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Jamie McPartland: “The Internationale,” Anecdotally

The perfect song to sing in times of uprising, at Occupy Wall Street, or before a Seder dinner—and always en masse.

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

At a Passover Seder in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, it was suggested, following a handful of Hebrew recitations and songs many of us did our best to hum along with, that we all join in a rendition of “The Internationale.” In fact, among the ceremonial Seder lyric sheets the host had handed out, “The Internationale” was indeed included, in both French and English. But as was immediately apparent, no one knew the melody except me, and I wasn’t feeling hearty enough to ignite a rallying cry to rise up against the tyrannical oppressors, to stir the laborers to revolutionary action. I was the only one at the table who hadn’t had at least a bottle of wine.

If you don’t know “The Internationale,” this is a left-wing workers’ anthem dating back to 1871 (written as a poem by the Paris Commune’s own revolutionary socialist, Eugene Pottier), and since sung by various labor parties, farmworker movements, anarchists, Trotskyists, Leninists, mixed Communists and other very stirred folk. Translated into dozens, perhaps hundreds, of languages across the globe, it has also been hailed as “the most dangerous song on the planet.” The idea of the thing was to create a sense of international community and uprising; a rousing melody beyond language, with lyrics that could speak to and for both local and universal struggle.

The song’s relevance today as such is questionable—is a song still a form of action, like a Seder, both song and ceremony? If so, our host saw something no one else at the table seemed to, broadening an instilled understanding of his own traditions to accommodate other forms of a vocalized remembrance of uprising and flight. Asking us to participate with him in a subdued performance meant to contain seeds of the original struggle that might momentarily possess us—even if the original struggle had not been our own. “If we were to talk about the ten plagues as if they were happening today, what would they be?” he asked the group at one point, to replies of “student loans” and “the Zika virus.” I admired his effort.

What I think must be unique about the compass and dimensions of a song, or even just a chorus, is their stickiness.

After we did not sing “The Internationale,” we tucked into a vegetarian feast of Ottolenghi proportions—rich bean dips, savory apple salad, a kind of Moroccan fish stew. Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” played, in honor of his passing the day before.

What I think must be unique about the compass and dimensions of a song, or even just a chorus, is their stickiness. Songs can come to you uninvited, fully formed, and loop through your circuitry as long as they’d like. Even the smallest of song currency—a melody, a chord change—invites itself with all its personality to spend some time with you, not minding that you are standing disappointed at the ATM, lying in an MRI scanner or waiting tables during a bomb scare of a brunch shift. Indiscriminate and life-threading. The chorus of a Prince song, or in my case following that night, “The Internationale” can gum to your experience whether you like it or not.

My first conscious exposure to “The Internationale” must have been when working for a writer during grad school, someone I’d long admired and with a storied past in 1960s and 70s artistic New York City. We spent long hours at his wide campaign desk overlooking Tompkins Square Park, trudging through correspondence and editing manuscripts, consistently interrupted by trips to his kitchen where he lovingly prepared lattes for us, lunch breaks to Cafe Mogador, and watching videos on YouTube. Apropos of his political past, when I confessed that I didn’t know “The Internationale” at all, he was taken aback, not just dramatically, but actually.

“Dear…dear—how can you not know ‘The Internationale,’ the most important song of the last century? What have they been teaching you kids in school?” I was twenty-eight and had just entered grad school after more than a decade of working restaurant, metal fabrication and other miscellaneous jobs. He had known the song since he was fifteen and hanging around rallies at Union Square. So he pulled up a YouTube clip and played the song, the lyrics beaming across the screen.

I had heard it before, I vaguely recalled, at an acquaintance’s apartment in Paris years before. My boyfriend-now-husband and I had met Dick, a paraplegic American expat (he’d been visiting Paris one summer in the 60s, age nineteen, and was hit by a city bus and paralyzed, had been living with a devoted but strangely cold Frenchwoman ever since) at a cheap Polish cafe, and we went several times to his apartment to watch the French presidential elections on his TV. He was for the Partie Gauche and only lamented that they weren’t Communist enough. He must have played the song for us in French during one of our visits, or sang it to us in that scratchy vintage voice. I do recall that he insisted we sing along, no matter that we didn’t know the words, for “The Internationale” is a song meant to be sung—sung en masse—not just to be listened to. Likewise, to remember “The Internationale” should mean to remember singing it as a group, moved and moving forward…

I saw the song and this debate, housed as they were in this cushy renovated loft, as two small symbols no one else will have noticed—that we were not all of the same class.

Working with the writer, our YouTube “Internationale” singalongs became ritual upon my arrival, and as we walked down St. Marks to have lunch at posh Mogador, he would hum the opening verse, breaking into the lyrics around “Servile masses arise, arise… ”

Anecdotally, one of this writer’s novels was an obscure postmodern satire starring Mao Zedong, and for an anniversary reading of the novel, tote bags featuring Lichtenstein’s portrait of Mao were printed up; months later, I saw a very sweet-looking teenager carrying the tote on the subway. “Mao,” I said to her with an ironic sort of smile, just to see if she knew whose face she was toting around. “Huh?” she said.

