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Music as a Political Force

It’s a fair bet that not many of the England fans belting out 'Jerusalem' at the fifth Ashes test at the Oval in 2005 were aware that this rousing hymn was once an anthem of the women’s rights movement. It has taken on a latter-day role as a patriotic song first and foremost, and a wide-ranging selection of groups and parties have adopted it as their own.

Lady Nancy Astor, first elected woman deputized in Britain, after her victory, Plymouth, November 1919
Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, among the crowds in Plymouth after her victory, November 1919
© TopFoto.co.uk / © Collection Roger-Viollet
Songs that Stir

Stirring music has always played a vital role in mobilising support for causes, from the marching songs sung by troops going into battle to the various anthems that have served to unite political campaigns of one sort or another.

Jerusalem wasn't the only hymn adopted by the Votes for Women movement. Its resident composer, Dame Ethel Smyth, penned a militant tune for the Women's Social and Political Union called The March Of The Women (also known as Shoulder To Shoulder). Smyth met the founder of the Women's Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst, in 1910, and was so impressed by her passion that she declared she would give up the musical life for two years, and devote herself to the cause of women's suffrage. While in Holloway Prison for smashing the windows of a male politician who was unsympathetic to the WSPU cause, she famously used her toothbrush to conduct a rendition of her song by fellow prisoners.

The Red Flag, the official song of the British and Irish socialist movement, was written by Irish dockworker-turned-journalist Jim Connell in 1889. He wrote the words in a railway compartment, in the time it took the train to get from Charing Cross station to New Cross Gate in south east London. The tune Connell favoured was an old Scots Jacobite melody called The White Cockade, but that gave way historically to a preference for the German carol O Tannenbaum (which is also the tune of the State song of Maryland in the United States).


The anthem of the global workers' movement from the late 19th century on was L'Internationale. Its lyric was written by carpenter Eugène Pottier in the immediate aftermath of the failed socialist experiment of 1871 known as the Paris Commune, and only set to music in 1888 by Pierre Degeyter, a factory worker. It is not known who was responsible for the standard English translation produced soon afterwards, in which the chorus runs:

Then comrades, come rally!
The last fight let us face!
The Internationale
Unites the human race!

In the early years of the 20th century, this song became the anthem of communist movements not just in Europe but around the world. More recently, it has become the signature song of resistance to any oppressive state authority, whatever its official political colouring. It was repeatedly sung by Chinese students during the break-up of the dissident demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989.

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

The song Tomorrow Belongs To Me, often thought to be a genuine anthem of the German Nazi Party, because of its appearance in Bob Fosse's 1972 film of the stage musical Cabaret, is in fact no such thing. It was written by the musical's composers, John Kander and Fred Ebb, in the style of German nationalist anthems such as Die Wacht Am Rhein and the Horst Wessel Lied. Real anti-semitism could hardly be further from the songwriters' intentions, as both are in fact Jewish.

National Anthems

Perhaps the most overtly political songs of all are national anthems, which are sung in celebration of national identity and played on behalf of the victors and gold medallists at international sporting events.

National anthems are quite different in tone throughout the world. Some praise the political history and systems of their countries, whether republican or monarchical, while others depict their natural geography in glowing terms. Some have no words at all, just a stirring tune.

If the musical style of national anthems sounds remarkably similar, that is because when they were written in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they all echoed the martial style of the era in which the concept of the national anthem first arose: the nationalistic 19th century.

The oldest anthem is the Dutch Wilhelmus, which dates from the late-16th century, while the oldest lyrics can be claimed by the Japanese Kimigayo. The British national anthem is one of the few tunes whose original composer remains unknown, while Germanys Das Lied Der Deutschen is virtually the only one with music by a composer of any international note, namely Joseph Haydn.

Some anthems names may lose a little through not being translated. The anthem of the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu is Yumi Yumi Yumi, which is not the 1960s pop song of (roughly) the same name, but translates as "We We We", a formidable statement of national solidarity.