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Harry’s song: as sung in Spain

Jim Jump writes…

 

Singing was a powerful bond for the volunteers of the International Brigades. Many recalled the exhilarating feeling of solidarity felt when singing ‘The Internationale’ in their different languages. Each battalion and national group also had their favourite songs, which were sung while marching or simply for the fun of it. In the British Battalion these songs included Glaswegian Alex McDade’s ‘Valley of Jarama’ and the ‘Song of the Anti-Tanks’, written by Jack Black from Dover.

 

Another song that was sung in Spain, according to the memoirs of the volunteers, was ‘Harry Was a Bolshie’, also known as ‘The Ballad of Harry Pollitt’. 

 

Born in Droylesden, near Manchester, Pollitt (1890-1960) was the General Secretary of the British Communist Party during the Spanish Civil War. He was a great supporter of the Brigades and visited the British Battalion on two occasions.

 

In the song, Harry dies and manages to enter Heaven by claiming to be a friend of Lady Astor, notoriously at the time a supporter of appeasement with Nazi Germany. He call the angels out on strike and is banished to Hell, where he becomes the people’s commissar.

 

The song was written by Elin Williams, a Cardiff communist who was an associate of several volunteers who went to Spain, including fellow Cardiffians Alec Cummings and Gilbert Taylor. She wrote it at a communist summer camp for unemployed workers outside Oxford in 1936, having just left university.

 

Her composition became popular not only in Spain, but soon spread around the folk-music world in Britain, Australia, North America and beyond.

 

 

Harry Pollitt presenting the British Battalion with its banner at Mas de las Matas, in Aragón, at Christmas 1937.

 

The song has since been recorded by American performers The Limeliters and Joe Glazer, and a version by Ken Penny appears on the 1981 compilation ‘An English Folk Music Anthology’. ‘The Ballad of Harry Pollitt’ even crops up on song compilations and discographies of the Grateful Dead. This is because lyricist Robert Hunter and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia performed it in their early folk club days. 

 

John Mehta, a relation of Brigader Gilbert Taylor, interviewed Elin Williams in 2002 while researching Taylor’s life. Prompted by the IBMT’s recent appeal for photos of Brigaders for the database on volunteers on our website, John sent us an extract from the interview in which her song is discussed.

 

Erin recalled the summer camp when she wrote the song. ‘We started a campfire for the night and people did a turn to sing a song and so on. I hadn’t got a song so I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote ‘Harry Was a Bolshie’. They liked it, and somebody took it down on a piece a paper and that song has travelled the world.’

 

Among the volunteers who remembered singing it in Spain was my father, James R Jump. In November 1937 at the fort in Figueras where newly arrived recruits were mustered after crossing the Pyrenees, the various national groups entertained each other by singing revolutionary songs. ‘The Ballad of Harry Pollitt proved very popular after we had translated the words,’ Jump recounts in his Spanish Civil War memoir*. 

 

 

‘Harry Was a Bolshie’ or ‘The Ballad of Harry Pollitt’

 

Harry was a Bolshie and one of Lenin’s lads

Was foully murdered by counter-revolutionary cads

Counter-revolutionary cads, counter-revolutionary cads

Was foully murdered by counter-revolutionary cads

 

He landed up in heaven trembling at the knees

‘May I speak to God I am Mr Pollitt please

Mr Pollitt please, Mr Pollitt please,

May I speak to God I am Mr Pollitt please’

 

‘Who are you’ said God ‘if you’re humble and contrite

And a friend of Lady Astor, then OK, you’ll be alright

Then OK you’ll be alright, then OK, you’ll be alright

And a friend of Lady Astor, then OK, you’ll be alright’

 

They dressed him in a nightie, put a harp into his hand

And he played ‘The Internationale’ in the hallelujah band

In the hallelujah band, in the hallelujah band

He played ‘The Internationale’ in the hallelujah band

 

They put him in the choir, the hymns he did not like

So he organised the angels and he fetched them out on strike

Fetched them out on strike, fetched them out on strike

He organised the angels and he fetched them out on strike

 

One day as God was walking around the heavenly state

Who should he see but Harry chalking slogans on the gate

Slogans on the gate, slogans on the gate

Who should he see but Harry chalking slogans on the gate

 

They put him up for trial before the Holy Ghost

Charged with disaffection amongst the heavenly host

Amongst the heavenly host, amongst the heavenly host

Charged with disaffection amongst the heavenly host

 

The verdict it was guilty, said Harry ‘That is swell’

And he tucked his nightie ’round his knees and he floated down to Hell

Floated down to Hell, floated down to Hell

He tucked his nightie ’round his knees and he floated down to Hell

 

A few more years have ended, now Harry’s doing swell

He’s just been made the people’s commissar for Soviet Hell

Commissar for Soviet Hell, commissar for Soviet Hell

He’s just been made the people’s commissar for Soviet Hell

 

Now the moral of this story is easy for to tell,

If you want to be a Bolshevik, you’ll have to got to Hell,

You’ll have to go to Hell, yes, you’ll have to go to Hell,

If you want to be a Bolshevik, you’ll have to go to Hell!

 

 

A Communist Party pamphlet produced during the Spanish Civil War.

Warwick Digital Collections

 

 

*‘The Fighter Fell in Love: A Spanish Civil War Memoir in Prose and Poetry’ is to be published in March 2021 by The Clapton Press, London.

 

Jim Jump is the Chair of the IBMT

 

Posted on 24 December 2020.