[Learning Pack] Protest Songs: an Introduction

Protest Songs. A free 6-week workshop programme open to all who would like to sing with us, no matter what your singing experience. All the music will be taught by ear by our facilitator has wide experience in leading community singing as well as in vocal work with actors and theatre students.
Venue: Brompton Cemetery Chapel, Fulham Rd, Kensington SW10 9UG
Time: 10.00 to 12.00 Thursdays, for 6 weeks commencing 26th April 2018
Booking essential: bromptonproject@royalparks.org.uk

Downloads for workshop participants: Protest Songs-flyer
March of the Women: sheet music | about+lyrics | lyrics (large print) | voice1 | voice2 | voice3
Shoulder to Shoulder: sheet music | about+lyrics | voice1 | voice2
Jerusalem: sheet music | about+lyrics | lyrics (large print)

650 years of protest in song!

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
–Oscar Wilde, 1891

Well, just a little shy of 650 years. Six hundred and thirty-seven years, if you’re going to be pernickety about it, but I like nice round numbers that look forward as well as back as much as I like to think that protest songs will still be written and sung for so long as the world needs them. Because beginning with at least two songs credited to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and on through the centuries to the likes of Captain SKA’s Liar Liar and Commoners Choir’s Boris Johnson’s Head Upon A Stick in the present, people have used song as a medium through which to express and share their social and political grievances, their critique of present ills and their dreams of a better future, their beliefs and their aspirations, and their outrage and solidarity and defiance as social movements confronting injustice, inequality, tyranny, and oppression. Songs to march with, songs to rally with, songs with which to celebrate solidarity with one’s fellows, songs with which to change the world.  It is impossible and pointless to underestimate the power of song, as author and protest singer Leon Rosselson highlights in his essay ‘The Power of Song‘:

In Soweto, women and children sang as they were shot down by the police. The Vietcong carried songsheets into battle with them. Civil Rights demonstrators in the States sang as they were being attacked by Alsatian dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs because it made them feel less alone, less afraid. The importance of the new song movement in Chile can be gauged by the lengths the junta went to to destroy it. Colonising powers have always attempted to root out indigenous music and culture. A defeated people does not sing. Perhaps the converse is also true — a movement that has no songs is already defeated.

“… a movement that has no songs is already defeated”.  In our series of workshops this Spring we’ll be partitioning our history of protest songs into four relatively distinct eras:

  • ‘The World Turn’d Upside Down’ (1381 to circa 1900): typically songs of the common people bemoaning poverty, political and economic tyranny, serfdom and social inequality, and lack or loss of freedom and opportunity.
    Notable songs: The Cutty Wren (1381), the Diggers’ Song (1649), Babylon is Fallen (c1649), The Maunding Souldier (c.1629), Working Men Of England (c.1812).
  • ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’: Women, War, and Wobblies (circa 1900 to 1918): songs of the women’s suffrage movement, soldiers’ songs of the Great War, and early labour and union songs
    Notable exponents: Ethyl Smyth, Cicely Hamilton, Edward Carpenter, Jim Connell, Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin, John Brill, Harry McClintock, etc
  • ‘We Shall Overcome’: the Folk Revival, and All That Jazz (1930s to circa 1973): social protest songs from the Great Depression, through the civil rights movement, to CND and the Vietnam war
    Notable exponents: Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, Ewan MacColl, A.L. Lloyd, Utah Phillips, Joan Baez, Karl Dallas, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, etc
  • ‘Wind in the Sails of the Struggle’ (circa 1976 to the present): for the most part songs relating to topical issues (LGBT rights, Iraq War, etc).  This period is also distinguished by the large number of songs that explicitly address and shame public figures (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Theresa May, etc)
    Notable exponents: Crass, Vi Subversa, Poison Girls, Subhumans, Zounds, Lost Cherrees, Chumbawamba, Captain SKA, Commoners Choir, etc

But this is not the time nor the place for me to tell the history of protest songs. Greenham CommonThe time in fact will be 10.00 to 12.00 on Thursday, 26th April 2018 and weekly thereafter for six weeks; the place, Brompton Cemetery Chapel, Fulham Rd, Kensington SW10 9UG. In the early sessions we’ll be discovering some of the very earliest English protest songs, and understanding how singing together can powerfully express shared grievance, build community morale, and cement solidarity. For further information, you can download a flyer here. So if you’re interested not just in learning more of the history of protest songs but also in grabbing the opportunity of singing the songs with a bunch of friendly people, drop us a line at bromptonproject@royalparks.org.uk to let us know. Put “Protest songs” in the email header, and we’ll get back to you pretty much immediately.

Next page »Protest Songs workshop 1: ‘The World Turn’d Upside Down’ (1381 to circa 1900)


David Horspool, ‘Ready to rebel? You are part of a glorious tradition’, The Spectator, 29 July 2009
» https://www.spectator.co.uk/2009/07/ready-to-rebel-you-are-part-of-a-glorious-tradition/

Leon Rosselson, ‘The Power of Song’, Medium, 16th July 2017
» https://medium.com/@rosselson/the-power-of-song-2aa90e6a5a7d

Commoners Choir, ‘Singalong Protest–A Series of Short Songs and Chants for Marches and Demonstrations’ (= text beneath video)
» https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PozqxwAG5BE

[Wikipedia] Protest song
» https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protest_song

[Wikipedia] Protest Songs, Britain and Ireland
» https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protest_song#Britain_and_Ireland

[Wikipedia] ‘Music and politics’
» https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_and_politics

Folk Music of England (scroll down to ‘Protest Songs’)
» http://www.folkworld.eu/61/e/england.html

The Little Red Song Book
» http://politicalfolkmusic.org/the_little_red_songbook_1909_1973/

Two excellent resources for facsimiles of original broadside ballads are:

Bodleian Libraries Broadside Ballads Online
» http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/collections

University of California at Santa Barbara, English Broadside Ballad Archive
» http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu

Additional links for choirs

Campaign Choirs Network
» http://campaignchoirs.org.uk

Street Choirs Festival
» http://www.streetchoirs.org

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