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Men of heart and pride

The real story behind "Each Small Candle"

Newsflash! Military action inspires Roger Waters to write song!

Waters uses the Amnesty International logo as the 'official' art of "Each Small Candle".

In 1999, with rumors flying that Roger Waters would be mounting an actual tour, his first since 1987, fans could hardly contain their excitement. And then, in the days before the tour began, rumors began to fly that Roger had written a new song, and had been heard rehearsing it with his band on July 22, 1999.

The new song, "Each Small Candle", was not performed publicly until the last night of that tour, on August 28, 1999. But it became the standard closing encore during the 2000 leg of the tour, and was officially released on the In the Flesh live album.

Meanwhile, Roger released a statement about the song via his website :

"A few years ago, an Italian journalist from a Florentine newspaper, involved in the Iniziativa contro la tortura, which is the initiative against torture in Northern Italy, sent some lyrics written by a South American man who had been tortured. The English translation (which represents the first stanza of the song) proved to be very moving, and was set to music. The words remained untouched... Until Kosovo.

"The London Times had a piece which told the story of a Serbian soldier who saw an Albanian woman lying wounded in a burned-out building. He left his platoon, went over and helped her, and then joined his men and marched off. There was sense in that image. The rest of the song is about that."

Nice story: a rare look into the creative process and the writings that inspired a song. There are a few subtle differences between the lyrics as published on that page and the lyrics sung at that first performance in Kansas City, and differences still in the 'official' lyrics published in the booklet of In the Flesh. Clearly, at that stage the song was still being developed.

The song is a touching portrait of soldier breaking ranks to comfort and aid a helpless old woman holding a child in the war-ravaged Albanian countryside. Waters says the woman's touch gives the soldier absolution, presumably for the acts of war which he has been called to commit. But the strongest image is that of the soldier laying down his weapon to perform a simple, caring act of humanitarian kindness to someone with whom he shares no common language or heritage, only the bond of humanity. He calls the soldier a 'samaritan', a reference to the Biblical parable of the "Good Samaritan" (Luke 10:30-37), in which a despised outcast gives aid to a helpless man who has been beaten and robbed, even when the victim's own people refuse to do so. The story is one in which Jesus speaks of mercy and charity and kindness, and commends his followers to exhibit these characteristics. Waters is clearly familiar with the story and its meaning, and paints the soldier in a similar light.

The image in the chorus is that through similar acts of compassion, we can all work together to bring an end to war and torture and hunger, and loosen this world from the grip of tyrants Waters calls "desperados". Each person, and indeed each individual act of mercy, is like a single candle--alone, each candle brings light only into its immediate surroundings, but together many candles will chase the darkness away.

It is no accident, then, that Waters used the official logo of Amnesty International in the concert visuals and on his "Each Small Candle" web page. Amnesty was originally founded in 1961 as a movement to free "prisoners of conscience" and to ensure speedy and fair trials for political prisoners. It has since grown to become a vast international organization that works to fight a variety of human rights violations such as torture and genocide through public awareness campaigns, letter-writing, protests, and humanitarian aid.

Wherever there is war or civil unrest, Amnesty is watching closely for any hint of human rights violations. Waters' own political and social philosophy seems to fall very much in line with that of Amnesty, and in all likelihood he supports the organization financially. By adopting the Amnesty logo as the more-or-less 'official' artwork for "Each Small Candle", he has allied himself with the group and has added the cause of human rights to the list of things that this song is 'about'.

I spent a little time trying to dig up the exact London Times article, but didn't have much luck. I suppose eventually someone with more time (and money) to devote to the cause will have better luck than I, and the Floyd community will be able to read for themselves the story that inspired Waters to write this song about 'personal responsibility' and about the possibility for redemption even in times of war.

But what about that first part of the song, supposedly written by an unknown South American victim of torture? After all, Waters was inspired by it as well.

Danish poet Halfdan Rasmussen.

Well, it turns out that the story of the South American isn't 100% accurate. The verse in question actually was written by a Danish poet named Halfdan Rasmussen, and was entitled "Ikke Bødlen". It was published at least twice: once in 1979 in a collection of poems on human rights published by the Danish chapter of Amnesty International, and again in 1985, in a collection of Rasmussen's work entitled Fremtiden er forbi.

Halfdan Rasmussen was born in Copenhagen in 1915. He fought in the resistance movement during the German occupation of Denmark during World War II, and later became known for his writings on human rights and other social issues, as well as his nonsense verses for children. He died in March 2002.

The text of "Ikke Bødlen" is as follows (in the original Danish, followed by an English translation):

Ikke bødlen gør mig bange
ikke hadet og torturen
ikke dødens riffelgange
eller skyggerne på muren
Ikke nætterne
når smertens sidste stjerne styrter ned
men den nådesløse verdens blinde ligegyldighed.

Not the torturer will scare me
nor the hate and the torture
nor the barrels of death's rifles
nor the shadows on the wall
Nor the nights
When the last star of pain is falling to the ground
But the blind indifference of the merciless world

It is clear that this poem is the basic source of Waters' lyric. How the changes came about are the subject of some speculation. Did a South American victim of torture see this poem (perhaps sent to him in a letter of encouragement by a member of Amnesty International), memorize it (as translated, perhaps, to Spanish), then somehow pass it on to the Italian journalist, who in turn passed it on to Waters, thinking it was original to the South American? Or did the journalist somehow come across the poem and, not knowing where exactly it had come from, pass it on to Waters, making up the 'South American' story entirely? Or perhaps Waters himself--having a deserved reputation for being a bit stingy with co-writing credits--found the poem on his own and conjured up the South American and the South American?

I'm not trying to make Waters out to be the bad guy here. I'll gladly give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the reason he perpetuated the false story of the poem's origins was because that is what he himself believed to be true.

But it would appear that Waters isn't much interested in giving credit for Rasmussen's contribution. His official website still carries the story of the Italian journalist and the tortured South American. The credits for the In the Flesh album (and DVD) as well as Flickering Flame (his 2002 'greatest hits' compilation) list Waters as the sole writer of "Each Small Candle". Maybe this is an honest mistake, and Waters simply isn't aware of Rasmussen. But if Waters himself doesn't know the truth, he should be told."

And if he does know the truth, he should give credit where credit is due.

Mike McInnis is a staff writer for Spare Bricks. Special thanks to Jacob Crawfurd and Ed Paule.