Reading poetry – however visceral of an experience that can be – doesn’t quite compare to hearing Elisa Serna, the late Spanish singer-songwriter, interpret it into song. The longtime activist and musician possessed an astonishing voice capable of transmuting sorrow into resistance, and often brought classical poetry, written by the likes of Miguel Hernández and Antonio Machado, to the guitar. Listening to Serna’s re-configuration of Carlos Alvarez’s “Cerca de mañana,” about feeling hopeless, is less a song than a revelation – one that compels you to delve into every written word she’s breathed life into.
If her music sounds heavy, that’s because the circumstances surrounding its creation were. Serna, who hailed from the Pacífico region of Madrid, was thrown in jail multiple times for bringing her protest poems and songs to the stage, and once for starting a strike at a show in Villaverde. On the heels of one of her performances in the 1970s, Spanish authorities remarked that she bore the curious distinction of stirring “the public to the point of damaging social peace.”
The potency of Serna’s singing voice – a pained, exalting warble capable of hitting bone-chilling depths while simultaneously raising listeners up – was undeniable. Serna, who passed away in September at age 75, bore one of the most distinctive voices ever put to tape and held power accountable with it. She also had a hand in co-founding an influential collective that brought young cantautoras (singer-songwriters) to the frontlines of anti-fascist and feminist activism. Through the albums she released, both while exiled in France in the 1970s and in her native Spain, she spoke (and sang) about the power of collective action and rights for the disenfranchised.
By the time Serna was born, in 1943, Spain was already in the throes of a military dictatorship run by the far-right General Francisco Franco. Almost immediately after coming into power – following the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 – Franco imposed restrictions on freedom of speech, censoring words and images in journalistic stories, film, literature, art, music and other spaces. He placed a particular emphasis on shutting out what people were listening to on the radio; the four people working the afternoon shift at Madrid’s Directorate of Popular Culture alone “banned a total of 4,343 songs on grounds of their sexual, blasphemous or politically subversive content” in Spain from 1960 to 1977. Songs prohibited during the Franco era included the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” (because it might “sublimate sexual excitations”) and The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” (censors misheard Lou Reed’s lyric “for the kingdom” as “foiking.”)
Franco’s censors cracked down especially hard on music with undercurrents of revolutionary social or political messages – namely, folk music crafted by singer-songwriters. In 1966, Serna was one of the students at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense who began to meet surreptitiously with one another. Comprised of activists, artists, and cantautoras including Adolfo Celdrán and Julia León, the amorphous crew exchanged ideas and records that could get them detained, arrested or worse. (Missives from outside of Spain were so coveted that Serna once noted how her collective had a covert space they rented out solely for the purposes of storing songbooks, records and other ephemera that had been brought there illicitly.)
Around this time, Serna and her university compatriots started singing together. In 1967, Serna co-founded the Canción del Pueblo (Songs of the People), a collective modeled after Pete Seeger’s People’s Song. The collective disbanded not a year later, but its impact had been cemented nonetheless, and many of its members, including Hilario Camacho and especially Serna, breathed new life into protest songs in respective solo careers. Singing became the medium through which they started “communicating with the people and criticizing the atrocities of the regime,” as Serna once put it.
Some of them formed a group named La Trágala, which found a rallying cry within “No Nos Moverán.” It came into their lives via a Pete Seeger cover that one member of their crew, Antonio Gómez, had brought back from London. The original song is an African-American spiritual named “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The song, about refusing to yield in the face of oppression, had a pivotal place in the civil rights movement, particularly when black demonstrators were being arrested during sit-ins. During the 20th century, it also found resonance within union movements, Mexican pecan shellers fighting for labor rights in Texas, and citizens protesting Franco’s fascist regime, as David Spener details in his book about the song and its tangled history.
La Trágala became captivated with the song and its ethos: Ignacio Fernández Toca, another member of the group, translated the tune into Spanish, and they soon began to sing it at school, in church, and on the street. Once authorities got wind that it had been used in demonstrations against Franco, they forbade people from performing it at all. “We Shall Not Be Moved,” which had been translated into Catalan as well as Spanish, became part of a larger tradition of folk music in Europe. Out on the streets, Serna and her peers tweaked verses to fit the kinds of demonstrations and other protests they were engaging in.
By 1969, Serna had set about recording music on her own. That year she released a short album, featuring her singing four poems. The album’s cover notes that Serna was from the group Trágala, but at that point, it had become clear that she possessed a peerless voice, able to transport listeners into a despondent and quietly hopeful world that mirrored the one they lived in.
On this album, she interpreted Miguel Hernández’s brief poem about a firefly (“La Luciérnaga”) into a mystical, enthralling tale about what causes people to burn brightly and fade. The poet Jesús López Pacheco’s reflections on poverty and hunger, “Canción Del Pan,” became a gripping lament with Serna at the helm, decrying how “bread has the sound of a shot, when a hungry mouth pronounces it.” The unusual way that she enunciated words, too – elongating, for instance, the word alma – forced listeners to absorb the full weight of the lyric, and the particular mood it evoked.
In time, Serna’s own songs were banned in Spain; later, she’d recount how she had gathered the hundreds of applications to perform and record songs, all of which had been denied. She decamped to Paris to live in exile in the early 1970s. Two years later, she recorded what would become her proper debut album, Quejido, with the help of Paco Ibáñez. The album didn’t make it back to Spain in its original form, though. It underwent a dramatic edit and was recut without two of its central tunes – “Esta Gente Que Querrá” and “Los Reyes de la Baraja.” It’s no less scathing: “They’re going to invade us from Wall Street,” she seethes on one song, “Otros Vendrán.” She returned to Spain in 1973, only to be thrown in jail and fined for performing the music.
Serna continued writing and playing throughout her life, in France and elsewhere throughout Europe, often for Spanish émigrés, and later on with a theater troupe in Spain. Activism remained at the core of her work: Almost a year to the day before she passed away, she reunited with her old compatriots from Canción del Pueblo for a 50th anniversary concert commemorating the movement. Sitting at the center of the stage, Serna took the audience through the words of a protest chant against feminicidio, or the uptick in murders committed by men against women in Spain. “Basta ya,” she sighed, gesturing audiences to sing along with her. “Ni una muerta más” (“Stop now, not one more dead”). When the song was over, she took up her guitar, blew a kiss to someone in the crowd and walked offstage.
Illustration: André Gottschalk