Billy Bragg Gives New Lyrics to the World’s Most Popular Anthem | The Nation

Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Billy Bragg Gives New Lyrics to the World’s Most Popular Anthem

Musician Billy Bragg in a still from Following the Ninth.

Most countries have a national anthem, official or otherwise, but there’s really only one universal anthem: Beethoven and Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” from the final movement of the Ninth Symphony. It is heard and played and sung in every corner of the globe, from serving as the anthem of the European Union to the townships of South Africa and the smallest villages in Japan. It conveys, via music, and explicitly in the lyrics (when it is sung) the wish for the brotherhood and sisterhood of all.

For that reason it also often serves as an inspiration or rallying cry for activism and protests. Two years ago, for example, for an anti-austerity/pro-Occupy demonstration in Madrid, it sent a crowd of half a million into ecstasy, played by a small makeshift orchestra.

Kerry Candaele has directed a film (which I’ve co-produced) titled Following the Ninth, which captures some of this influence of the Beethoven symphony around the world. It explores how students used it in Tiananmen Square, wives and mothers in Pinochet’s Chile, young Germans (with Leonard Bernstein) at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Japanese to draw people together following the tsuanami. And then there’s Billy Bragg, singing and chatting humorously about how he rewrote Schiller’s words for the “Ode to Joy” for modern political use—and sang it for the Queen.

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Our film premieres in New York at Lincoln Center (the Eleanor Bunin Munroe complex) this Tuesday at 6:30, and I’ll be moderating a panel with Kerry and conductor George Mathew afterward. (Tickets are very limited so order now.) Then it plays at the Quad Cinema in the Village for a week starting on Friday, with The Nation co-sponsoring the Friday and Saturday evening screenings, when I will again appear with the director and other guests. Full info here.

Now here’s audio of BIlly Bragg singing his new “Ode,” plus the trailer for the film. 


Greg Mitchell remembers Leonard Bernstein conducting the Ninth Symphony in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

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