October 27, 2015

An article in the journal, Infancy, reported in the Wall Street Journal, claims: “The sound of a children’s song sung in a playful child-friendly style captured babies’ attention significantly longer than hearing the words of the song spoken in either a lively or neutral style, the study found. Singing in the infants’ native or a non-native language had the same effect.”

What about singing hate-filled ditties into the ears of toddlers—and older children? Rodgers and Hammerstein musically speculated in South Pacific: “You've got to be taught To hate and fear, You've got to be taught From year to year, It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear You've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, You've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught!”

I use these reflections to frame last week’s front-page story in the New York Times about the popularity of Palestinian songs of hatred and murder—including “Stab Stab,” a track featured on a CD selling like hot cakes at the True Love Gift and Music Store in Ramallah. “Stab the Zionist and say God is Great” croons another. A third  called “Continue the Intifada” comes with a YouTube warning and the video shows the Palestinian woman who pulled a knife at an Afula bus station surrounded by Israeli soldiers pointing guns.

These songs of hate are of course intended primarily for an adolescent and adult audience. However, we long have known about Palestinian training camps whose purpose is to use multi-media to mold miniature Jihadis and suicide bombers, ages three and up. I began thinking as an historian about earlier songs of hate.

Three came to mind, though I’m sure there are many more:

• “Sir Hugh” is a folkloric example of a ballad of the blood libel found in England, Scotland, Ireland, the U.S. dates from the 1250s and was popular for 600 years. The lyric relates the story a boy from Lincoln who is lured to ritual slaughter by a Jewish girl. He fails to come home, causing his mother to conclude that he is skylarking. She sets out to find him, with a rod to beat him. From beyond the grave, the boy asks his mother to prepare a funeral winding sheet, and that he is “asleep.” In some versions the Jew’s daughter catches the blood in a basin and puts a prayer book at his head and a bible at his feet. A 1981 Blood and Roses song, “Child Owlet” eerily echoed the ballad.

• “Ballad of Mary Phagan and Leo Frank” was popularized in Georgia in 1915 when Leo Frank’s conviction for rape and murder was followed by his lynching by prominent citizens. Some stanza read: “Little Mary Phagan She left her home one day; She went to the pencil-factory To get her little pay. She left her home at eleven, She kissed her mother good-by; Not one time did the poor child think That she was a-going to die. Leo Frank he met her With a brutish heart, we know; He smiled, and said, 'Little Mary, You won’t go home no more'. . . . You killed little Mary Phagan, It was on one holiday; Called for old Jim Conley To carry her body away. Newt Conley was the African American janitor whose perjured testimony was largely responsible for Frank’s conviction.

• “The Horst Wessel Song” was the German Nazi Party’s anthem from 1930 to 1945. Concocted by Joseph Goebbels and Herman Göring, it glorified the 1929 martyrdom of a Sturmführer Horst Wessel who provoked communist paramilitaries into attacking his troops in Berlin. A 1934 regulation required the right arm be extended and raised in the “Hitler salute”when the song was played. Nazi leaders can be seen singing the song at the finale of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film, Triumph of the Will. The song was banned in Germany and Austria after 1945, yet Amazon.com and Apple offered the song on their web sites. The first stanza reads: “The flag on high! The ranks tightly closed! The SA marches with quiet, steady step. Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries March in spirit within our ranks. Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries March in spirit within our ranks.”

The third line—“Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries” (Kameraden, die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen) can mean either our comrades were shot by the Reds or our comrades shot the Reds. The song was sung by fascists in the UK, Franco's Spain, and Vichy France, and has recently been adapted with Greek lyrics by Golden Dawn. Bertolt Brecht parodied “Horst Wessel” in German. Oliver Wallace used the melody in “Der Fuehrer’s Face” for a 1942 Donald Duck cartoon.

Music is indeed a universal language, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always for the good.

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