The “Song Movement” Endures Far Beyond Margaritaville.
(This is snapshot from a New York Times video about Victor Jara, which accompanied a 2018 story by the Times Clyde Haberman entitled “How a Folk Singer’s Murder Forced Chile to Confront Its Past.”. The link to the video can be found at the bottom of this article, or by going to the New York Times archives of Retro Report documentaries, or going directly to Retro Reports on YouTube.)
Imagine, for a moment, if the beloved American minstrel, Jimmy Buffett hadn’t lived to 76, dying peacefully, surrounded by family and friends.
Imagine if his music was more than feel-good “Margaritaville” stuff, but a movement for personal freedom and bodily autonomy, and an anthem of advocacy for human and civil rights, and equality for all marginalized people, especially low-wage workers.
Then, imagine if Buffett brought his music to political rallies throughout Florida, since he spent much time in Key West, and campaigned vigorously for the rights of the LGBTQ community, for equal access to medical care for the Trans community, and — seeking to correct all the evil he saw during his childhood in Mississippi — was passionate about the teaching of Anti-racism in America’s public schools.
Now, think about Buffett at about age 40, being seized in front of a stadium full of his fans, by a roving band of Nazis or Proud Boys or other criminals — like the ones who showed up wearing Swastikas in Orlando, Florida, this week. To shut Jimmy up, the thugs crushed his guitar playing fingers — one-by-one — with the butts of their guns, so he could never again strum his guitar, and sing of peace, or freedom, or love, or equality or justice ever again. When he continued to sing in defiance of the terrorists attacking him, they strafed his body with bullets, and threw his corpse in front of his horrified music fans.
If you can picture the torture and murder of such a nationally revered musician as Jimmy Buffett by the Fascist foot-soldiers of a violent, authoritarian force determined to crush democracy and free expression, then, perhaps, you can understand the monstrous and methodical murder of the great Chilean folk-singer and political activist, Victor Jara, that was not imagined, but actually did happen 50 years ago this month.
Jara — known as the ‘Bob Dylan’ of Chile — was tortured and killed four days after the political assassination of the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973, whom Jara backed. Allende, the first Democratic Socialist elected President in Chile’s history, was murdered by the storm-troopers of General Augusto Pinochet, with the full backing and support of US President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the CIA.
Victor Jara had been, according to Clyde Haberman of the New York Times, “ a popular Chilean folk singer who dwelt on themes like poverty and injustice. He was, in no particular order, a poet, a teacher, a theatre director, a Communist Party activist,” and a long-time supporter of Allende, which is what finally got Jara tortured and murdered.
The Times goes on to report that, “ during the US-backed Pinochet’s regime’s 17-years, some 2,300 people were known to have been killed or ‘disappeared;’ about 1,000 others were unaccounted for and presumed to have died, and at least 27,000 were tortured,” like Victor Jara was.
Jara was, afterall, a prime target of Pinochet’s gangs of extreme-right-wing killers, as the founder of the “song movement” — the melding of music and political and social activism to bring about sweeping change for working people in Chile. In her book, “Victor: An Unfinished Song,” the 96 year-old Joan Jara, wrote of her husband’s pioneering work, and the theme of the Popular Unity’s (Allende’s) campaign:
“Venceremos, was based on an instrumental piece of Victor’s…It was incredible to hear all those people (as many as 800,000 demonstrating in the streets of Santiago) singing Venceremos.”
Translated into English, Venceremos means “We Shall Prevail,” and was being sung throughout Chile at the very moment American’s were singing “We Shall Overcome,” in the fight for Civil Rights, and to end the War in Vietnam.
Yet, few Americans of any prominence — fearful of being tagged “socialist” by the Nixon Administration — supported the legitimate election of Allende to lead Chile in 1970, and the growing “ song movement” of Victor Jara’s following Allende’s election. One notable exception was the US folk/protest singer Phil Ochs.
In The Life of Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, author Michael Schumacher writes:
“To Phil, Allende was the most compelling political story since the Castro-led revolution in Cuba — not to mention the kind of peaceful revolution he had dreamed about for the United States.”
By the summer of 1971, at the beginning of Allende’s term in office, Ochs was convinced he had to go to Chile. Nothing would impact him as much as his meeting with Victor Jara in the streets of Santiago:
“Although none of the Americans on the trip had heard of him before, Victor Jara was one of the most beloved populist figures in Chile — a folk singer and political activist not unlike Pete Seeger in the US. Jara had been instrumental in Allende’s rise to power…His main political activity now consisted of his traveling around the country, singing and drumming up support for the Union Popular, which made him a folk hero among his country.” (From, The Life of Phil Ochs, p. 240).
