James Connolly Gets Rebellious Treatment

Songs of Freedom
PM Press A-017-2

Until World War One, the labor movement, Irish nationalism, and socialism knew no national boundaries and a figure such as politician/rebel/songwriter James Connolly (1868-1916) was as famous in North America as in Ireland or the British Isles. His death at the hands of a British firing squad in the wake of the failed Easter Uprising was mourned across the globe. A new recording and accompanying songbook takes us inside of Connolly’s life, causes, and the protest songs he and others penned and cherished. It’s more than a nostalgia piece, although it evokes the sort of movement songs that dominated the pages of Sing Out! during its early years. The project is the brainchild of Mat Callahan, a San Francisco-based activist and musician who honed his teeth on political rock. This album, for the most part, has a folksier feel. It features nine songs written by Connolly, including “Human Freedom,” “When Labor Calls,” and “Watchword of Labor,” which were known to North American members of the Industrial Workers of the World. (Connolly joined the IWW when lived in America.) The remaining four songs are three in Connolly’s honor, including Irish poet Patrick Galvin’s moving “Where is James Connolly?” and Jim Connell’s internationally famous “The Red Flag.” The last is one of the few tracks that doesn’t quite work, as it is given an agit-rock treatment in which the music overwhelms the lyrics–the latter being the point of social protest music. Aside from this slip, the 13 musicians of the Songs of Freedom Band evoke the community exuberance of comrades singing in support of unions, socialism, and Irish freedom. Callahan’s edited edition of the 1907 The James Connolly Songbook is the sort of historical artifact that’s didactic, but which also makes you think that modern movements could learn a few lessons by delving into it. In Connolly’s spirit, both the CD and the book are borders-defying projects assembled and funded in Ireland, Switzerland, and the United States. 

Rob Weir

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