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The Last Song Of Victor Jara

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"Victor Jara was murdered!" A friend I hadn't seen in over a year stunned me with the news. We had met Jara during our visit to Chile in the early days of the Allende experiment. Now we sat sadly side by side on a Catskills mountaintop. The death of the democratie socialist Allende rule in a bloody military coup d'etat was old news but Jara's death was not. "They killed Victor in the Stadium. His wife saw the body. It's really him." Three years before we had watched Victor Jara perfofm at the Pena de los Parras, a club for Chile's most dedicated and talented folk artists. Jara was a folk singer like Pete Seeger or the early Dylan who set his poems and his political passions to music. His voice was strong, his face broad and very exuberant. You never forget such a face. He sang of a priest who became a revolutionary. Behind a hulet, he found a voicc. It was God who cried out Revolution. Remake my cassock, my general So a man of the dot h Can become a guerílla. My travelling partners were Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin, all of us attracted to Chile because it seemed so hopefully unique, the first country to have a socialist revolution which was both peaceful and democratie. Were there lessons here for our own country? Victor was a regular at the Technical University in Santiago, where he instructed in folk art and talked politics with the students. While captivating in its own right, his music __ was always used as an _JS ganizing tooi. He was very glad to L meet o us. S "Usually we Chileanos meet only bad guys f rom the U.S., like from the CIA," he observed, "but it's really nice to know we have some brothers up north." He was delighted to discover Phil was a fellow folksinger. "You wil] have to come with me to the copper mine up in the Andes. It's just been nationalized and I am going to sing. AJso some of my brothers from the University are going to have a basketball game with the workers. It would be very good to have agringo like Phil Ochs to sing." It was a long, bumpy bus ride to the Anaconda mine. Of the three North Americans, only I spoke a little Spanish, and Victor, who spoke perfect English, was deep in discussion with members of the basketball team. I could make out words like "spies," "agents" and "Nixon." Finally, Victor turned to us. "My brothers are a little bit mistrustful of you. They think maybe your long hair is some kind of spy's disguise. I am going to sing revolutionary songs. If perhaps you will join in with some enthusiasm, they wil! see your hea'rts are in the right place." Victor began singing, and although the language was foreign the song's melody was strangely familiar. It was Pete Seeger's "If I Had A Hammer." We joined in with English words, trying hard to piek up a little Spanish in the chorus. We sang very loud, hoping by sheer volume to drown out the Chileans' suspicions. I was asked by a tall Chilean, "What do you think of the Chilean way?" The expression "Chilean way" was always on everybody's lips, both the supporters and enemies of the Allende government. It referred to what Chileans thought was their unique :ntapproach to ss the buildSjingof socialism. "We like the song, the country, socialism and your wine," we answered. "It's all beautiful." When we praised "the wine" it was as if we picked magie words out of the high Andean altitude. "They like our wine," Victor translated into Spanish, and the Chileans responded with cheers and handshakes. They seemed as proud of their country's great wines -"miich better than the French"-as of their socialism. Now we were friends. As the bus pushed up into the mountains and the magnificent peaks began'to disappear into the niglit, Victor began talking about his life and his dreams. "My songs, they are what I feel, they are about my life. But I am a peasant and so they are also about millions of people, about suffering, but also sometimes victory." "Do you like rock music?" we wondered. "Yes, some of it has the spirit of the people; like the Beatles, they are working class at least in their origin, and they have a vitality that is good. I think the Beatles were influenced by the music of black people, and this is a magnificent influence." Victor was dark-skinned, and his muscles were built solid from hard labor. He translated from his songs, poetic lines, which showed how when a man reaches deeply and privately into his own heart he may discover the pain and suffering of most of humanity. He sang softly, like it was just a simple lullaby, but it was more. Sleep, sleep, black boy. Your mother is in the field Working hard, not paid Coughing, mouming. And from another song: Don Pedro is your owner, lie bought yon Things can be bought, hut men, no v The white man takes the gold xS. To the black man he leaves pain. "I try not to hate," Víctor declared, "but how can you not hate such