Today is the May Day holiday, which is celebrated around the world as international workers day. The holiday’s origins are in the struggle by workers in the United States for the 8-hour workday in the late 19th century. This movement, as well as the workers movement more broadly, has a strong tradition of music and song.
Thousands of workers struck to demand the eight-hour day on 1 May 1886, and demonstrations were brutally attacked by the police resulting in the deaths of several participants. This struggle became famous around the world for the deaths of the Haymarket martyrs, four union leaders who were framed for an attack on police officers and hung after being convicted of murder. In 1889, when the Second International was established as a global organisation bringing together socialist parties, 1 May was agreed upon as a day of workers’ struggle to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs and fight for workers’ rights.
The protests and marches of this time had many popular songs that were sung. Perhaps the most famous was “Eight Hours,” which called for “eight hours for work,” “eight hours for rest” and “eight hours for what we will.”
In the United States, folk singers played a prominent role in the decades that followed in writing music that became associated with working class protest and strikes. Pete Seeger sung a famous song in the early 1940s urging workers to form trade unions to secure their rights, entitled “Talking union.” Woody Guthrie’s music was also closely associated with the struggles of workers and the poor against repression and exploitation. His dustbowl ballads of the 1930s detailed the suffering of labourers during the Great Depression, when hundreds of thousands were forced to migrate in search of employment.
Germany, where the first mass workers party was formed, has a long tradition of songs which have become associated with protest and May Day. Famous among them is the Socialist March (Sozialistenmarsch), written for the Social Democratic Party in the 1890s, and Brüder zu Sonne zur Freiheit, which a German translation of a Russian revolutionary song from 1905 and 1917, but which became famous in its own right when it was sung in 1953 during the workers’ uprising in East Berlin against the Stalinist government and in 1989 during the demonstrations against the East German regime.
The Internationale, which is the most widely recognised song of the socialist movement, is most closely associated with May Day. It was originally composed in French by Eugene Pottier, who published it shortly after his participation in the Paris Commune of 1871. The words were written in the “Bloody Week” at the end of May 1871, when the revolution which had established the Commune was brutally suppressed with many deaths. In 1888, the melody was composed by Belgian Pierre Degeyter, who was the musical director of a workers choir in Lille. Until then, it was sung to the tune of the Marseillaise.
The song became the national anthem of the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, only being replaced in 1943.
Since its creation, the Internationale has been translated into a wide variety of languages and appeared in numerous versions, including one by British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg which largely drops references to the working class and replaces them with humanity as a whole. In this version, Seeger sings the original French version and provides the lyrics in English.
The song also has a history of orchestral performances. Great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini combined it with a performance of Verdi’s Hymn of Nations in World War II to celebrate the allied victory over fascism in Italy. The section featuring the Internationale was banned in the U.S. by censors during the 1950s because of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.