What is this Folk that here thus Loudly Singeth?

Some years ago there was an evening vigil for laboratory animals outside the Home Office, the UK government department responsible (among many other things) for ‘animals in science’, which at that time occupied a suitably grim concrete edifice at Queen Anne’s Gate. For us handful of demonstrators inconspicuous in the cold semi-dark of that building’s portals, to which direct sunlight probably never quite attains at any time of day or year, it was a dismal enough experience. But there was one tonic episode when three or four people sang a verse of the familiar ‘Red Flag’ anthem, with lyrics re-composed for the purpose and including some ribald advice to the “white coats”. I’ve not heard the song again since then, though it must have been written down somewhere.

From time to time songs are more formally composed and recorded as ‘animal rights anthems’, or at least are received as such. A recording by the rapper Gaia’s Eye is actually titled ‘Anthem for Animals’ (“eat from the garden / And not from the graveyard!”), or there’s Prince’s ‘Animal Kingdom’ (“Leave your brothers and sisters in the sea!”). In fact a whole “play-list for the animal rights revolution” is made available by the organisation PETA on its Spotify channel, with about twenty-five tracks of varying age and relevance. PETA invites supporters to submit their own “favourite animal rights anthems” to swell the number.

The more of these the better, and some are written with obviously earnest commitment. But they can only be called ‘anthems’ in the restricted sense that they set to popular music the values of a cause or party, not in the sense that they can be put to popular use – or, as the Oxford Dictionary uninvitingly expresses it, “adopted by a nation, school, or other body, and performed at ceremonies and other official occasions”. The conventions of ordinary pop music – syncopated rhythms, strongly personal vocal sound, electrically mediated instrumentals – make it hopelessly unsuited to informal collective singing. It has even to some degree made that sort of singing seem awkward and antiquated.

A “new vegan anthem” is offered on the web-site Jane Unchained which does at least have a catchy chorus – “Go vegan, go vegan, go!” – to which we’re invited to “sing along”, and perhaps we really could. The video shows plenty of people doing that (including the former Meghan Markle), and the phrase was used as a chant during last year’s Official Animal Rights March in London. But it’s a hard-driving song, well-packed with words, and just for that reason would surely come to pieces if a large crowd attempted to sing it.

Well, does animal rights need an anthem in that dictionary sense? In order to suit an unrehearsed collective voice, such pieces have to be musically and lyrically unadventurous. They’re generally either hearty or dirge-like. The typical instances mentioned in the dictionary – national anthems and school songs – are mostly stuffy and embarrassing, and tend to discredit the whole idea. But perhaps that’s mainly because those collectives aren’t the ones that really need asserting or even ought to be asserted.

And there have been anthems that evidently worked as anthems should. The suffragette ‘March of the Women’ was one such. It was used with strong effect not only at those Songsheet of 'The March of the Women', 1911. Artist: Margaret Morris“ceremonies and other official occasions”, but whenever the collective spirit needed a boost. The conductor Thomas Beecham claimed to have seen Ethel Smyth, composer of the music, using a toothbrush to conduct “in almost Bacchic frenzy” a performance of the song by fellow-suffragettes in the quadrangle of Holloway Prison. The lyrics to it, by the suffragette Cicely Hamilton, aren’t very impressive. In fact they have a good deal of the school song about them (“Life, strife – these two are one, / Naught can ye win but by faith and daring./ On, on . . . etc.), and oddly enough they don’t mention women at all after the title itself. The point is that the singers meant them, or at least meant the collective event which they were part of. That’s where the frenzy came from.

The same is true but in a converse sense of ‘The Red Flag’. This socialist anthem borrowed its stirring tune – with less uplift but more heart than Ethel Smyth’s – from an old German song, ‘O Tannenbaum’. It was traditionally sung at the end of Labour Party conferences, as well as other party occasions. The lyrics no doubt seem more melodramatic now than they did at the time of writing (1889): “Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer . . . Come dungeons dark or gallows grim, / This song shall be our parting hymn.” Partly for this reason perhaps, but mainly because it was impossible for New Labour assemblies to mean the song, the tradition became an embarrassment to be avoided, until revived with some conviction more recently. Again, the success of the anthem depends on the health of the cause rather than the quality of the composition. That surely makes things relatively easy for an animal rights anthem.

