Rock Music and the Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War continues to be present in popular culture, including rock music. The Clash recorded Spanish Bombs in 1979 and in 1998 the Manic Street Preachers released If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. In 1991, Canadian Indie band The Lowest of the Low released Letter from Bilbao. Composer Ron Hawkins explains why he wrote it and two other songs about the Civil War, For the Hand Of Magdelena (1991) and Gerona Train (2017).
“I first came across the dramatic tragedy of the Spanish Civil War as a young musician and budding Socialist in about 1983. From my first experiences reading Orwell’s “Homage To Catalonia” to Hugh Thomas’ “The Spanish Civil War” I was confronted by the tragedy of a democratically elected peoples’ government being savaged by reaction - at first by fascists, Catholics and global Capitalists and finally by the treachery of Stalinism and the USSR.Trotsky’s “Letters To Andres Nin” completed the heartbreak as I read in real time how the revolution was hijacked and betrayed.
As a songwriter it seemed to me the subject had it all - heroes, villains, courage, cowardice and treachery. I decided to get close, to zoom in on a trio of historic-fictional characters and to paint a slice of life from their viewpoint. The characters follow the same arc as the war itself - from initial euphoria and optimism, through struggle and finally to cynicism and defeat.
The protagonist of Letter from Bilbao (an International Brigade volunteer from the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion) writes a letter to his lover as he languishes, dying on a beach. He wonders if it was all worth it, knowing he’ll never return to Canada.
For the Hand of Magdelena is the love story between an International Brigade soldier and a madrileña named Magdelena. Though he feels his boots “planted in the soil of Spain” he is repatriated to New York City when the war is lost and he wonders whatever became of her.
Gerona Train is the story of a member of the International Brigades remembering his trip from Gerona to the Asturias front and how the calm of the train ride was a sharp contrast to the bitterness of the offensive. He romanticizes the hardship and ignores the lack of material well-being - “Cheap beer and Malraux - there’s not enough of either to go around. But there’s a groundswell coming up from the underground.”