Playwright, director, and composer Peter Glazer grew up listening to songs from the Spanish civil war. “In 1942 a group of folksingers, including Pete Seeger and my father, recorded an album called Songs of the Lincoln Battalion, which was the first American recording of songs sung by the American volunteers in Spain,” he says. Tom Glazer, who had been a prominent member of the New York folk scene in the 40s and 50s–“My father sang with Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly”–had learned many of the songs, like “Vive la Quince Brigada” and “There’s a Valley in Spain Called Jarama,” firsthand from veterans. “I remember him walking around the house singing those songs,” Glazer says.

Tom Glazer’s work greatly influenced his son. In the early 90s Peter Glazer wrote a show based on the life and music of Woody Guthrie–Woody Guthrie’s American Song–which was produced by Northlight and later moved to Briar Street. And in the late 90s he directed Jamie O’Reilly and Michael Smith in their concert performance of Pasiones, an evening of Spanish civil war songs. His latest show, The Heart of Spain, returns to the subject.

For many on the left, the Spanish civil war was one of the great lost causes of the 30s. In 1936, with the backing of Hitler and Mussolini, General Francisco Franco and the Spanish fascists led a revolt against the left-leaning republic of Spain. The Western democracies, frightened by the republic’s flirtations with socialism and eager to appease Hitler and Mussolini–who promised they would not militarily intervene in the war–did nothing. Franklin Roosevelt signed a neutrality bill, but that didn’t stop approximately 2,800 Americans, many of them recruited by the American Communist Party, from creating the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an all-volunteer army that fought alongside the republicans. “They believed that Hitler was a danger,” says Glazer. “If we don’t stop the fascists in Spain, they argued, Hitler will march over Europe.”

Which, of course, is exactly what happened. Hitler eventually intervened in the war, using Spain as a testing ground; some have described the famous Nazi bombing of Guernica as a dress rehearsal for the later blitz against London. Franco went on to rule Spain until the year before his death, in 1975.

Woven together from eyewitness accounts, reminiscences, traditional songs, and original songs by Glazer and his collaborator, Eric Peltoniemi, The Heart of Spain is a musical history of the war. “The first act introduces the American atmosphere during the 30s–all of the social strife that was going on in the country. I want to give people the foundations of why someone might want to volunteer to help a foreign country to battle fascism.” The second act focuses on the wartime experiences of the veterans themselves, from the time the ragtag army landed on Spanish soil and began fighting the better-equipped and better-organized fascists to the moment the survivors were told to go back to the U.S. in a desperate, last-ditch effort to drum up support.

But the real meat of Glazer’s show is the songs. Peltoniemi captures the camaraderie and loyalty of the soldiers in his lyrics to a song called “The Good Fight”: “Ev’ry one has borne an honor / That no tyrant can replace / And their spirits lead us onward / We who struggle in their place.”

“The songs from that period are so passionate and so remarkable,” says Glazer. “They really believed the Spanish civil war was their last chance to prevent a second world war. And they were right.”

The Heart of Spain runs through May 21 at the Northwestern University Theatre and Interpretation Center, Ethel M. Barber Theatre, 1979 South Campus Drive in Evanston. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $15; call 847-491-7282. The show on Sunday, May 21, is a benefit for the Chicago Friends of the Lincoln Brigade; tickets are $20, which includes a postshow reception with the cast and veterans. Call 847-864-9468. –Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.