The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution


This book is about how nonviolent songs work.
How do songs move people. And what is the poetry behind nonviolent political action.
The Baltic is a good example. The nonviolent independence movement was called the Singing
Revolution.In 1988, an Estonian editorial said it all: “A nation who makes its revolution
by singing and smiling is a sublime example to the world.” And that was the starting
point. For three years, three very long years, a very disciplined, nonviolent mass movement
was built on smiling and singing. The smiling I haven’t studied, but the singing is what
I want to understand in this book. The first thing I found out when I went to the Baltic
in 1990 was that musical style doesn’t matter. People sang in choirs. People sang informal
folksongs. People sang along at rock and roll concerts. People listened to and sang along
with many styles of music, rock, folk, and choral. What was important was the words.
And so the words are what I focus on in this book. For example,”Keistoka musu kariuomene,
Be ginklu, vien tik jaunuomene”The book’s title, “The Power of Song,” is an Estonian
folksong: “Laulu võim.” It’s also the title of a Lithuanian documentary film, “Dainos
galia.” And it’s a line from a Latvian song written in 1873, “Dziesmu vara aizdzina
karu,” “the power of songs drove away war.” That was the second thing I found
when I went to the Baltic: Though the “singing revolution” began in 1988, its songs were
much older. Some came from the 1950s. Some came from the 20s. And many, many songs were
first sung more than a century ago, in the 1800s. And back in the 1700s, philosophers
studied oral folksongs sung by Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, and wrote that these
were “gentle nations,” not, not “warlike nations.” This was where the tradition of
nonviolent songs began.The shaman on this 1873 song festival emblem is giving an offering
to the gods, and teaching his people that “where there is peace, there is happiness.”How
did songs work in the Baltic? Sometimes meaning was in the context. In 1988, singers carried
flags as a visual sign of recognition: The people singing under them declared independence,
“This is our flag. It’s not Soviet. This is us, this is our nation.” And the people’s
singing was also a sign to their adversaries: A singing, smiling nation is not dangerous.
There is no physical threat. So, songs and flags, nonviolent national identity. Sometimes
the meaning was in the words: People could sing about freedom or unity, or they sang
prayers to the Creator to help them, or to the Virgin Mary. They sang songs of battle,
or songs about dying for a cause. But often, very often, the words were not political.
They sang love songs, songs about farm life or nature, children’s songs. They sang these
songs just for the sake of singing. Singing, singing together, creating music, finding
harmony with other voices – it’s very enjoyable, even if your voice isn’t perfect.
Try it! Singing boosts a feeling of self esteem. That’s what music therapy research tells
us. And self esteem gives a person courage. And the person who carries no weapon but songs
into a violent political struggle needs lots of courage. That’s the story of the Baltic
Singing Revolution. [music: Perkons, “Zala dziesma” (“Green Song”)]

3 comments

Those were the days when culture saved three nations from annihilation. Those three years… they were really something else, something indescribable. Music made magic happen.

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