Bruce Barthol and Barbara Dane: “Music has the power to unite.”

November 6, 2021

Barbara Dane during the conversation with Bruce Barthol.

As part of the Bay Area event this fall, Bruce Barthol conversed with Barbara Dane. Here are excerpts from their conversation, which is also included in the video recording of the event. 

Bruce Barthol (BB): So you also went to Spain to perform while Franco was still there?

Barbara Dane (BD): Oh, yes, I did. After hearing about all this horrible stuff that was going on and wondering how the people are managing. How are they confronting living under a dictator like Franco?

BB: This was the early 70s?

BD: Yes, I think so. When I was invited, it was made clear that I had to send all of the songs that I planned to perform in translated form, so the sensor could check their meaning. Well, I had a friend who was a translator at the UN, who suggested—very wisely—that they translate songs that I didn’t plan to sing: Pop Goes the Weasel or whatever—something innocuous. When it came time to show them those translations, it would be these nothing songs. But when it came time to sing them, of course, I did the real thing.

BB: How was that?

BD: Well, the first concert was at the University. We were driving to the place. It was dark. Julia pointed out that up there in the ridge around the campus, she should see those two lights of the cigarettes. She said: “That’s a signal from the friendly Guardia Civil. They’re on our side, and we can go in now.” So we go into the school. It’s totally dark. Quiet. I’m thinking: “What the hell?” Next, we’re walking down into the cellar of this University building–down and down, it seemed like forever. Then the door opens and there’s a whole room packed with students. Absolutely quiet. When it was time for me to sing, they said: “Don’t clap, do this finger snap thing.” I had to get used to that. Well, I sang all the righteously revolutionary songs I could pack in. And they loved it very much.  …

The power of song has always impressed me, especially the power to unite when you’re in a strange place. Let’s say I’m in a small town, in the Philippines or something. The audience comes in. They know each other, but they don’t know you and you got to do something. You look around. And somehow, whatever you do, it should be chosen with the thought that they’re going to be able to be drawn into it and either sing along with you. They come from work, from school, from somewhere. They walk in and sit down together, and now you put the music out. And then, well, they become a congregation. As surely as you can bet on it. You see, people want to be part of the music, and the music goes right to their vulnerable spots in their hearts. … Music is soul food. For me, it is spiritual nourishment to be able to sing with a lot of people together. And somehow it verifies the fact that you’re all in the same world, in the same movement, with the same problems, and need to find the resources to confront them together somehow.

[On The Volunteer:] Bruce, you know something? Every time this comes, I read the whole thing, cover the cover. It’s got so much interesting information, not just about the Lincoln Brigade and the International Brigades.

There’s so much humanity reflected in this guy, Abe Osheroff. At the time that he decided to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, he was 20 or 21 or something, and he was on a boat that was going to Spain and it was torpedoed and went down. And he swam 2 miles to get to dry land to join the Brigade.

BB: When did you meet Abe?

BD: Well, I met Abe raising money to go to Mississippi. I was going to sing some songs at the Freedom Schools, and he was going to build a community center in Holmes County because the original one had been burned down. I was in Holmes County, and I see this white guy up there hammering a construction. It was Abe! I said, “Hey, don’t I know you?” He said, “Yeah, I know you from a fundraising party or the concert that raised money to build this thing.” He was staying with Hartman Turnbow.

Turnbow went with a group of 14 people down to the courthouse to register together. When they get there, the question is who is going to step forward? Who wants to register to vote? And there are guns everywhere. Then  Turnbow steps out of the group of 14, and he says, “I’m going to register to vote. I am here to register or to die.”

BB: To register or to die.

BD: He literally meant it. He brought a gun, and he would have used it. It inspired people all through Mississippi. I’m here to register or to die.

BB: Why should we remember the Brigade?

BD: Why should we? Someone could say: Why think about it anymore? It’s all in the past, a long time ago. Who cares? Well, let me tell you: If you don’t know anything about those times, you’re going to be making a lot of missteps in your present life because it’s part of the foundation, really, of where we’re at. And there’s a sense of nowadays of me, I got to take care of my problems, my family, and that’s it.

That didn’t use to be so ironclad. How many people in those days do you know who wanted to go and work in some volunteer position in some volunteer group—like in Mississippi, the people who want to help the registration of votes. Why would they do that? They don’t have to do it. It’s not going to make an ounce of difference in their income. To me, it’s a totally natural thing that a lot of people involved with the Brigades had to do with the Mississippi Freedom School.

The idea of volunteering to do something that’s beyond and bigger, bigger than I am or you are, is almost lost. It seems like people say: “Why would you do that?” Well, let me tell you why I would do that. I would do that because it makes me feel like I’m in the world. Things matter to me. We are all together. Why would I do it? Because what the hell else is my life worth? Life is about making a commitment to something. For example: I’m going to confront racism whenever I see it because I hate living in a world of racism and racists. …

They’re trying to teach us that people are bad that everybody’s selfish and that if you don’t just think of yourself, there’s something wrong with you. But take the thousands of people from all over the world who volunteered in the International Brigades. People ask, why would you do that? I want to say: Why wouldn’t you? If you have a possibility to give real meaning to your life, why would you want to throw that away?