Nationalism, patriotism, and cultural romanticism in its various forms have been present in all manner of global recorded music, including vernacular and folk music. Ask many outside the United States and surely they’ve observed examples of America’s juggernaut of musical pride, whether it’s the plainly stated “do or die” patriotism of George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” (commonly known as “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy”), or the symbolic folk populism of “This Land Is Your Land.” To clarify, I’m not really talking about topical songs that merely reference current events, but instead, musical styles and songs that are meant to evoke cultural and/or national pride.
Of course it’s true that nationalistic music can sometimes be brutal and offensive, purely propagandistic, and even hurtful to other people – the WWII-era German “Charlie and his Orchestra” recordings are an extreme example. That said, this is not to say that nationalistic or patriotic songs can’t be musically interesting. The fact remains that they can sometimes be uplifting to both those for whom they were intended to reach, or even to outsiders, despite their complex baggage.
A glaring aspect to consider whenever discussing the tricky topics of patriotism and nationalism is perception. Whether or not a musical work is patriotic or nationalistic, completely inspiring or utterly repulsive, might be up for righteous debate depending on whom you ask, at what point in history you ask them, their background, and their viewpoints. It’s a fascinating topic to me (and one that has been written about by many experts) as someone who likes to explore music I’m unfamiliar with, and to learn a little about how it was consumed, and the different forms that appeared on record during the 78 era. I’m especially interested in how my own mind reacts when confronted with something that immediately sounds deeply traditional from my admittedly Western standpoint, yet upon examination may also be viewed, directly or obliquely, as some form of propaganda.
People’s Record, or Renmin Changpian, was based in Shanghai, and was formed after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the subsequent nationalization of the Chinese record industry. Foreign companies that were active in China prior to 1949, such as EMI and Victor, had been sent packing. The 78s issued on People’s Record were varied, and many of them were in effect paeans to the new CCP and its leaders, as part of the larger effort to unify the country. On the other hand, some material issued by the China state-run imprints were master pressings of classic vocal performances by Chinese opera stars such as Mei Lanfang, taken from previously existing discs.
Perhaps taking a cue from Stalin’s Soviet Union, which made it a point to record varied folk music from regions with minority populations in the USSR, People’s Record also issued compelling traditional music performed by China’s ethnic minorities, the likes of which had never been commercially recorded before. This piece is sung by two Miao women of Guizhou Province. “Miao” is a broad term used for several ethnic groups in the mountainous areas of China and parts of Southeast Asia, including the Hmong. The title of the piece is descriptive and listed as “Minzu quyu zizhi xiaochang,” which loosely translates to “Little song about Regional National Autonomy.” It is sung in a local language (not Mandarin), and is a praise song to Chairman Mao (the first sung words of the song) and the CCP, suggesting that everyone gather together and build up their community. A Pao, one of the singers of this piece, was documented as having met Chairman Mao numerous times, and having recorded this praise song in 1953. She was born in 1930, yet died young in 1966, one month after the official start of the Cultural Revolution. People’s Record was operational until about 1955, when it was merged to form “China Record” (Zhongguo Changpian).
The gusle is the one-stringed fiddle of the Balkans made of maple wood, and the “guslari” is the Serbian term for the people who play it, singing epic poetry in an emotional, droning wail, quite unlike other music from the region. One writer in 1913 described it as “a sighing-forth of sound.” The gusle is used as a backdrop for the singing of epic poetry, usually about the historical struggle of Serbs against Ottoman rule, and by extension it has been a powerful instrument for national identity.
Ian Nagoski, in his Black Mirror CD release, re-introduced the contemporary public to Petar Perunović Perun (born 1880), a Serbian nationalist of Montenegrin birth, veteran of the Balkan Wars and World War I, and a gusle player both on and off the battlefields. Perunović toured the United States regularly, playing for Balkan communities in order to stir national pride. Based in Saint Paul, Minnesota for some time, he recorded several discs privately in the summer of 1927 at the famed Marsh Laboratories in Chicago – noted for being the first studio to make electrically recorded discs (albeit primitively). These discs were issued under the label name Srpske Gusle (Serbian Gusle). This topical and patriotic piece is from a hitherto undocumented 12″ recording from the same session, whose title translates to “Warfare for Liberation and Unification of Yugoslavia.” Perunović died in Montenegro in 1952. A monument dedicated to him exists in the town of Tunjevo.
Not all patriotic or nationalistic music is overt – some is by its very nature simply pastoral, wistful, or a deliberate tribute to cultural tradition. Countries as different as Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Switzerland all had recorded folk song types that were more like scenes played out in an imagined mountain air, with musicians acting as shepherds in the recording studio, ringing bells, making animal noises, shouting joyful banter…until a music break, which in this particular example is a group yodel with string instruments.
The group here is the Streichmusik “Edelweiss” Trogen, named for the town of Trogen in the aforementioned Appenzell Innerrhoden Kanton. Formed in 1913, the group featured Hans Rechsteiner (1893-1986) conducting and playing the cello, brother Jakob Rechsteiner on bass, Ulrich Graf playing the hammered dulcimer of the Appenzell region known as the hackbrett, Emil Fürstauer (1891-1975) on bowed bass, Josef Inauer yodeling, and Jakob Neff on violin (the lineup on this track could be slightly different). This track, “Appenzeller Alpauffahrt” is an imitation of an annual, festive event known as the Alpauffahrt. Dressed in traditional costume, locals in Appenzellerland honor the customary migrating of cattle and goats from protected winter enclaves, to pastures higher in the Alps when spring has officially arrived. Thousands of Swiss folk 78s were recorded, yet it’s precisely these nostalgic outdoor scenes that deliberately imitate and evoke a romanticized vision of an older, rural way of life, perhaps even creating the mood that the shepherds in the Alps continue tradition in the face of modernization. The Trogen group is now based in Herisau, about 30 minutes further west.
Despite my point that this broadly defined phenomenon was, and remains, global, it feels disingenuous to not provide an American example. Every morning in my little grade school we had to face the American flag, put our hands over our hearts, and sing “America the Beautiful.” However, I don’t collect American jazz, blues, country, R&B, popular, or classical music on 78, so I can’t offer anything “new” from my collection. I’ll just settle for a link to a clip of one of the most painfully overused pieces of musical Americana, sadly co-opted and abused by people on all sides of the political spectrum in the decades after it was written, to invoke their concept of “freedom.” It’s especially important to remember that this piece of music was written by a progressive, gay, anti-militant agnostic of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, who was inspired by a speech made by New Deal liberal Henry Wallace.
Label: Renmin Chiangpan (People’s Record)
Issue Number: 53356-1
Matrix Number: n/a
Label: Srpske Gusle
Issue Number: 5668
Matrix Number: n/a
Label: Edison Bell
Issue Number: F576
Matrix Number: BK369
A photo of the Edelweiss group, thanks to reader Reto. Note the phone number is simply “9”!