. In his music, he expresses the fact that record companies, and not artists themselves, are the ones who gain the most out of producing music. His song, The Third World speaks of colonialism of Africa by the United States of America and Europe with the support of the Catholic Church. He speaks against the funding of pro-capitalist militias and the traditional economic subordination of the majority of African workers and farmers at the expense of United States backed regimes and semi-colonial relations. His lyrics are hard-hitting towards reactionary elements in America.

“Just death following the forth right disaster, a legacy of bastards

With plastic explosives your futures been eroded

Cause you forgot that when your free it’s multiplied indefinitely

By the struggle that be the struggle I see

To socialistically united the third world countries

Expose hypocrisy in Americas democracy

Sloppily obsessed with stopping me cause I speak prophecy

Trample and dismantle your capitalist philosophy

The same way I stomp the conquering rap monopoly”

Even more well-known is the group Rage Against the Machine. Formed in 1991 and inspired by acts such as Public Enemy and Death Squad, their music can best be described as an outspoken concoction of creative rap and heavy metal geared towards a radical audience. The band’s most notable video is perhaps their performance of Sleep Now in the Fire, which was recorded in from of the New York Stock Exchange on January 26, 2000. Upon setting up, the band’s lead singer, Zack de la Rocha proclaimed to the audience, “Brothers and Sisters, our democracy has been hijacked!” Their performance sparked both positive and negative response from both supporters of the band as well as police, respectively, causing the doors of the New York Stock Exchange to close temporarily. The director of the music video, Michael Moore, complimented that, “We decided to shoot this video in the belly of the beast.” Michael Moore himself was detained by police and threatened with arrest during the video’s production.

In 1992, a politically-minded hip-hop group was formed in Oakland, California. Many today recognize them as The Coup. Originally comprised of three emcees, Raymond “Boots” Riley, and E-Roc along with DJ Pam the Funkstress, E-Roc left the group after their second album was released. The Coup is now a duo of Boots Riley and DJ Pam. The Marxist hip-hop group has produced sometimes serious and sometimes satirical lyrics, criticizing American politics, police brutality, capitalism and pimping as a form of exploitation towards women.

“I think that people should have democratic control over the profits that they produce. It is not real democracy until you have that. And the plain and simple definition of communism is the people having democratic control over the profits that they create.” – Raymond “Boots” Riley

In the early 1990s, The Coup released Dig It. According to Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch,The Coup refers to its members as “The Wretched of the Earth”; tells listeners to read The Communist Manifesto; and conjures up revolutionary icons such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, H. Rap Brown, Kenya’s Mau Mau movement, and Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt” (1). The group takes an internationalist viewpoint by commemorating and offering references to leftist authors, guerillas and theoreticians. Every country’s revolutionary movement is embodied in its music, and the United States is no exception.

Sources:

1) Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch, Black Like Mao: Red China & Black Revolution, Part 1.



Categories: Anti-War, History, Immigration, Imperialist War, International, Media & Culture, Music, Revolutionary History, U.S. News, United States History, Videos, Vietnam, Women's Rights, Workers Struggle

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