‘The Singing Revolution’

The Singing Revolution movie poster.(Photo: Kathleen Fitch)
The Singing Revolution movie poster.(Photo: Kathleen Fitch)

With Independence Day just around the corner, I find myself reflecting on the liberties we enjoy here in the U.S.:

I have no idea what it is like to live in a war-torn nation. What it’s like to live with the constant frustration of being voiceless. What it’s like to fear for your personal safety, even in your own home.

Ask any number of Estonians what freedom means to them and you might get an interesting — and musical — answer. I recently viewed The Singing Revolution, a documentary by Maureen and James Tusty about the role music played in Estonia’s journey from behind the iron curtain and into the free world as a democratic republic. The story of Estonia’s path to freedom from the former U.S.S.R. is deeply moving.

During World War II, Estonia was occupied first by Nazi Germany in 1941, then reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. Estonia would not regain independence until 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, and joined the European Union in 2004.

During the time the Soviets were in power, the Laulupidu festival, the amateur choral singing festival held every five years in Estonia since 1869, became a site for both pro-Soviet display and protest through music. People had come to this festival from all around Estonia to sing local and national folksongs together in a giant chorus — which, by 1947, was some 20,000 to 30,000 voices strong. During Estonia’s Soviet years, the festival participants, wearing the folk costumes of their native villages as they processed in grand parades, were forced to carry enormous images of Stalin attached to large poles and to sing songs praising the dictator and his regime.

Something stunning happened in the 1947, at the first Laulupidu festival since the Soviet occupation, the choir introduced a protest song written by Gustav Ernesaks set to the lyrics of a century-old national poem by Lydia Koidula, Mu isamaa on minu arm (“Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love”). The song became an Estonian hymn to freedom, and censors banned it from the festivals during the 1950s. In the 1969 Laulupidu festival the choir would perform Land of My Fathers, Land that I Love repeatedly, refusing the Soviets orders to leave the stage.

So, this Fourth of July, I’ll ask you the same question I’ve been asking myself of late: What would you do if you had to fight for your freedom? (And who says you won’t have to some day?) Would you raise your gun? Would you raise your voice in protest? Or would you raise your voice, with those of your American brothers and sisters, in song? I hope we are never confronted with this decision. But if we are, I know which option I’ll choose.