oppression?" "Do you tliink Allende's approach will solve ■ W Chile's problems?" we asked. "It is necessary for now for us to be peacetul, because the army has all the guns and they aren't friends of the poor. Mayi be someday they will make the coup a gainst us. I hope that we will be organdí ized and brave to fight." R Victor's wise distrust of the tary was not publicly shared by the Allende govemment, which reguV larly proclaimed "our profound a conviction in the army's patriotV ism and loyalty." When we asked Jara about this, he re piied, "Well, they are a eminent and what they say is public, and of course l they don't want to onize me army. wnai i say here is private and i among brothers. V "Do you sing proi fessionally, for ey, and what do you think of the prac, tice?" No, never. I belong to a movemeiit. a generation of folksingers who V never get paid. We niake what we can trom other sources but never trom our music, which is after all the common property of the people's experience, so why am I somebody special to become rich?" The mining town was surreal. It was built on the side of a mountain, without streets, and whole neighborhoods were above and below each other, linked only by steps. To get to the gym we had to walk up what seemed like thousands of them but the Chileans weren't even out of breath so we were too embarrassed to ask for rest. Sometimes our long hair was greeeted with insinuating whistles from the miners. "You shouldn't take it personally," Jara explained, "the only people who have long hair in Chile are the lazy rich kids, so it's a good experience for these men to meet someone with long hair who is a friend." Both Victor and Phil sang at half-time. Victor's songs were stirring, but he could be playful, like when he sang a Spanish version of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes." He had an incredible range of style and subject, and the miners would sometimes cheer and at other moments laugh. And he changed the words. Victor's "Little Boxes" was about a right-wing assassination of a loyal Allende general- it was folk music in its truest form, created by local experience and need. Ochs offered his "I Ain't Marching Anymore" declaration of independence. He sang slowly and Victor would translate into Spanish. 1 don't think Phil ever sang to a more appreciative and supportive audience. After the performance, Victor introduced Jerry and me to the audience. At first everyone laughed or even hissed at our hair, but Victor pursued our defense. "These brothers have come a long way to be with us and to support our revolution. Are we going to make them think we are cold-hearted like the rich?" Someone shouted "Viva los hippies buenos.' " and everyone joined in. Afterwards we went down the elevator into the mine. It was 2 a.m. and a group of miners who were just getting off their shift came surging out. Victor was stunned by the pain on their faces. He was in a controlled rage and his eyes filled with tears. "Look how human beings have been treated. They are made to have the expressions of animáis. 1 teil you, man, we are going to make things different from now on." The last time we saw Victor, he was standing outside a classroom at the University, the same University at which he was taken prisoner by the fascists. Victor was spending a lot of time there helping students bring food and fuel to the poor people, who were suffering from the CIA-sponsored strike of small businessmen. Food wasn't being distributed by the business interests so students were trying to feed as many as possible. This is what Victor was devoting his life to when he was captured. He and 6,000 other Chileans were thrown into the National Stadium and kept under armed guard. Miguel Cabenzas is a Chilean journalist. As a prisoner in the National Stadium, he witnessed the murder of Victor Jara. This account was translated by Leonore Veltfort and is excerpted from a longer article in University Review. "Chaos, desperation, panic were all over. Unless one has lived through a scène like this one can't imagine the extent of people's collective madness when they are provoked by such incomparable terror. "The prisoners were put in the bleachers of the stadium, and down below were the military. They focused strong lights on the prisoners. Suddenly, somebody began to scream with terror, having lost his mind. Immediately, machine-gun volleys were loosed against the section where the scream came. Ten or twenty bodies feil from the high bleachers, rolling over the bodies of those prisoners who had thrown themselves to the ground to avoid the shots. 