With the passing of Pete Seeger this week, I suppose it was likely that protest songs would be floating about on the media. While some might feel that many of these songs are out of place and out of time, I was inspired to dig a few out, and I have really enjoyed revisiting some of them. Ranging from the painfully poignant to the angry via the slightly overblown, they all have their particular charm.
I loved the spoof protest songs of Hugh Laurie and Neil Innes, – “I’ve suffered for my music, and now it’s your turn” – poking fun at whingeing, hand-wringing, self-pitying songs. But there is so much more to a good protest song than navel gazing self-indulgence.
I remember being a rather deaf child, but being struck by a lyric in a song that was often played on the radio: “Let me ask you one question, and tell me no lies. Is it worth all this money for so many to die?” Nearly fifty years later, the power of the question is undiminished. In fact, I just searched for the lyric online, and found the song. I was struck by how clearly I had remembered the tune, and how tenaciously music and lyrics together lodge in the memory. (In case you are curious, the song is God and My Country by David McWilliams, the chap who did The Days of Pearly Spencer– you can hear it here)
People who know me well, will be aware that I cannot listen to Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction without breaking into a huge smile. I just love it. The great lists of rhymes, the gravely vocal, the thunder rumbling as the song chugs along, the best ever use of the word ‘coagulating’ in a lyric … it’s all there. Just perfect and guaranteed to lift my spirits. The fact that the song exposes hypocrisy and challenges cultural blind spots is a bonus, of course!
What about Bob Dylan’s masterpiece, The Times they are a-changing? Listening to the various verses addressing different people, it could have been written at any time since Cicero lamented about his tempora and his mores. Somehow, the almost apocalyptic tone of the song does not make me despair: it encourages me to feel that there is scope for change, for progress, for moving on from the old and onto something new and different. There is a sense of excitement, of standing on tiptoe, anticipating the imminent arrival of something so much better.
Of course, there are some songs that tear at the heart without actually promising much. Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars always makes me feel a profound sense of loss and dismay, but I love it for its raw honesty.
Where have all the flowers gone? Is on the face of it a sweet, sad song. The plaintive refrain “when will they ever learn?” could engender a sense of hopelessness, but I find this gentle lament over the futility of war strangely encouraging. The very fact that it has lasted so long, finding an echo in so many people’s hearts is strangely uplifting.
A Church is Burning, is a less well-known song maybe, but well worth a listen if you don’t know it. Paul Simon, always so clever with lyrics, excelled himself with this defiantly optimistic protest song, written in the thick of the Civil Rights movement in the US. I am incredibly encouraged when I look back at the situation that inspired the song, and see how far we have come in the years since it was written.
Nelson Mandela by the Specials, is a more modern protest song, with a perky beat and lively brass section. It never felt to me like the protest songs of Dylan, Guthrie et al. Cheerful evidence that you do not have to rant and rage or be miserable to have an impact, the song was used to great effect, raising the profile of the campaign to have Mandela released. Of course, there were other factors at work, but hearing the song again during the celebrations of Mandela’s life was a powerful reminder of the mighty force for change music can be.
It is when the protest song writers despair and hang up their instruments that we really need to worry! While there are voices telling us to wake up and do something, we shall not so easily drift into an apathetic acceptance of change for the worse. While there are people who feel enough to write such songs, there is the possibility that the rest of us will be inspired to get up and ‘be the change we want to see.’ *
Go on! Listen to a protest song or two. You might be surprised at how inspired and uplifted you feel!
* One of those quotes that travels the internet being mis-attributed! See here for the proper Gandhi quote