Christian hymn tunes for revolutionary songs

One of the most tantalising comments from Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China concerns Christian hymn tunes. The book is, of course, the result of the first visit by a non-Chinese journalist to the soviets of the Red districts in China’s northwest in the 1930s. Not being particularly interested in matters religious, he notes in passing that the Communist youth organisations led mass singing every day. They were largely revolutionary songs, but then he comments that many of the tunes were from Christian hymns (p. 382).

Such a juicy tidbit leaves one wondering. Did they appropriate some catchy tunes from the many missionaries who plied their trade? If so, then those missionaries sowed an unexpected seed. Did they borrow them from the Russians, who inspired many a revolutionary movement? Or did those tunes themselves embody some elements from that intermittent revolutionary tradition at the core of Christianity? That would mean it was no coincidence that Chinese revolutionary songs were put to Christian hymn tunes.

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2 thoughts on “Christian hymn tunes for revolutionary songs

  1. Never mind the tune, what could be better than ‘To be a pilgrim’ (John Bunyan’s original words, rather than the 1906 The English Hymnal Version.)

    Who would true valour see,
    Let him come hither;
    One here will constant be,
    Come wind, come weather
    There’s no discouragement
    Shall make him once relent
    His first avowed intent
    To be a pilgrim.

    Whoso beset him round
    With dismal stories,
    Do but themselves confound;
    His strength the more is.
    No lion can him fright,
    He’ll with a giant fight,
    But he will have a right
    To be a pilgrim.

    Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend[,]
    Can daunt his spirit;
    He knows he at the end
    Shall life inherit.
    Then fancies fly away,
    He’ll fear not what men say,
    He’ll labor night and day
    To be a pilgrim.

    I have anothe idea.

    Spencer Chapman was an explorer who was commission in the British Army during the War. He spent more than one and a half years (1942-3) in the Malayan jungle with guerrillas of the Communist-led Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army.

    After the daily meeting “Then we would sing “The Red Flag”, Whu Bing conducting having given us the first line …” (The Jungle is Neutral)

    Chapman doesn’t say which version they sang. But as a Brit he probably meant the one written The lyrics of by Jim Connell in 1889. This normally sung to the tune the German carol “O Tannenbaum”.

    More useless information:
    During the great Dock Strike of 1889 attended a Social Democratic Federation meeting in central London. He wrote all six verses of “The Red Flag” while heading home on the train from Charing Cross to New Cross.

    He lived at 408 New Cross Road from 1888 to 1891 (about a mile or so from where I am now).

    1. Even the skeptical – in matters of religion – E.P. Thompson could write of Bunyan: ‘And it was above all in Bunyan [the Calvinist Baptist] that we find the slumbering Radicalism which was preserved through the 18th century and which breaks our again and again in the 19th. Pilgrim’s Progress is, with Rights of Man, one of the two foundational texts of the English working-class movement” (Making of the English Working Class, p. 31).

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