- Spain in My Heart: Songs of the Spanish Civil War by Jürgen Schebera
“Remember the war against Franco? / That’s the kind where each of us belongs. / Though he may have won all the battles, / We had all the good songs.” This verse from “The Folk Song Army” (1965), satirist songwriter Tom Lehrer’s send-up of the urban folk music revival, recalls the passionate artistic reaction to the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Such power struggles, while profoundly affecting the people whose lives were disrupted, are soon forgotten among those who have no direct exposure to the consequences of those struggles. But Americans remember the Spanish Civil War because many Americans chose to join the fight, literally or politically, on the side of the Spanish Republicans. The Spanish Civil War was both a true civil war (an internal struggle for power within a nation) and an international struggle between defenders of democracy and promoters of fascism; some historians have elevated the significance of this war as having been in some respects the first phase of World War II.
Lehrer was correct, of course. A million people—Spaniards and foreigners alike—joined the fight for the Spanish Republic against Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces, and the collective idealism of the left-wingers inspired hundreds of topical songs. Reflecting varied cultural perspectives of people from all the regions of Spain and from at least 53 countries, those songs reflected the shared belief that good would conquer evil and that singing was an effective weapon for achieving victory on the moral battlefield. The insurmountable problem for all those defenders of liberty was that the fights they faced on actual battlefields were anything but fairly fought—the Nationalist cause was augmented by technologically devastating war machinery provided by Italy and Germany, as evidenced during the April 27, 1937 Nazi bombing of Guernica, a city in Spain’s Basque region.
The leftists who assisted the Spanish Republicans—including communists, socialists, and all manner of intellectuals and creative types—were unable to stem the tide of fascism in Spain, but their commitment to the cause of preserving a democratic society on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula left a powerful and lasting legacy of literature, visual art, and music. Memorable writings about the Spanish Civil War (including novels like Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; poetry by such Spanish-language masters as Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, and César Vallejo; and nonfictional works like George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) have been widely read and studied for decades; while visual artwork representing the war, including such paintings as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, photography by documentary masters like Robert Capa, and motion pictures ranging from the legendary 1937 propaganda film The Spanish Earth to Guillermo del Toro’s popular 2006 feature movie Pan’s Labyrinth, are among the truly iconic images produced in the Western world during the twentieth century.
The Spanish Civil War also inspired a dazzling array of songs written in several languages. Certainly soldiers with guitars on the frontlines in Spain, as well as their non-fighting supporters overseas, chronicled many aspects of the Spanish Civil War, but most of the songs composed in response to that war are not well known today within the English-speaking world. Previous compilations available in the United States have attempted to convey to American, and mostly uninitiated, listeners the historical contexts behind a relatively small canon of songs about the war. Songs of the Spanish Civil War, a 2014 single-CD anthology released on the Smithsonian Folkways label, contained material from the Folkways Records back catalog. That anthology included recordings by such familiar performers as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ernst Busch, and Bart van der Schelling; and Spain in My Heart: Songs of the Spanish Civil War, a 2003 release from Apple-seed Records, featured contemporary artists such as Arlo Guthrie, John McCutcheon, and Laurie Lewis paying tribute to songs composed by respected artist-ideologues associated with that war.
This particular historical...