David Rovics and the music of hidden histories

3 June 1917 was a day of huge contrasts in Leeds. There was the Leeds Convention; a conference bringing together members of the labour movement from across Britain in solidarity with the Russian Revolution, and in the evening there were anti-Semitic attacks in the city.

One hundred years later there was a conference celebrating and remembering the Leeds Convention in the day and a Love Music Hate Racism gig in the evening.

Singer-songwriter David Rovics played the Love Music Hate Racism gig. I had never heard of him or listened to his music before and was delighted to really enjoy his show. Since then I have been checking his work out and it opens a door onto a hidden history of political resistance.

‘The Saint Patrick Battalion’ tells the story of a man called John Riley who left Dublin in Ireland for north America who joined the army and then with several hundred others defected to form the Saint Patrick’s Battalion and they fought with Mexico against the United States in the Mexican-American war of 1846–8:

“From Dublin City to San Diego
We witnessed freedom denied
So we formed the Saint Patrick Battalion
And we fought on the Mexican side”.


In ‘They All Sang the Internationale’ the story of Katharina Jacob, a former labour organiser in Hamburg, is told. The song pivots around the day she was on a death march led by the SS from Ravensbrück concentration camp when she and the other prisoners were liberated by Russian troops.

“For Katharina Jacob the end was close at hand
She was on a death march with a ragged, starving band
Marching through a forest, being led by the SS
What would happen hours later seemed impossible to guess

When the sun rose the next morning, it was the first of May
And they all sang the Internationale
And they all sang the Internationale”.


He wrote ‘Joe Hill’ in 2015 about the songwriter and trade unionist who was executed by firing squad in 1915 on a trumped up murder charge in the United States. He was born Joel Haagland in Sweden and he moved to the United States in 1902. He became an activist in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or the Wobblies as they were often referred to.

In the chorus David Rovics explains how Joe’s politics and power made him an enemy of the state:

“A hundred years ago the bard
With the union card
Proved his music was too powerful, too strong
They couldn’t stand the sound
They had to take him down
Lest he organize the working class in song”.

The final verse reveals his fate for the ‘crime’ of organising workers:

“His life would be cut short
By a kangaroo court
Eager to determine one man’s fate
Evidence was circumstantial
But that’s inconsequential
When you’ve become an enemy of the state
They put him up against the wall
And that was all
They gunned him down in 1915
He took all the bullets he could take
There by the Salt Lake
For being the best bard they’d ever seen”.


I am a socialist and frustrated that our education doesn’t want us to know about the endless acts of resistance against racism, Fascism, war, discrimination and poverty that have always taken place, to try and discourage us from taking on the system now.

I don’t only listen to political music. Music needs to be good! Thankfully David Rovics music is good. So check it out, learn something about the fighters that came before us and challenge the idea that the world is the way it is because this is how it has to be.

Check out more of David’s music at https://davidrovics.bandcamp.com/


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