Protest with Radio Days!

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
Download: Protest Songs-flyer

650 years of protest in song!

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 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, tyranny, and oppression.  Songs to march with, songs to rally with, songs with which to celebrate solidarity with one’s fellows.

What exactly is a ‘protest song’? how can we know whether a song properly counts as a ‘protest song’ or not?  That’s a legitimate question to ask.  I’ve written above about how “people have used song” as a medium of political expression and I’ve cited a couple of examples; but it’s a concept that’s fuzzy at the edges, making it hard to be confident about applying the label in some equivocal cases.  Does Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit count as a protest song? I’d argue that, from the point of view of its intended impact, it certainly does. What about the Specials’ Nelson Mandela? yes, no doubt at all about that one. Band Aid’s Feed the World? Possibly, but I’m not sure. Macka B’s Invasion? yes, I think so.  Anything by the Sex Pistols? hhmmm, tempting but probably not.  Linton Kwesi Johnson’s What About Di Workin Class?  I confess to loving everything by Linton Kwesi Johnson; but this ain’t, I’m afraid, a protest song.  In particular, one might want to ask whether a term first used in the 1960s, as per the definition given at Encyclopedia.com below, can then legitimately be applied to songs sung many hundreds of years before the term was coined.

protest song. Term which gained currency (first in USA) in 1960s for song which voiced feelings of protest about some social or political injustice, real or imagined, or about some international event which aroused strong emotions, e.g. American part in Vietnam war. A famous example is ‘We shall overcome’. Among the principal singers of the genre were Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

I suggest we work with an operational definition of ‘protest song’: if it sounds like we’d want to call it so, then it probably is.  So let’s begin, then, at the beginning with the Peasants’ Revolt.  Called by chronicler Jean Froissart (1337-1405) “the mad priest of Kent”, John Ball (1338-1381) was a priest and radical preacher who seems to have possessed the gift of rhyme and perhaps of song (though no melodies have survived the centuries), famously declaiming before assembled crowds on Blackheath:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

Was there, then, a song now forgotten? an accompanying melody that has been lost? This fragment in any case inspired English poet, songwriter, and folk musician Sydney Carter (1915-2004) to write the song John Ball for the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt, in commemoration of Ball and his dream of an equal society where all people are born equal, not born into privilege based on injustice or into undeserved servitude and slavery.

A similar spirit informs the songs of the Diggers, Levellers, and Ranters of the English Revolution in the mid-17th century.  A song by Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676), leader of the Diggers, has survived to this day, popularised by Chumbawamba as The Diggers’ Song on their Rebel Songs album and by Attila the Stockbroker on his album Disestablished 1980 as part of a medley that also includes the rousing March of the Levellers and The World Turned Upside Down.

Confusingly, there are three very different songs with the title of The World Turned Upside Down, the earliest (performed here by Maddy Prior) an English ballad first published on a broadside in the middle of the 1640s as a protest against the policies of an oppressive Parliament outlawing the celebration of Christmas, the second–also known as Working Men of England–collected and published in 1871 in the volume Curiosities of Street Literature and performed here by Chumbawamba, the third a contemporary song of the same title written about the Diggers by veteran author and protest singer Leon Rosselson (who also wrote a great song about the Ranters’ leader Abiezer Coppe).  Coincidence?  No, ‘the world turned upside down’ is a recurrent theme in both literature (this link to an 18th century text, for example) and song that our present times, whatever times they may be, of social and political strife mark a tragic fall from a long past idyllic ‘Golden Age’ and that we can but try to strive for a utopian return to that Golden Age in the future.

Protest songs continue to be published and sung throughout the 18th and 19th centuries from Hard Times of Old England and The Four-Loom Weaver (both probably c1790) to the Chartist Anthem and Edward Carpenter’s 1896 socialist anthem England Arise!, into the women’s suffrage songs of the Edwardian era, through the Great Depression years of the 1930s and the 1940s with singer-songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, and most especially in the 1950s by such singers as Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips, Bert Lloyd, and Ewan MacColl, and 1960s with Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan, among many others.

But this is not the time nor the place for me to tell the history of protest songs.  The time in fact will be 10.00 to 12.00 on Thursday, 26th April 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 build morale and cement solidarity; in the later sessions we’ll be exploring songs of the women’s suffrage movement (Week 5) and of the classic era of protest songs from the 1930s to the 1960s (Week 6).  For further information, you can download a flyer hereSo 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.

In the meantime, and in lieu of writing more pages now than I have the time and energy to write and you have the time and energy to read, let me just leave you with a small selection of some of my favourite protest songs from the 20th century that are likely to pop up in these six weeks of singing workshops.

Protest Songs–the last 100 years

Utah Phillips, Solidarity Forever (originally by Ralph Chaplin in 1915)
Blind Alfred Reed, How Can a Man Stand Such Hard Times and Live (1929)
Billy Holiday, Strange Fruit (1939)
Woody Guthrie, All You Fascists Bound To Lose (1942)
Paul Robeson, Joe Hill (1956)
Farrell Family, The H-Bomb’s Thunder (originally 1958)
Tom Lehrer, We Will All Go Together When We Go (1959)
Malvina Reynolds, Little Boxes (1962)
Mick Softley, The War Drags On (1965)
Country Joe McDonald, I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag (1965; 1967)
John Prine, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore (1971)
Tom Robinson, Glad To Be Gay (1978)
Peggy Seeger, Carry Greenham Home (1983)
Commoners Choir, Descendents (2017)

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