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May 16, 2022
Music has always played a role in war, whether to inspire courage or express despair. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been no different. It has seen songs resonating with both the public and the soldiers. In today’s Daily Dose we look at songs sung in Ukraine and around the world that have either changed hearts and minds — or offered them comfort.
– with reporting by Matthew Blackman from Cape Town, South Africa
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The Ukrainian national anthem has fast become one of the most recognized songs of protest against Russia’s invasion. From Ukrainian troops playing it around a bomb crater, to the Royal Albert Hall in London, the song has stirred hearts across the world. Perhaps the most compelling version is that by seven-year-old Amellia Anisovych, whose singing in a bomb shelter went viral. When she and her family escaped to Poland, the young Amellia sang the anthem to an audience of thousands. This anthem, adapted from a poem written in 1862, has always been the clarion call for Ukrainian independence.
‘The Red Viburnum in the Meadow’
Andriy Khlyvnyuk went viral for singing “The Red Viburnum in the Meadow” in Kiev with an automatic rifle slung on his chest. This folk song celebrates the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, who fought against Russia in World War I. Khlyvnyuk, of the Ukrainian band Boombox, returned from a U.S. tour to fight for his country. When Khlyvnyuk’s Kiev version was seen by the musician known as “The Kiffness,” he asked if he could do a remix. The ensuing collaboration became a hit on YouTube. Pink Floyd then reunited to produce a new version. All royalties from these songs will assist the humanitarian effort in Ukraine.
Ukraine has used the Turkish-built combat drone, Bayraktar, to destroy Russian tanks. And it reportedly also helped sink the Moskva, a giant Russian warship. The drone has even inspired a song of praise, “Bayraktar,” written by Ukrainian soldier Taras Borovok. YouTube has removed several versions of the song, but videos still remain of soldiers singing it. In the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, Ukrainian protesters have been filmed singing the song in opposition to Russian troops.
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In the early 1790s France suffered attacks from other European nations whose leaders hoped to squelch the revolutionary spirit they feared would spread across the continent. Amid these attacks, the mayor of Strasbourg, France, asked for a song to rally troops in the defense of their nation. An army officer named Rouget de Lisle responded by penning a song that soon gained popularity among volunteer soldiers from Marseilles and thus became known as “La Marseillaise.” It’s an anthem that calls citizens to arms, warning of invading forces coming “to cut the throats of your sons [and] your women.” As historian Kenneth Clark, borrowing from Walter Scott, once asked: “Breathes there a man with soul so dead who can listen to that marching song without emotion, even today?”
‘My Country ‘tis of thee’
Before the adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official U.S. national anthem in 1931, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” held de facto anthem status. The lyrics of this song (which uses the same melody as the U.K. national anthem) were written in 1831. Twelve years later, A. G. Duncan penned an abolitionist version, showing how the “sweet land of liberty” was also a stronghold of slavery. This abolitionist version is still sung today.
‘Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika’
When the African National Congress (ANC) formed in 1912 to fight racism in South Africa, the hymn “Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika” or “God Bless Africa,” written by the Methodist teacher Enoch Sontonga, became its anthem. The tune spread across the sub-Saharan region, becoming the song of anti-colonial resistance from South Africa to Tanzania. The first recorded version was sung by Sol Plaatje, a founder of the ANC. Decades later, in 1987, Paul Simon joined South Africans Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela to sing one of the anthem’s most memorable renditions.
In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, forces known as the International Brigades — which included the British Brigade and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — fought Francisco Franco’s fascist army in the Battle of Jarama. The Lincoln Brigade, which included Black and white American volunteers, received its name due to the soldiers’ anti-racist stance. Scottish soldier Alex McDade wrote a song called “Jarama Valley” to commemorate those who fell in that battle. Its more famous rendition was a subsequent adaptation by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, which told the story of the Lincoln Brigade’s heroic fight against the fascists.
‘We’ll Meet Again’
Perhaps the most famous song to come out of World War II was Vera Lynn’s version of “We’ll Meet Again,” which captured the uncertainty, heartbreak and hopeful longing that pervaded this turbulent era. The singer’s soothing voice had an almost magical effect on the troops and their loved ones. The song would later be covered by artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash.
‘Oh! What a Lovely War’
As the horrors and futility of World War I became apparent, songs like the ironically-titled “Oh! What a Lovely War” became a favorite among the troops. As musical historian Don Tyler observed, the song’s lyrics avoided directing animosity toward German enemies but instead used dark humor to convey the disillusionment, bitterness and boredom of war.
What war songs or songs of resistance would you add to this list?
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