Apr 27

Strength in song

ANDREW BOYLE, Comments: 0

The pictures have gone round the world. But in Norway psychiatrists and commentators have criticized the singing of Children of the Rainbow for being a ridiculous way for people to express their hate, and to get back at Breivik. These reactions are a staggering misunderstanding of what powers a song can have. A song can never be an assault weapon, but it can build a defensive wall.

Facsimile from Dagbladet, 27th April 2012 ("People of the Rainbow")

In Thursday's VG, Norway's largest daily paper, the specialist psychiatrist Thor Kvakkestad made his distaste clear, comparing the communal singing with an instrument of punishment:

"This is just a very mild way of putting a prisoner into the stocks for public humiliation (…) When people are organizing a sing-along to to get back at the mass killer, things have got out of hand. Emotions have taken over . It's time for a debate about these emotions and the hate that is welling up in the Norwegian people."

On Friday we could read in Norway's second largest paper, Aftenposten, of the reasons one of the paper's own political commentators refused to take part in the communal singing. Joacim Lund writes:

"Do we really believe that a sing-along is all that's necessary to alter Breiviks' s grasp on reality? Do we believe that others holding equally extreme views will realize their mistake when they hear us singing Children of the Rainbow?"

He goes on to explain that he feels the whole idea of singing Children of the Rainbow a bit, well, icky:

"It seems childish. Petulant. Sulky. Oo, look at us, we're fingering our noses at Breivik! He can sit there and wallow in his regrets."


From these and similar statements the last few days we can draw the conclusion that the powers music has are poorly understood.

Music and song have little inherent power. Almost all of the power a song can have, comes from the associations it carries for the people who sing it. The misunderstanding that has arisen in the reactions of Kvakkestad and Lund is very common. When we become very fond of a song it becomes a tidy, tiny, compact package symbolizing many huge, untidy, strong emotions: feelings connected with ourselves, with the social groups we belong to, with good times that have come and gone, with good people that have come and gone, and so on.  When we hear this song, we think it is the song itself that contains all this power. But it is the power of associations we have invested in it that can move us deeply. 

Is it perhaps a peculiarly masculine take on this event to believe that the participants who sang Children of the Rainbow were trying to punish Breivik? That they were trying to alter his grasp of reality or teach him a lesson? Masculine, because these commentators interpret the communal singing as a means of attacking him. If anything it should rather be regarded as a peculiarly feminine action: it was a form of defence. Essentially the act of singing this song wasn't directed outwards at all. It seems to have sprung from a need to stand together in a value system. The event was a celebration of these values, and couldn't have been more inwardly reflective if all 40.000 participants had been sitting round a campfire and closing the whole world - including Breivik - out. 

The Singing Revolution

No, song does not inherently have the power to assault. But that doesn't mean that song can't change our world. Throughout history songs have been forbidden by strict regimes. But if a song has no power to attack, what then is the point? The reason lies in the ability of song to spread resistance. It can weave round a group that sings it a protective cloak, a thin layer that can protect from psychological attack as firmly as armour plate can protect from physical aggression. A group united in the singing of its own song, is poorly suited for indoctrination. Just throw open the doors of the cupboard marked "Dictatorial Regimes" and the examples come tumbling out.    

One of the most striking examples comes from our own time, and our own part of the world. The liberation of the Baltic states from Soviet subjugation is today known as "The Singing Revolution". In June 1987 10.000 Estonians gathered at the Lauluväljak, the famed arena where Tallinn's song festival is held (pictured here).

Night after night they came back to sing patriotic songs. One Estonian, Artur Talvik, writes:

“We sang all night and everybody went home early in the morning. It was emotionally so strong that the next day there were even more people. The day after, there were even more people. People took out their hidden flags. They had these flags hidden for 50 years and now they took these out and started to wave them.”

The following summer, 1988, some 300.000 Estonians gathered at the Lauluväljak and this time, uplifted by the national songs, the freedom fighter Trivimi Velliste could make the first public demand for national independence. In the neighbouring states of Lithuania and Latvia similar revolutions were taking place - not with bullets, but with songs and with chains of people holding hands. 

As I mentioned earlier, the powers that music does have, and does not have, are often mistaken. A gripping example of this is provided by a story from the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. In 1936 the SS imprisoned German political prisoners here. These were commanded by the SS to compose and sing a rousing communal song about Sachsenhausen, in order to promote camp discipline and work morale. The prisoners chose however to write their song to the melody Die Bauern wollten Freie sein (The Farmers Desire Freedom). As time went on the song assumed strong associations with the brotherhood of prisoners and with anti-fascist sentiment. In the end the SS had to ban the song they had initially forced the prisoners to sing, but in secret it was still sung by the inmates. Arbeid macht frei? (the picture is from the gate at Sachsenhausen). Well, no, but this song helped the prisoners maintain their spiritual resistance.

Irish allegory

I became aware of the strong communal bonding a song can give at an early age. The singing of patriotic songs was of course banned by the British during their occupation of Ireland. In the nineteenth century in particular the penal laws forbidding Irish culture were rigorously enforced. This led to the practice of songwriting in which the text told of a particularly beautiful woman who was in danger, or who one was forced to travel away from. No one pledging eternal fidelity to the woman in The Snowy Breasted Pearl was in any doubt that it was Ireland that was the intended recipient. The Irish still sing their songs today. During my upbringing family gatherings would evolve late in the evening into song recitals. All the old ballads were brushed off, and as a young boy I looked on astonished that these simple airs could bring a grown man to tears. Only later did I understand the pain of the past centuries, and the continuing offence that partition gave to most Irish people. 

In many western countries the folk song movement of the 1960s and 70s was a reaction to the Cold War. It was not a way of attacking the enemy or of displaying hate. It met a need to define what our own set of values actually consisted of. Out of this movement came first Pete Seeger's My Rainbow Race and Lillebjørn Nilsen's Norwegian version, Barn av regnbuen (Children of the Rainbow). 

An Aftenposten commentator regards it as childish that Norwegians assemble in large numbers to sing this song. Fearing that only a handful of his countrymen would turn up, the commentator decided to not take part. 

P.S. I can't sign off here without coming back to something I wrote earlier, that almost all of the power a song can have comes from associations. This "almost" is here because of course music and song written by a genius can have varying degrees of great craftsmanship which - completely free of association - might affect the listener. Nothing reminds us of this fact so strongly than the revelation five years ago of the secret record collection of Adolf Hitler. These records were kept in sealed, anonymous, boxes which only the Führer was allowed to open. And the wear and tear of the record surfaces indicate that they were records greatly favoured by him. Nevertheless they were music by Russians and by composers such as Mendelssohn and Offenbach, music that all other Germans were forbidden to listen to. Music by Jewish geniuses.

Facsimile from VG, 27th April, 2012

("We will live in harmony, as sister and brother" - quoting lines from the song Children of the Rainbow)

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