chapter  13
24 Pages

Singing for socialism: Kate Bowan and Paul A. Pickering


In 1963, Race Mathews edited a book of ‘Socialist Songs’ for the Fabian Society of Victoria. In his introduction, Mathews, a future Labor member of both the Australian Federal Parliament and the Victorian Legislative Assembly and a Cabinet Minister for nearly a decade in the reformist Cain government in Victoria, lamented the loss of a tradition of singing for socialism. ‘The student socialist movements of the thirties and forties had a singing tradition’, he wrote, ‘those who belonged to them may forget the politics, but they do not forget the songs. During the early fifties this tradition was lost … ’ ‘Somewhere along the line’, he continued, ‘ a generation of young socialists moved on without teaching its songs to its successors, and a chain stretching back to the first formation of the Labor Clubs was broken’ (Mathews 1963: 1).1 Mathews’ volume was what we would nowadays call an act of historical reconstruction but the chain he sought to repair was linked to a more distant past. For the student of commemoration and tangible heritage this humble

volume opens up a number of potential lines of enquiry. Here we will discuss three. First, we will consider socialist songbooks as cultural artefacts, as lieux de mémoire to borrow Pierre Nora’s well-known phrase. For Nora a site of memory is a significant entity ‘which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community’ (Nora 1996: xvii). Second, we will open the covers of the books to examine the song lyrics, both for the way in which they were used to commemorate historical events, or were themselves links in Mathews’ chain: songs of the past. Third, and most importantly, we will explore the role of music in socialist heritage and commemoration. If socialist songsters were lieux de mémoire they were also sons de mémoire. Our study draws upon a large corpus of songbooks traversing the anglophone world, but looks in particular at Britain’s colonies of settlement, and by so doing highlights the transnationalism of the genre. From this cacophonous congeries we examine two iconic labour anthems that captured the hearts and minds of at least two generations of socialists and, taken together, provide points for comparison with regard to questions of heritage and commemoration.