'i saw comrades who, in all the days they stayed there, never lifted their faces from the stone floor and afterwards had lost all capacity to move. The psychological shock was complete. There were people who for many days were only able to stammer a few incoherent words. "Victor wandered around among the prisoners, trying to calm them, to keep a minimum of order among them. A fruitless attempt. The terror was limitless. It brought the prisoners to the lowest degree of human degradation. The military were determined to accomplish this, and after three days of detention and mass terror they did. "At one point, Victor went down to the arena and approached one of the doors where new prisoners entered. Here he bumped into the commander of the prison camp. The commander looked at him, made a tiny gesture of someone playing the guitar. Victor nodded his head affirmatively, smiling sadly and candidly. The military man smiled to himself, as if congratulating himself for his discovery. He called four soldiers and ordered them to hold Victor there. Then he ordered a table to be brought and to be put in the middle of the arena so that everybody could see what was to happen. They took Victor to the table and ordered him to put his hands on it. In the hands of the officer ('I have two beautiful children and a happy home,' he declared afterwards to the foreign press) rose, swiftly, an axe. "With one single stroke he severed the fingers of Victor's left hand and, with another stroke, the fingers of the right. The fingers feil to the wooden floor, trembling and still moving, while Victor's body feil down heavily. "A collective outcry from six thousand prisoners was heard. These twelve thousand eyes then watched the same officer throw himself over the fallen body of the singer and actor Victor Jara and begin to hit him while shouting, 'Now sing, you rnotherfucker, now sing.' "No one who saw the face of the officer, axe in hand, dishevelled hair over his foretiead, can forget it. It was the face of bestiality and unbridled hatred. "Victor received the blows while his hands were dripping blood and his face was rapidly turning violet. Unexpectedly, he laboriously raised himself to his feet and blindly turned toward the bleachers of the stadium. His steps were faltering, knees trembling, his mutilated hands stretched forward like those of a sleepwalker. "When he carne to where the arena and the bleachers meet, there was a deep silence. And then his voice was heard crying: 'All right. comrades, let's do the señor commandante the favor!" "He steadied himself for a moment and then, lifting his bleeding hands, began to sing, with an unsteady voice, the anthem of the Unidad Popular, and everybody sang with him. "As those six thousand voices rose into song, Victor marked the time with his mutilated hands. In his face was a smile- open and released- and his eyes shone as if possessed. "This sight was too much for the military. A volley, and the body of Victor began to doublé over as if he were reverentially making a long and slow bow to his comrades. Then he feil down on his side and remained lying thére. cominued on page 12 "They took Víctor to the table and ordered him to put his hands on it. In the hands of the officer ('I have two beau ti f ui children and a happy home, 'he declared afterwards to the foreign press) rose, swiftly, an axe. UU: Lat-V EiiÁUz liL' ü UrUili 0L4 cont ínued from pa9e 1 1 "More volleys followed from the mouths of the machine guns. but those were directed against the people in the bleachers who had accompanied Victor's song. "An avalanche of bodies tumbled down, down. riddled with bullets. rolling into the arena. The cries of the wounded were horrible. But Victor Jara did not hear them anymore. He was dead." A fewtnonths ago I attended a benefit in New York for Chilean Refugees, which was organized by Phil Ochs. It was a big event because Bob Dylan appeared, coming out of political retirement like he was back in his oíd hootenanny civil rights days. But the highlight for me was Pete Seeger reading a poem written by Victor and smuggled out of the Stadium shortly before his death. Pete's voice evoked thê feelings behind Jara's words. We are 5000, here in this linie corner of the city. How many are we in all the cities of the worid? All of us, our eycs fixed on death. How terrifying is the face offascism.' For them, blood is a medal, carnage is a heroic gesture. Song, I cannot sing you well when I must sing out offear. When I am dying offriglit. When Iftnd my sel f in these endless moments. Where silence and cries are the echos ofmy song. For them blood is a medal, carnage is a heroic gesture. Song, Icannot singyou well when I must sing out offear. The words are from a brother telling exactly what is it like to die at the hands of devils, a warning from someone who welcomes death as a last escape but wants one last communion with the living. Victor Jara was 27 years oíd when he died. Today, the struggle for democracy in Chile goes on, and in the fight guns are going to be used. This time it won't be non-violent. The Generáis and the CIA don't want the peaceful "Chilean Way" to work. The songs of Victor Jara will again be sung in a free Chile. But Jara's greatest poem is beyond the language of words. It was his death, and life. Written by Stew Albert Reprinted with Permission from Crawdaddy Magazine Oct. 1974