Ironically, while Jara was frequently compared to Bob Dylan, it was Phil Ochs who, while far less famous, was much more like Jara in the United States as a political activist. Phil Ochs began his rise to modest fame around the same time Bob Dylan did, but was much more deeply enmeshed in the political activism of the early 60’s than Dylan was.
In 1963, Ochs traveled to Hazard, Kentucky, to perform for the families of striking coal miners; he made a pilgrimage to Mississippi in 1964 as part of the Caravan of Music to support the Freedom Fighters throughout the South. He preferred to refer to himself as a “topical songwriter and political activist,” or a “musical journalist” rather than a protest singer.
While Ochs was traveling and singing for Civil Rights that summer of 1964 in Mississippi, three young civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, were ambushed and murdered by the KKK, for working to register Black citizens to vote. Ochs, distraught over the murders, wrote one of his most controversial songs: “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” which, along with Ochs, was banned in many Southern States.
Ochs performed with Victor Jara throughout Chile for weeks, and at a Chilean coal-mine where working conditions were far worse than at the Kentucky coal mines Ochs visited eight years earlier. Once again he performed “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” and won over Chilean coal miners, skeptical of a gringo with long hair.
Jara interpreted every verse and chorus of Phil Ochs’ songs for the miners, and Ochs wrote in his diary that it “moved me deeply.”
When Allende and Jara were murdered by the US/Pinochet goons in September, 1973, Phil Ochs life was already falling apart from advancing mental illness, alcoholism and drug abuse. Yet despite his struggles, Ochs still understood the magnitude of what happened in Chile, where a democratically elected government had been overthrown by Fascist forces, with active assistance from the United States.
So it was Ochs alone, feeling a visceral connection to Victor Jara and the people of Chile, who, just two years before he committed suicide at the age of 36, organized a massive “Concert for Chile,” at Madison Square Garden, in 1974, to raise money for the families of the victims of the US/Pinochet Putsch in Chile.
Ochs worked relentlessly over many months organizing the Concert for Chile, and after meeting with Bob Dylan for five hours in Ochs’ own lower Manhattan apartment, he persuaded Dylan to agree to appear at the concert with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, guaranteeing a sold out Felt Forum. Jara’s own Song Movement had come to New York.
No, it wasn’t the easy-listening songs of Jimmy Buffett, who, at age 76 was overtaken by skin cancer, after living a long, luxurious, light-hearted life. Buffet’s music will live on forever, because it’s the kind of feel-good, non-controversial memory in which Americans love to nostalgically bathe.
Phil Ochs, who sought to awaken people to the horrors around us, is long dead, hanging himself in his sister’s apartment in Rockaway, Queens at 36 years old. Ochs was driven to distraction by his own demons, and by a superficial, all-consuming culture which tried to turn him into a nostalgic curiosity, when he wanted his music and his life to mean so much more, and to repair a broken world.
So while we are relentlessly reminded across all forms of media that it’s always “Margarita Time,” somewhere, I cannot help but think of Victor Jara, robbed of the gift of living to an advanced age, or dying in the gentle embrace of friends and family. And, each time I see Henry Kissinger’s death grin spread across his distorted, Dorian Gray-like face in the 100th year of his blood-soaked existence, I think of Victor Jara, dead at 40, whose killing Kissinger enabled.
Jara, still mourned by his 96-year old widow Joan, a daughter, and a democratic, Spanish-speaking nation of 20 million people, was tortured and killed 50 years ago this month, murdered and brutalized by the authoritarians of his time, who hated social justice, the rule of law, equality, difference, and freedom of expression.
In a much more meaningful and enduring way than Jimmy Buffet achieved legendary status is in the USA , Victor Jara remains — five full decades after his murder — a towering presence of history, creativity, hope, activism, individual liberties & democracy in Chile.
With democracy and human rights under siege in the United States and around the world, it’s urgent that we focus more on Victor Jara’s inspiring life, his music and his passion for justice, and how his transformational Song Movement, knitted those together into a seamless work of art for humanity.
(The video linked to this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report, led by Kyra Darnton, is a nonprofit video news organization examining the history and context behind today’s news. To watch more, subscribe to the Retro Report newsletter, and follow Retro Report on YouTube.)