A few nights ago, I went to see a Toronto Storytelling Festival event, “Stories of Resistance,” directed by Mariella Bertelli and featuring storytellers Peter Chant, Louise Profeit-LeBlanc, Rico Rodriguez, Donald Smith, Sandra Whiting, Mariella Bertelli and singer Romina Di Gasbarro. The stories were about those times in life when voiceless people have stood up to power. Some were legendary, others were personal, and they were all passionate, hilarious, heartbreaking and fierce.
As I walked out of the auditorium at the Alliance Française I felt that the stories had awakened in each listener our own medley of resistance moments. I don’t think resistance is fundamentally about mass protests and violent public outbursts. It’s about finding a way not to do what you’re told when you know the order is not right, whether it comes from a parent, teacher, doctor, employer, government, or a voice in our head.
Recently I’ve been engaged in my own resistance campaign. I’ve been confronting the tyranny of self-judgment that has silenced my singing voice. In the process, I’ve been looking for my song. What is my song? Where do I find the songs I want to sing? And in what context do I want to sing? As I’ve been moving along with these questions and telling the story of the history of my voice, I’ve come upon a very special book that I’d like to tell you about it. It’s called The Power of Song by Guntis Smidchens, and it tells the story of how Baltic independence was achieved through a non-violent movement empowered by song.
“A national who makes its revolution by singing and smiling should be an example to all,” wrote Heinz Valk, the Estonian artist who coined the movement’s name. In Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, the people did not choose riots and mass violence as their means to protest Soviet occupation and restrictions on free speech and assembly. They chose to sing at political meetings, and over the decades that followed Soviet occupation in 1940, those meetings grew to thousands.
In 1990, the voices of the people prevailed, and the Baltic nations declared independence from the Soviet Union. A year later, the movement’s non-violent foundations were tested when Soviet soldiers killed dissenters in public displays of force, but, by the end of July 1991, the people had secured diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation. Their victory became a shining example to the world of the revolutionary and non-violent power of song.
The Baltic people are singers. For centuries they have sung at home, at work, and in public gatherings. At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1998, Guntis Smidchens was hired to interpret the performances of the Baltic singers for their English-American audience. In his book he reaches back to provide a context for the folk songs that were sung in the movement and the way in which the Baltic countries used song to express their ethnic identity. It turns out that nationalism and non-violence are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as the Latvian national poet Ausekiis declared, “The power of songs drove away war!”
As I read Smidchens’ book I wondered: Where do we find the spiritual power of communal singing in our culture? The first place I would look is in the Christian church, specifically in the hymnal, which represents a collection of songs that link the present to the past and join people in song during times of joy and sorrow.
However, if you cease to be a ‘believer’ – if you want to find a spirituality that links all humans regardless of their faith (or lack thereof) in the common experience of being alive on planet Earth – where do you turn? What are the spiritual songs that link us all together, regardless of religion or ethnicity? What songs express the inner life of humanity and inspire us to join with one another in the face of tyranny in all its forms?
The question remained with me as I continued to read about the singing revolution. During and after the Stalin era, numerous song festivals were held in Lativa, Estonia, and Lithuania. Beginning in 1932, the Soviet ideology of “socialist realism” was put into action. Culture was considered to be a tool for engineering a new breed, the “Soviet human.” Songs in public gatherings had to serve Soviet purposes. They had to celebrate Soviet rule, express the leaders’ ideology, unite individuals in collective action and appeal to the masses by adapting (or appropriating) earlier folk traditions. The Soviets created their own anthems and established Soviet-approved anthems in the Baltic countries. They announced competitions for the creation of the new songs, and the winning contestants were, not surprisingly, poets and composers with Soviet credentials.
How did the people reclaim their own voices? How did they get around the official program of party-sanctioned songs? One writer, Vaclav Havel, suggested that the revolution began in a very private way, when each person chose to step out of the “lie.”
“He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.” (157)
In his essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel outlined what was happening in the singing revolution. As individuals began to practice “living within the truth,” they created parallel social practices. He gives the example of a greengrocer who decides that he’s not going to display pro-Soviet propaganda in his window. He simply stops doing it. He and many other storeowners quietly change their practice, each making their own choice about how they want to do business. Before long, you have a parallel practice that offers another choice to the neighborhood.
