Brilliant Songs #28: Mike Batt’s “Market Day in Guernica”

Eighty-five years ago this past week, April 26, 1937, was a market day in Guernica, Spain. It was a Monday, when farmers from the surrounding countryside would bring their crops into the town square to sell to residents and others who flowed in from surrounding towns in the autonomous Basque Country.

The Spanish Civil War was raging at the time, pitting the Republican government against General Francisco Franco’s rebel Nationalist faction and fascist allies Germany and Italy. Guernica, with a population of some 5,000, had not been a center of combat, but it stood some 30 kilometers east of Bilbao, population nearly 200,000, which Franco coveted as a strategically important possession to bring the government to its knees.

Batt was looking back to Guernica when he wrote this song, but nearly 20 years on and still active, the Twitter hashtag he features next to his name @MikeBatt is #StandWithUkraine.

That made Guernica ripe pickings as a staging area for a nationalist assault on Bilbao—and also a test led by the German Luftwaffe’s “Condor Legion,” which sought to answer a question that was just then developing in the annals of modern warfare: Could a city’s civilian population be “terror bombed” and brought to submission strictly by a devastating display of air power, bringing such ruination and despondency to a country that no commitment of ground troops would be required?

Franco and the Luftwaffe got their answer, and out of it came not only the destruction of a wide swath of Guernica and the loss of several hundred lives, but also a famous, world-shattering Pablo Picasso painting (shown below), discussed in a long ago post here.

And more recently: a stirring 2005 song by British producer, pianist and songwriter Mike Batt, the 28th in this  “Brilliant Songs series” that has now been running for over four years.



Perhaps the first thing one notices in the signature version of “Market Day in Guernica” debuted for Batt by Katie Melua, a former Soviet Union (Georgia)-born singer who emigrated to the United Kingdom with her family at age 8, is its slow, ambling pace and her matching softness of voice.

It’s Market Day, after all, when no one should be in a hurry. Given it’s late April in southern Europe, she’s perhaps wearing a sleeveless dress, her hands casually inside front pockets where she’s fingering a small wad of bills she’ll use to buy spring vegetables.

All while keeping an eye on her gamboling children and their skipping game.

War may be nearby, but it will not ruin this day. Until she hears the roar of the bombers, that is. Let’s listen to the song now and then return for some closing discussion. Full lyrics will follow.



So simple, really. (Which is often the genius of profound songs and other arts.)

A mother, her children, a springtime jaunt to the market, the kids in front playing a skipping game.

Before “they” came.

Her father, in a linen suit—oh, but I can see that suit now—cream-colored, pressed, impeccable. Topped by a panama hat to keep out the sun.

A transition from play and brightness (though a question intrudes: why does she sound so plaintive?) to a search for forgiveness.

Why, for what?

Because her “little ones no longer play/In Guernica, on market day.”

The image haunts, because we can see this young woman’s life spread out to the end of its days, haunted as we are by the monstrous undertones of those children no longer playing.

Two stanzas on, Batt no longer surrounds this aching, tragi-beautiful tale in dulcet tones of children playing or not, as the woman’s father is “blown away/In Guernica, on market day.”

Then the song essentially ends, in five-word resignation, her children, her father, her very life “Away/Away/All blown away.”

Horror and the suffering of innocents has been a part of every war, but aerial bombardment targeted at civilians where they live, worship, give birth and seek medical care has introduced an entirely new and merciless element into war’s equation.

Nazi Germany tried its hardest to perfect the technique in World War II after its early “success” in Guernica. And Franco went on to rule Spain with his iron boot until 1975.

Today, a certain country bordering Russia is experiencing the same terrors, though on a grimly more extensive basis, in multiple of its cities, great heaps of rubble fast becoming the symbol of this time.

Batt was looking back to Guernica when he wrote this song, but nearly 20 years on and still active, the Twitter hashtag he features next to his name @MikeBatt is #StandWithUkraine.

Regrettably in one sense and beautifully in another, his song speaks only more clearly today to the particular, ultimate human costs of war that no human should ever be asked to endure.

My children played a skipping game
On market day, in Guernica
On market day before they came
Before they came to Guernica.

I search my soul but cannot start
To find forgiveness in my heart,
My little ones no longer play
In Guernica, on market day.

My father wore his linen suit
On market day, in Guernica
He always sold the finest fruit
Before they came to Guernica.

Now there’s no way to let him know
How much I loved and miss him so
I watched as he was blown away
In Guernica, on market day.

All blown away.

(Repeat of first two stanzas)

Batt adapted the song to a musical production called “Men Who March Away” in 2017, performed in lovely fashion by the Scottish actress and singer Paula Masterton. For unknown technical reasons, You Tube is not embedding it here, but just click on this link and you’ll be there.
Finally, Guernica today…

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German bomber and Guernica painting from historical archives

Guernica today by Bikes and Books

4 comments to Brilliant Songs #28: Mike Batt’s “Market Day in Guernica”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    This dirge’s haunting melody perfectly suits the tragic “Market Day” bombing of Guernica, the first such attack by the Luftwaffe on a civilian population, an act that deservedly drew world-wide condemnation. The lyric “My little ones no longer play/In Guernica, on market day” echoes of the screaming woman holding her dead baby in Picasso’s stunning anti-war painting. Furthermore, the bombing, which occurred one month to the day after Easter, cast a terrible shadow over that recent celebration of rebirth and spiritual affirmation. A few years later, the Luftwaffe repeated this inhumane kind of aerial attack on the civilian population of England with even more horrific results. On a side note, I can’t help but think that the Georgian-born Katie Melua wouldn’t recognize the parallelism between the fate of her native country and that of the Ukraine. Afterall, it wasn’t too long ago that Putin ordered the invasion of Georgia, and Russia still occupies a portion of it today. Thanks once more for introducing me to another personally unheard of before brilliant song.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Pleasure’s mine, Robert. There’s so much appalling but important history to this event that I actually began going into it more than the little bit I did in this post before remembering to focus on the song and leave the history to readers’ further exploration if they’re inclined. Thanks for filling in some of that, and reminding me I was going to leave this link for just that purpose…

  • jay Rogers  says:

    Love these posts about music. thanks for this one!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Glad to hear that, Jay, thank you. So much great music & songwriting out there, not nearly enough time!

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