Still, there do have to be words and music. The music, we’ve seen, can be borrowed: better so, since it won’t need learning. What about, for instance, one of the great hymns to liberation, Giussepe Verdi’s ‘Va, pensiero’, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in his opera Nabucco (1841)? The words are a somewhat weak and sentimentalized version of the tragic and ferocious Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon . . .”). However, the power of Verdi’s music, scored for unison voices, and its theme, the longing for freedom, fixed the chorus at once as an anthem for the Italian liberation movement of the time, the Risorgimento. Given the very modest standard of lyric required for a successful anthem, it shouldn’t be hard to provide a text which enlarged the liberationist appeal of ‘Va, pensiero’ to include all sentient beings. It shouldn’t be, but I admit that I have tried without success. Something that is neither real poetry (choral singing would trample on its art) nor obvious doggerel (uninspiring and even a bit discreditable) is required, but I couldn’t hit it.

The words, then. There is, of course, a complete text already in existence for an animal rights anthem, composed by one of the great writers in English of the last century: the song ‘Beasts of England’ in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The story being an allegory, this song, taught to the other farm animals by the boar Old Major, stands in for the socialist ‘Internationale’ of 1871. (The ‘Internationale‘ is itself a fine example of the anthem genre, showing that lyrics at their best can constitute a complete manifesto). But the book wouldn’t work as brilliantly as it does if Orwell hadn’t given the animals all he had of sympathy and imagination. And ‘Beasts of England’, which might have been done as a burlesque, is in fact composed with simplicity and conviction. The only comic touch, perhaps, is the mention of mangel-wurzels:

Riches more than mind can picture  Animal Farm
Wheat and barley, oats and hay,
Clover, beans, and mangel-wurzels,
Shall be ours upon that day.

But really there oughtn’t to be anything comical about what is, after all, a staple food of some farmyard animals. And in general the words are perfectly judged for an anthem – not fine poetry, but plain, metrically regular, heart-felt, and true to their situation, just waiting for the music to give them emotional force (Orwell suggests ‘O My Darling Clementine’):

Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of
Shall be trod by beasts alone . . .

For that day we all must labour,
Though we die before it break;
Cows and horses, geese and turkeys,
All must toil for freedom’s sake.

But it’s a fairy story of course (that’s the book’s sub-title). In the ‘Internationale’ it made sense to say “Producteurs, sauvons-nous nous-mêmes!” [Workers, let us save ourselves!]. Animals might well say so too if they could, and Orwell’s fictional beasts do, but it might feel absurd to sing, on their behalf, what we know is impossible. We need an anthem which says “sauvons-les nous-mêmes”: it’s for us to save them.

Just singing anthems won’t get that done, I know, but music stores and makes at once available the collective purpose and those emotions that give it momentum. It’s therefore a valuable campaigning property. It’s also a public benefit, so that the determination and anger which must at least partly characterize any demonstration are made attractive or at least compelling rather than alienating to the people who happen to witness it.

Perhaps whoever wrote that verse for the Home Office vigil could try something more substantial and permanent? And yes, let it include not just the already ascendant and even fashionable vegan theme, but also zoos, circuses, hunting, and vivisection. Gaia’s Eye says “Don’t get me started / On experimentation”, but that’s all he does say, and other songs don’t seem to mention it. But it’s surely not dying out. An experimenter on monkeys at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics has recently announced his intention to escape EU regulations by moving his project to Shanghai, where a new International Center for Primate Brain Research will soon be making available up to 6000 non-human primates without irksome restrictions. A fellow neuroscientist remarks upon this “incredible progress” on China’s part, calling it “the positive side of a political system that is able to move very quickly”. Well, there always has been something totalitarian about vivisection, even in the West; it’s a one-species state for the animals, even where there are checks on its severity. “Tyrant man” in fact, and if he can’t, as a tyrant, be “o’erthrown” simply by singing, that’s at least one conspicuous way to remind ourselves and persuade others that “soon or late . . . he shall be”.


Notes and references:

The title is roughly modernized from the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Blickling Homilies, published by the Early English Texts Society, 1967.

PETA’s list can be found here: https://www.peta.org/blog/peta-spotify-channel/

The Jane Unchained song is performed here: https://janeunchained.com/2019/03/15/sing-along-to-the-new-vegan-anthem/

The text of ‘March of the Women’ is published at http://www.sandscapepublications.com/intouch/marchwords.html. A description of its performance in Holloway Prison is provided by Thomas Beecham in an article about Ethel Smyth for the Musical Times, no.1385, July 1958, p.364, but he is quoted here from an article in the Daily Telegraph, 31 July 2008.

The chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco, as movingly performed at the New York Met in 2002, can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS6L_9xUT5E (with sub-titles in Spanish).

A report of the move from Max Planck to Shanghai’s new primate research centre appears in the journal Science, 31 January 2020, pp.496-7.

The Animal Farm illustrations are from the cartoon version commissioned by the Foreign Office in 1950 from the artist Norman Pett and writer Donald Freeman (National Archives).