Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Protest and Survive
At the end of the nineties, I went to a Nick Cave gig at the Royal Festival Hall that turned out not to be a gig at all but rather a sort of musical academic lecture on the nature of the love song. My mate, bemoaning loudly the pretension of it all, was shushed by the person in front but his reply – “come off it, he’s only a pop singer” – raised a laugh of wry recognition from others around. Bearing in mind this example of the intellectualising of pop music, I approached a talk in my local pub last night with some trepidation.
To their credit, the Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle has launched a series of ‘Castle Talks in the Community’; the first was given by Nick Baxter-Moore, a lecturer in politics and popular culture, and posed the question ‘Where Have all the Protest Songs Gone?’ I need not have worried about pretension: in the packed function room of the Woolpack Inn, an audience of all ages was treated to an engaging meditation on the protest song from post-war American folk singers to contemporary popular music. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Baxter-Moore illustrated his chronology with snatches of songs.
Starting with Pete Seeger’s anti-war ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, there was a clear sense that singers such as Seeger, Bob Dylan and their socialist contemporary Phil Ochs were galvanised by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and the general mood of change in the 1960s. ‘Blowing in the Wind’ prompted some audience participation from dewy-eyed children of the revolution, as did Country Joe McDonald’s humorously ironic ‘Vietnam Song’. Baxter-Moore put forward the idea that protest songs that express a generic sentiment have greater longevity. Citing the example of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ - a song that outlines a communist utopia – being played as Thatcher took the stage at a Tory party conference in the 1980s, he also held that these songs are open to wild misappropriation.
Tracing developments into the seventies and eighties with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, Baxter-Moore acknowledged the contribution of punk and hip hop to the music of protest. Beginning with a rendition of Billy Bragg’s ‘There is Power in a Union’ – a joyously surreal moment in an East Sussex village pub - things took a leftward step as he focused on the links between protest music and the labour/trade union movement. Bringing things up to date, last year’s public sector strike in Madison, Wisconsin produced ‘Union Town’ by The Nightwatchman, aka Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, a song of defiance that reminded me of the Strawbs’ 1973 hit ‘Part of the Union’.
Taking questions at the end, a member of the audience rhetorically asked if a protest song had ever changed anything. Making the point that protest songs are best at making people aware and think, more than effecting change itself, Baxter-Moore never actually answered the question. I would say that, arguably, 1984’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by Jerry Dammers’ Special AKA is the most successful of modern times. Protest songs do need to be popular to be powerful and Dammers’ was upbeat, danceable and it was a huge hit. It raised consciousness of Mandela and the struggle against apartheid and, ultimately, its sentiment was realised.
In answer to his original question, Baxter-Moore concluded that protest songs have not gone anywhere, they are alive and well; and he pointed to Ben Drew – better known as Plan B – and his upcoming song of rage against a government of rich boys and their demonization of council estates, ‘Ill Manors’. If post-riots, inner-city London is the natural fertile ground for protest, there is also the music of protest closer to home. Sussex’s finest, British Sea Power, recently asked the question ‘Who’s in Control?’ while rousing the apathetic – “did you not know everything around you is being sold” – and wishing “that protesting was sexy on a Saturday night”. And big-voiced Derek Meins, aka The Agitator (above), and his rabble rousing songs fired up the strikers before the big public sector march through Brighton last summer. But the best proof of the legacy of politics and popular music exists further along the south coast: any serious critic’s album of last year was Dorset-based PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, which uses imagery and experiences from the battlefields of the 20th century in its songs to question the priorities and moralities we hold dear in England today. We need protest songs; as Baxter-Moore said, they makes us think.