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Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Remembering the Baltic Singing Revolution on the National Mall, 1998

by Guntis Šmidchens

In nonviolent political struggle for liberty, songs can be powerful weapons. This was the message that Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians sang on the National Mall on July 4, 1998. They were invited to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to celebrate the anniversary of their Baltic “Singing Revolution,” which had begun a decade earlier in the summer of 1988. At the time, I had recently finished my dissertation about Baltic singing traditions, and I was brought into the Festival to help introduce and interpret the performances.

Back in 1988, these Festival participants were in their home countries singing at public events, seizing two freedoms that had been crushed by the Soviet Union: The right to free assembly and the right to free speech. Over the next three years, their movement grew. In 1990, Balts elected governments that declared renewed independence. From January to August 1991, Soviet soldiers went on the offensive, killing and wounding many unarmed people. But civilian-based defense withstood the attacks, finally achieving the political independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Songs and singing energized the movement, sustaining faith in its ultimate success. At the outset in June of 1988, Estonian journalist Heinz Valk wrote, “A nation who makes its revolution by singing and smiling should be a sublime example to all.” His words were later reaffirmed by America’s foremost scholar of nonviolence: What the Balts did from 1988 to 1991, writes Gene Sharp, “stands as a major milestone in the history of the modern world.”*

Many years have now passed since the Singing Revolution broke out in the Baltic, and since the 90-minute event that closed the 1998 Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. Back then, Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and the leaders of the Baltic delegations discussed the concert as a “once-in-a-hundred-years opportunity” for Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians to speak to the American people.

The National Mall has historically been a place where Americans have assembled to affirm their most fundamental ideals. The Folklife Festival is the place where Americans can learn about and share the cultural treasures of humankind. This was the context in which I saw myself, in my role as a presenter for the delegation from Latvia, and as presenter and interpreter for all three nations at the July 4 concert. Born and raised in Chicago, I had learned stories of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in school, and I knew well the speech “I have a dream” delivered in D.C. in the year that I was born.

The Baltic Singing Revolution was yet another, more recent chapter in the international history of successful nonviolent politics. My job, of course, was not to give a speech, but only to translate into English on the spot whatever the Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian participants said or sang on stage. A transcript of the concert’s recording reveals that my split-second interpreting sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed miserably to capture what was being communicated. But the words that the participants spoke, and the songs they sang in their own languages, all retain their power.

The 54-minute video documentary presented here was produced soon after the 1998 festival by Charlie Weber and Dagmar Pfensig, who compiled it from fifty hours of recordings now preserved in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. In the film, we see excerpts from the July 4 concert, along with clips of other celebrations, performances, and interviews filmed by Festival staff from June 24 to July 5, 1998. On the Festival’s first day, Balts celebrated midsummer (Latvian Jāņi, Estonian Jaanipäev, Lithuanian Joninės or Rasos) as they do back home, with traditional songs, dances, beer, wreaths, and a bonfire. At other concerts, they demonstrated Latvian marriage traditions, Lithuanian Shrove-tide masks and games, and Estonian village swinging songs. Balts demonstrated mastery of many traditional crafts, not all of which appear in the film: blacksmithing, woodcarving, amber carving, silversmithing, fence-making, boat-building, pottery, Easter-egg decorating, dried-flower arrangements, knitting, wool-dyeing, spinning, embroidery, lacemaking, and weaving. At the Festival, the foodways demonstrations were a crowd favorite (“How much flour did you just add?” asked a spectator – “Oh, a few handfuls, until the dough feels right,” was the answer).

The political songs performed on stage at the July 4 celebration were only a small fraction of what Balts sang before, during, and after the Singing Revolution. Over the Festival’s two weeks, they sang hundreds of wedding songs, love songs, lullabies, funeral laments, songs about parents and children, funny songs, beer-drinking songs, war songs, Christian hymns, mythological songs and magical incantations, songs of people deported to Siberia, and more. Back at the hotel, music-making and singing continued into the wee hours of morning. At one memorable concert, I struggled to translate the long exchange of songs sung by two sparring groups of Latvians who suddenly started to improvise new words to the traditional melodies, competing amongst themselves for supremacy in oral poetry.

The film also documents issues that were current to audiences in 1998. Balts told me that one of the most common questions asked by Americans, including the Folklife Center interviewers, was about Russian immigrants in the Baltic. In the film, each Balt seems to have a different answer. Today we know that the majority of Russians in the Baltic chose to naturalize and become citizens of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, acquiring also citizenship in the European Union. They have engaged democracy. Today, for example, the mayors of Riga and Tallinn, and about one fourth of the members of Estonia’s and Latvia’s parliaments, represent political parties that highlight “Russian-speaking” issues. Friction continues in arguments over ethnic segregation in public schools; over history (was the end of the Soviet Union a good thing or a tragedy?); over relations with the Russian Federation; and more. Nevertheless, peace prevails after two and a half decades of Baltic independence—a resounding testament to the fact that local ethnic or national groups favor public discourse and democratic processes over violent means of political change.

Another issue raised by Balts interviewed in the film is the continuity of archaic, preindustrial traditions in the globalizing, mass-mediated modern world. The Livs of Latvia are among the most endangered ethnic groups in the world; only a handful of people today speak the unique Livonian language and understand the songs that the Stalte family sang at the Festival. “People want TV and electricity,” remarks an Estonian Festival participant; they move to cities for jobs as computer programmers, and it becomes nearly impossible to learn and maintain traditional crafts that once passed from generation to generation in the Baltic countryside. Folk traditions change, becoming part of a consciously maintained heritage. “We’re happy to see that our children are modern people,” says one participant from Latvia, “they live in a modern world, but they stay aware of their identity.” The Singing Revolution, too, fades in memory: “How quickly people forget!” remarks a Lithuanian participant. For younger generations, those momentous events that took place in late-twentieth-century Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania nowadays seem like “the olden days.” This film affirms the priceless heritage of singing Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and their Singing Revolution.

Guntis Šmidchens is associate professor of Baltic Studies in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. His book The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013) centers on the songs that participants shared at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on July 4, 1998.

* Heinz Valk, "Laulev revolutsioon," Sirp ja Vasar, June 17, 1988, reprinted in Mart Laar, Urmas Ott, and Sirje Endre, eds. Teine Eesti: Eeslava. Eesti iseseisvuse taassünd 1986–1991. Dokumendid, kõned, artiklid (Tallinn: SE&JS, 1996), 425–26; Gene Sharp, "The New Challenge," in The Baltic Way to Freedom: Non-Violent Struggle of the Baltic States in Global Context, ed. Jānis Škapars (Riga: Zelta Grauds, 2005), 424.

Click to watch video Featured Video

Produced by Charlie Weber and Dagmar Pfensig, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage;
Special thanks to Guntis Šmidchens

Click images to enlarge and view captions