In song festivals, similar parallel structures emerged. Organizers began to introduce songs to the programs that could pass censorship because they didn’t appear to be running against party lines. The songs’ meanings could be interpreted in multiple ways. In the earliest Stalinist song festivals, Soviet-approved anthems were juxtaposed with non-Soviet folk songs, and the contrast between “living within a lie” and “living within the truth” became apparent to the people. While party line strove to purge dissent and forcefully instill collective discipline, the alternative line promoted the rehabilitation of human relationships – trust, free will, openness, responsibility, and love. (156-159)
It became something of an art to create songs that could pass censor and make it on the festival programs. Estonian composer Veljo Tormis found a few ways to do so. If the truth couldn’t be expressed, then the lie could be exclaimed. For example: “Our happiness is secure! Life is good in our land!” An unhappy singer could sing the line with ironic enthusiasm. Tormis also introduced hidden meanings into his songs, but he didn’t write the words himself. He drew on truthful texts that were already there in the published literature.
Tormis debuted at the Estonian national song festival in 1969 with the cantata, “The Beginning of Song.” Versions of the song had been sung for centuries, and because the composer drew on many quotations, he managed to create a non-Soviet song that belonged to all the people. And while the Estonians experienced a new wave of repression in 1980, “The Beginning of Song” did not die. In fact, it earned Tormis the Lenin Prize and made it possible for all the composers after him to create (or recreate) songs that expressed “living within the truth.” (171-173)
In faraway centuries, on the shores of Estonia, there once began,
A song began.
In the language of the mothers, in the spirit of the fathers, it carried across to us.
In sonorous language, in the spirit of a million, it lives on.
This song began in a misty time, born in the work of the voiceless ones,
This song began in a lowly house, and it rose as an oath in the night,
A powerless clan began listening, this song was good for the world,
For it spoke a heavenly story, that freedom must come to them… (171)
“The Beginning of Song” could be a song for any nation, for any people anywhere on the planet. It expresses the ancient power of the song itself, the undying human aspiration for beauty and freedom. It’s the kind of song I’ve been seeking these days, a cry for freedom in the face of the most insidious of all tyrannies, the tyranny of despair.
When it is no longer bearable to live in an atmosphere of lies, the songs that do not die give us a place to live in the truth. When my friend Susan Schellenberg (who is an artist and co-author with Rosemary Barnes of Committed to the Sane Asylum, 2008) heard that I was going to be presenting “The History of My Voice” at the Storytelling Festival this year, she sent me a hugely encouraging email about the truth-telling power of song. In it, she quoted a story that her daughter Carolyn Peters told in her eulogy to her favorite aunt, Susan’s younger sister.
A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when you have forgotten it. Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made, or dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly, your wholeness when you are broken, your innocence when you feel guilty, and purpose when you feel confused.
What can be more vital to us than the songs and poems that remind us of who we are? Let’s gather them in earnest, for this is the gathering time.
And the powerless clan awoke, and felt the heads on their shoulders.
This song will not die, nor this story, this song for us is good.
This song for us is good.
Leelo, leelo, leelo, leelo.
I stepped out to start my voice, ringing on the rocky hillside,
Lifing up the celebration, cheering up the ring of friends,
I know my friends by their eyes, I know my foes by their power.
I do not want enemies, wars have worn me out completely.
I want, I want to be, I want to sing my own song.
Singing in the tongue of this land, where I have my pretty home,
Here is my cradle gently rocked, here my bed was softly swinging,
Over fields light children running.
El Greco, “View of Toledo,” 1598-99
Heinz Valk, “Return of the Swamp Ladies of Estonia,” 1936
Susan Schellenberg, “Winter Break,” 2011
Such a good question, what are we using our voice and our words to resist? Gave me some good food for thought this morning over coffee – and some more clarity around my own purpose for storytelling this year. Thanks for your post.
Glad to give you something to mull over with your java, Mark. I really enjoyed seeing you today at the festival!
A friend of mine went to Latvia to sing in the 100th Anniversary of Independence festival of Song and Dance in 2018. Here is a link he sent to some of the performances. You can feel how important singing together is for them.
I was also thinking of the protest songs of the 1960’s and what an important part they played. And the spiritual songs for enslaved Africans. And Gaelic songs and dance to preserving and teaching the language for young people in Scotland.
Thank you so much for sharing that link, Kathy. There is nothing like the actual experience of witnessing thousands of people singing those gorgeous and mighty songs!