Wednesday, January 09, 2013


Singer-songwriter Victor Jara's work has lived on, both his activism, and his music. Jara (pronounced "Harra") recorded in Spanish, but whether you know the language or not, his work is still moving…with heartfelt vocals and good melodies. His mix of ballads and protest songs reminded people of another artist…Phil Ochs.

"Victor Jara was a friend of mine," Ochs recalled at the end of a rambling taped conversation with Harry Smith at the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan. "He was 27 years old…the Pete Seeger of Chile...When I was in Chile he came up to me and said, 'Hey, you, you're the North American protest singer, right? Phil Ochs.' I said, 'Yeah, you're a Communist and I'm a Socialist.' He said, 'Why don't you come with me and sing to the workers up in the copper mines?" Phil sang about the mines in Kentucky, so he surely was ready to sing along. Phil managed to get out of South America alive (the adventures are told in Michael Schumacher's bio of him). For Victor Jara, protest songs cost him his life. After General Pinochet's coup Jara was captured and brought to a stadium in Santiago that had become a death camp. Phil Ochs:

"So he goes to sing in front of 30,000 people, mostly soldiers and prisoners. Victor now knows he's going to die. So he prepares himself to die…trapped in the Santiago Stadium…they grabbed his fingers and broke them….Victor fell to the floor…they picked him up and said, "Sing, Victor, sing.' With the blood pouring out of his hands, Victor chose to stand up, wobbly, and sang. The other prisoners cheered. At this point they sprayed the stands with machine-gun fire to kill off a few...they took out a .45 and killed him. They threw his body with the other corpses. Just another dead body. His wife found him a week later. When that happened, I said, 'All right, that's the end of Phil Ochs.'"

The rebel in Phil did not die right away…he struggled to write new topical songs and appear at anti-war events. He also organized the "Evening with Salvador Allende" show at Madison Square Garden and persuaded Bob Dylan to turn up. A song that evening was for Victor Jara and sung by Arlo Guthrie, who quickly composed a melody to lyrics by Adrian Mitchell. He did a good job with his just-learned song, and you hear it below, live at the event. The full lyrics are here:

"Then the generals seized Chile. They arrested Victor then

They caged him in a stadium with five-thousand frightened men

Victor stood in the stadium. His voice was brave and strong

And he sang for his fellow prisoners till the guards cut short his song

They broke the bones in both his hands. They beat him on the head

They tore him with electric shocks and then they shot him dead

His hands were gentle, his hands were strong…."

Jara died on September 16th, 1973. The dictatorship of Pinochet lasted through 1990…with estimates of at least 3,000 innocent citizens killed, and 30,000 imprisoned and tortured. Pinochet's power helped him remain free until he was finally arrested in England in 1998, and dragged back to Chile in 2000. He still avoided a trial for another four years, and was not close to conviction when in 2006, at the ripe old age of 91, he died of natural causes. Thousands of still-loyal supporters saw to it that the General had a dignified funeral and that any protestors were shoved away and threatened with violence.

Seven more years…and finally a total of eight men under Pinochet's command have been indicted in the cruel death of Victor Jara. Two men, one of them tracked down to America, have been specifically charged with homicide; the rest with aiding and abetting the murder. Hopefully the "we were just following orders" defense, which disgusted spectators at Nuremberg and similar trials, will not be considered an excuse for brutality and sadism involving civilians and fellow countrymen. Victor's widow Joan said, "We're pushing forward in demanding justice for Victor with the hope that justice will follow for everyone."


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