“For Those Who Came After”: Classic Spanish Civil War songs reimagined
The CD cover features an April 1939 photo by Robert Capa of Spanish Republican refugees who wound up in France and other countries. Many went on to fight fascism in World War II.

If you’re looking for a perfect stocking stuffer, look no further!

Nearly eighty years after the Spanish Civil War, prelude to World War II, its songs have remained in the popular folk repertoire as a worldwide reminder of that valiant throw against fascism. Men and women from more than 50 countries understood the danger of Generalísimo Francisco Franco trying to overthrow the progressive Spanish Republic with the aid of his fascist allies, Hitler and Mussolini. Some 35,000 members of the International Brigades sped to the Spanish front to defend democracy. From the U.S. came 2,800 Americans who came to be called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; 750 of them died in Spain.

Among the Spanish defenders of the Republic, as well as among the International Brigades that came to offer their bodies and lives in the struggle, there arose a body of songs that traveled far and wide. They were published in songbooks, performed in concert, and recorded by Pete Seeger and other left-wing cultural activists.

Boston-based label Important Records has just released a glorious CD featuring ten of the classic songs with the band Barbez, composed of seven musicians from Brooklyn, plus guest vocals by Dafna Naphtali and guest trumpeter Sebastiaan Faber.

The lead vocalist heard on almost every track is soprano Velina Brown, who possesses the voice of freedom itself. When the American national anthem is finally changed to something that doesn’t defend slavery, I want to hear Velina Brown record the first and definitive version of it.

The album, For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War, was recorded live at New York’s Japan Society in 2016 at the annual reunion of veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an event held since the 1940s. Barbez derives its style from contemporary rock, classical, and folk idioms to reinvent and reintroduce these songs—although on my computer screen the “genre” is weirdly listed as Punk!

The composition of Barbez is most remarkable: Clarinetist Peter Hess performs with the Philip Glass Ensemble; Pamelia Stickney plays a haunting theremin, an unusual instrument that has its own fascinating political history; guitarist Dan Kaufman, marimba and vibraphone player Danny Tunick, violinist Catherine McRae, bassist Peter Lettre, and drummer John Bollinger round out the group.

Extensive and well-written liner notes by historian Adam Hochschild, author of a recently published history of the Spanish Civil War, complement the music, although the lyrics to the songs themselves are not included, nor the sources to the versions and translations used. Many of the lyrics can be found, however, on Wikipedia.

In two tracks, the voices of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans can be heard—Abe Osheroff (although his interpolated recollection into the song “Viva la Quince Brigada” demands close attention to be understood, and I suspect you won’t get it all), and the last surviving vet, Delmer Berg, in the final cut “A las Barricadas,” interviewed by Dan Kaufman a year before he died at the age of 100. A line in the “Long Live the XV Brigade” song—the brigade in which almost all American, British, and Canadian volunteers served, goes, “Now we are leaving Spain / in order to fight on other fronts.” Both Osheroff and Berg remained committed radicals all their lives.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA, conveniently meaning “dawn” or “daybreak” in Spanish) is a non-profit dedicated to preserving and teaching the legacy of the Lincoln Brigade. ALBA supported this recording and all proceeds from it go to its educational and human rights programs.

Now to the songs:

Viva la Quince Brigada” opens the set, and it is a rollicking number introducing Velina Brown’s stirring, soaring, expressive vocal gifts. A version sung by Pete Seeger in Barcelona in 1993 can be viewed here. It’s followed by “Venga Jaleo,” with its hypnotic rhythm and harmonies.

The “Internationale,” written in 1871 by the Frenchman Eugène Pottier after the fall of the Paris Commune and later set to music by Pierre de Geyter, is included in a fresh, lively version, using the traditional English translation by Charles Kerr (with “the international working class” in place of “the In-ter-na-tion-al-e”). Spanish verses fill out this tune, which has become the preeminent anthem of socialism sung in dozens of languages around the world.

“Peat Bog Soldiers” (in the original German “Die Moorsoldaten,” performed here by German Resistance singer Ernst Busch) started out in a Nazi concentration camp for socialists and communists soon after Hitler’s takeover in 1933, but soon spread to anti-fascist forces around the world. Its familiar English lyrics appeared in The People’s Song Book in 1948, but the translator seems to have been lost to history. It became a staple on the folk circuit.

Si Me Quieres Escribir” (If You Want to Write to Me) honors the effort to keep bridges open for Republican troops near Barcelona. This CD version features the ethereal theremin: You can hear the wind whistling through the Spanish mountain passes.

“Song of the United Front” is also originally German, with words by Bertolt Brecht and music by Hanns Eisler. It traveled to Spain with the German volunteers. The English text used here is that published in Songs of the People (1937), “words by Bert Brecht” but again no translator is named.

Los Cuatro Generales,” based on the folk song “Los Cuatro Muleros” of Federico García Lorca, celebrates the proud Madrileños who resisted the bombardment by the “four generals,” including Franco, all of whom had proved their Nationalist mettle in the Moroccan campaign against rebels clamoring for independence. It’s funny that this song about “four” is actually in 3/8 time and feels like a sweet waltz. It features some magnificent vibraphone work.

German anti-fascist fighters either brought the song “Freiheit” (Freedom) with them or composed it in Spain as they helped to save Madrid in 1936. The famous slogan of the Madrid resistance, “No pasarán” (They Shall Not Pass) became a song, but on the CD it is rendered only as an instrumental.

If many of the volunteers in Spain were motivated by their communist convictions, that was not true of all of them, and certainly not all of the resistance to fascism among the Spaniards. A long tradition of Spanish anarchism had created a vibrant movement that was powerful enough in Barcelona, for example, to hold and control the city for many months, as told in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The final song on the CD is “A las Barricadas” (To the Barricades), which was an anthem of the anarchists who supported the Republic, a fitting tribute to the true spirit of the United Front against fascism.

(This subject is deeply controversial, however, and one not entirely avoided by Hochschild in his liner notes, as the International Brigades were sent home in October 1938 presumably by order of the Communist International in Moscow, leaving Madrid, the Republic’s last holdout, to fall a few months later. Ask an anarchist and you’ll likely get an angry lecture on the perfidy of the Communists who sold out what the anarchists think of as not the Spanish Civil War but the Spanish Revolution—but that’s a debate for another day.)

Surrender of Republican Soldiers, Somosierra, Madrid. | Photographer unknown

The international solidarity that these songs celebrate continues through the ages to inspire new generations. It’s time to introduce these resonant musical artifacts to “those who came after.” The 33 minutes you spend listening to this CD will turn into many more as you listen again and again to these infectious renditions.

Hey, no need to just give this album away to your holiday list—get one for yourself and maybe a couple more for the friends you have yet to meet!

Information on acquiring copies of the CD can be found on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive website here. The $20 charge covers shipping and handling, and as stated above, proceeds benefit ALBA programs.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.