To get back on track, the song blurred itself in my head during the Seder, the chorus playing over and over, mixing with the group’s conversation—which had degraded to a debate on whether or not we could save the lives of farmers in India by individually sending them cash. This played out primarily between a very sanguine economist and my husband, a Marx-admiring earthy kind of socialist. Perhaps beside the point, I saw the song and this debate, housed as they were in this cushy renovated loft, as two small symbols no one else will have noticed—that we were not all of the same class. No matter, we all found nourishment in being gathered for the meal, performing the Seder we did not necessarily understand, even if we spoke in relatively different languages.

I had the song stuck in my mind for a week straight after the Seder, sometimes medleying it with “La Marseillaise” and then, of course, “All You Need Is Love.” As I sang it around the house, or the few words of the chorus I remembered, I was occasionally moved to look things up that related to the song—had Occupiers sung it during Occupy Wall Street? There was a nondescript video clip of a crowd singing the Russian version, apparently during Occupy. Had students sung it in Paris in ‘68? Undetermined. I suppose I was looking for excuses to make the song more relevant to me, closer to something I was or could have been. To make it more than a song, as I’d been told it was. If proof of a song’s power is in part the resulting action, my action may not have been revolutionary—turning to Google and Wikipedia—but it was action all the same.

“It’s not so different from “This Land Is Your Land,” my husband said over lunch. He told me about the verse they’d cut from “This Land Is Your Land” because it was too “dangerous,” how Woody Guthrie sang it on the original recording, which was “lost” for over fifty years. My husband now sang it to me as best he could: “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me—the sign was painted, said ‘Private Property’—But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing—This land was made for you and me.” There was a rebellious, anarchistic quality to it, but wasn’t really the same as my song, apart from both songs being included in comps that pulled from The Little Red Songbook (alongside union anthems with such tasty titles as “There Is Power In a Union,” “Solidarity Forever” and “The Red Flag”) as well as on Billy Bragg’s album entitled The Internationale.

Soon enough I found myself back online to look up the lyrics again, and in other languages as well—they were all there—Turkish, Russian, Tagalog, Hindi, Portuguese… I copied and pasted various lyrics into Google Translate hoping for God knows what kind of insight. But then, the results were interesting. In the Russian version we get “blood-sucking vampires” and the exclamatory “All the parasites off!” neither of which appear in other versions. In Turkish, there is reference to Mein Kampf (maybe Google Translate is taking liberties here?) and we wind the final verse down with the evocative lines, “The horizon of the sea of blood/A crimson sun is born.” In German, we get the detail of a “nocturnal vulture feeding,” whereas in Czech this becomes a “flock of vultures circling.” And then there is the poetically potent image, from the Italian “The Internazionale”: “Red is a flower bloomed in his chest” (I can’t help but hear this in Nina Simone’s voice, to the melody of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”)

I liked this question—will today’s “condemned of the earth” sing songs if pushed hard enough?

Even in English there is more than one version and, between them, one of the more interesting differences in the lyrics is this line: “The international working class shall free the human race” versus “The international working class shall be the human race.” Are the uprising laborers actors in a struggle, or the new, fully realized inhabitants of the earth? Will they level their oppressors or rise to take their place?

“I don’t know, Babe,” my husband said, as I’d been sharing most of what I read out loud. “Can we give it a rest?”

As my brief fixation with the song wound down, I thought a bit about whether it had any of its relevancy left, whether it was more of a joke or anecdote at this point. On Skype with my father, I hummed the opening lines.

“Don’t know it,” he said.

“What? You don’t know ‘The Internationale’? The most dangerous song ever written?”

“Can songs really be dangerous, you think?” he said, “I thought the young folks were beyond that.”

I liked this question—will today’s “condemned of the earth” sing songs if pushed hard enough? If we send them cash, will they cease to sing, or will they sing? What will they sing? Is a song like “The Internationale” just a relic old socialists bring out for parties and youngish nostalgics like me will occasionally croon harmlessly, charmed that we remember some of the words? In an interview, Billy Bragg explained that he had rewritten the lyrics to “The Internationale” and added new verses in an attempt to update the song and make it relevant into the 21st century, hoping that new generations would pick the song up as their own. This doesn’t seem to have happened, as far as I can tell. Instead, the song has become the same as almost any other song—no more or less potent, showing up at random, if nothing else to string together a few haphazard memories and half-finished thoughts. An oddity, a relic, at best a memory of singing out loud with other people, moving forward.

And then, once I had finally left the melody behind, on a rainy Sunday morning, the first of May, I woke up to see my Italian neighbor standing in his little patch of garden roasting a full lamb on a spit. Come evening, the shouts, laughter and salutes of his large family could be heard, and to my great surprise, they began to sing “The Internazionale” in Italian—because, of course, for the rest of the world May 1st is Labor Day (and would be for Americans as well if it hadn’t been judged too dangerous, thus President Cleveland moved the holiday well away from May 1st to disarm the day’s power). The song still lingers then, I thought, with varying meaning, along odd edges of the world. It had a ton of steam, and it hasn’t quite tuckered out.

Postscript: For more on “The Internationale” as well as some fairly thorough lists of union, labor and otherwise “dangerous” songs, and here are a few links:

Documentary “The Internationale” by Peter Miller:

Union Songs Archive
Songs Sung by the United Farmworkers Union
“Deciphering The Internationale: the Eugène Pottier code”

Jamie McPartland studied writing at the New School in New York. She is currently based in Brooklyn and France.

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