Songs of Survival – Stephanie Sieburth


This is Duke University You are listening to Spanish performer
Conchita Piquer whose music is the subject of the award-winning book Survival Songs
by Duke University professor Stephanie Sieburth. Welcome. Thank you very much. Stephanie you spent 10 years researching Piquer’s theatrical songs and
they were popular with both the winning and losing sides of the Spanish Civil
War. You argue in your book that this music helped the defeated cope with the
chronic terror loss and grief both from the Spanish Civil War and the Franco
regime. What drew you to be so fascinated by this part of Spanish history. Well I
had always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War
because Spain was the first country to put up resistance to a fascist coup and
it became a symbol of anti-fascist resistance for the whole world in the
late 1930s. Now those who resisted and lost the war, called the defeated, paid
dearly for their resistance. During and after the war tens of thousands of
executions were carried out by General Francisco Franco’s fascist regime. This
is the period called the Time of Silence when those who spoke out against the
dictatorship were tortured or simply disappeared, never to be seen again. A
hundred and twenty thousand bodies lie in mass graves to this day. Spain has
more disappeared people than any other country except Cambodia. That is a
shocking statistic. But of all the music that was present at that time, what
really drew you to Piquer’s music? Well I’d always wondered how the defeated
coped with the persecution and the hunger. Then I read this memoir published right after Franco’s death and in it, a leading Spanish writer
recalled that in the 1940s a song was not just an object to be consumed
lightly, but a fundamental tool for survival. And that people sucked all the
juice out of their songs. And, many Spanish intellectuals had singled out Piquer as the performer whose songs were most crucial to their survival during
that period. The idea that songs could help so many people to survive just
grabbed me and it wouldn’t let me go. In your book, you argue that Piquer’s music
was a form of grief counseling, in essence, and that it gave the defeated
Spanish citizens a way to mourn that was safe. Can you talk about that? Well, human beings need rituals of mourning in order to assimilate a death but the defeated
weren’t allowed to show any sign of mourning for their dead, or to give them any kind of funeral service. So we know how deep their pain was because of what’s
going on today in Spain. In the year 2000 the relatives of the dead started a
movement to find the bodies and rebury them. Here we see an elderly woman crying at the site where she believes her brothers are buried. They were killed in
1937. We see other survivors holding up photos of their executed relatives as
they stand beside the excavation sites. They’re keeping faith with their dead by
searching for their remains. I found parallels between what the
characters in Piquer’s songs were going through and what the defeated were going through. When they sang those songs they were actually singing their own feelings.
Piquer’s songs were sad, bitter stories of fallen women, marginalized and judged
by society. But who retained their dignity and their integrity as they suffered.
Piquer gave life to these characters in a way that was unforgettable. Now the
most famous song of the 1940s and 50s was called Tatuaje (tattoo). It was about a
nameless woman who loved foreign sailor. When he disappears on a boat and is
gone without a trace, she’s inconsolable. She wanders the ports asking the sailors
for news of him. And no one will tell her if he’s alive
or dead. So she tattoos his name on her arm and declares that until she’s found him,
she’ll search for him without resting. Quizas ya tu me has olivadado, En cambio yo no te olivide, Y hasta que no te haya encontrado Sin descansar te buscare. I believe that in the 1940s when people
couldn’t search for their dead, the defeated kept faith with them by singing
this fictional story. It was a safe way to mourn. Singing along with Piquer was
actually like psychotherapy. A patient in therapy does painful emotional work
under the guidance and protection of a therapist. The defeated were actually doing the same thing with the guidance that Piquer’s voice provided. Now, this concept of grief therapy goes well beyond the case
of Spain. Most people can’t afford psychotherapy. I believe that popular
music is one of the most potent and easily available ways for people to work
through deep emotional pain, and that applies here in the US as well. Even here
we hide our grieving. We’re expected to get right back to normal after a loss
like a death or a divorce. I think that people use popular music to mourn here too.
When your book was translated into Spanish and republished in 2016 ,you did
a book tour in Spain and you had an opportunity to meet with Spanish
scholars, individuals who had experienced the Franco regime, and also family
members of Conchita Piquer. Can you talk about that? It was an amazing experience
and it was also really emotional. Conchita Piquer was a very beloved
figure for many Spaniards, but some of the ones who were against Franco had
associated her coplas with his dictatorship. They hadn’t known about the
crucial rule that Piquer’s songs had played for those who were persecuted.
Many people told me that I had given them back a piece of their history that
had been taken away from them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *