Written by Liz Buckley


7 Wonders: Protest songs

At a time when protests are everywhere, our music guru Liz Buckley talks the art of a protest song.

protest signs at the London Women's MarchNo iconic, society-impacting protest song has ever been born from mild times. To get a Billy Bragg, one must suffer a Thatcher; it’s basic cause and effect.

There are, by extension, very few furious anti-Liberal Democrat anthems. Although that isn’t necessarily ideal: a few warning records about the Cameron-Clegg coalition government might have prevented Brexit if only the alt-folk scene had been more organised.

But we live in extreme times. Times that are beginning to mobilise not just thousands of people worldwide, but millions; millions who feel angry, unrepresented and need to be heard. And some of those voices will harmonise with acoustic guitars. Oh, now you’re scared.

“Is he fucked yet?” This is my current morning routine. Yours too probably. I wake up, I sleepily turn my head to kiss the cat lovingly on the forehead and together we check to see if Donald Trump has been impeached.

The day has yet to come that we can high-five over the morning’s headlines, and much of me hopes by the time this is published our routine will be already out of date. But until then, we protest. We protest and we sing, my friends. For as everyone knows, singing can ruin careers – both the artist’s and the subject’s, depending on how good the hook is.

Traditionally of course, a protest song is something in pursuit of change, to highlight injustice or corruption, to gain rights not yet secured. Civil rights, gay rights, abortion rights, animal rights, equal pay, equal marriage, environmental concern – from We Shall Overcome through Get Up, Stand Up to Fight The Power and Meat Is Murder, the fire in these artists’ bellies has been to right wrongs and to educate. We now seem to live in a time where those rights are being taken away and where being educated is spun into an insult.

The things we protested for and even began to take for granted are to be eroded, removed, challenged. Part of the skill in even attempting to dismantle such hard-won goals is the timelag the shock factor will buy these wannabe autocrats, because who in the hell believes people have too many rights? “What’s the matter with society? Oh, we were making too much progress.”

Joan Baez, a figurehead for the 60s civil rights movement through her songs of social injustice, appeared at the recent Women’s March (San Francisco branch) and told protesters: “We need to be empathetic when there is no empathy. We need to be kind when kindness is not at the forefront.”

Joan Baez with Bob Dylan during a civil rights march in 1963. Photo by Rowland Scherman.

And, indeed, at a march demonstrating strong worldwide resistance but with no reported arrests, Baez says our strength can come from making sure the right wing have “nothing to grumble about” in our behaviour… Although I gather the right wing are not always that into facts.

As Martin Luther King once stated, protest songs “invigorate the movement in a most significant way, (they) serve to give unity”, and these songs then become our weapons. The civil rights movement was led as much by Nina Simone and Sam Cooke as it was by its political leaders. John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance was sung by over half a million in Washington in 1969 during Vietnam Moratorium Day. And so Joan Baez calls not for us to have Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind on repeat in order to exact defeat, although that would probably do it for me, but to write new anthems for our generation, to galvanise us.

Up steps folk rock messiah Father John Misty, with his new record and extended video Pure Comedy, tackling the car crash that is the Trump administration alongside a myriad of the causes and repercussions that bookend it. Never one to be misunderstood, if you’re unsure of FJM’s all-encompassing message, he’s also written you an accompanying 1,850 word essay to explain himself, beginning with a quote from Ecclesiastes. God, I love that prick.

It also contains an extended metaphor about bears. But before we find ourselves thinking that in any given era you need a beard and/or a six-string to perform a protest song, check out electrobeat girl band Le Tigre’s first new material since 2004, the pantsuit-delivered I’m With Her, or Franz Ferdinand’s pussy grab-referencing Demagogue, the original disgusted white trash (TM) Eminem’s Campaign Speech and so on.

Think a protest song can’t be Euro disco? Try Boney M’s Belfast for size, a song from 1977 about the divisions in Ireland. Everyone from Leadbelly to Beethoven is credited with penning music of furious dissatisfaction designed for social change and there’s nothing as angry as a tuba.

As with Beethoven, protest music may seem part of history but it can also be for all time. The Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela probably doesn’t get as much airplay as it did when Nelson Mandela wasn’t free, I give you that, but what a battle cry it was in exacting that very change.

Sam Cooke photo: RCA Victor.

Billie Holiday’s incredibly unnerving rendition of Strange Fruit, describing lynched bodies as though they were fruit hanging from the tree might feel part of a joint shameful history, but something at least that remains in the past:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

So when Rebecca Ferguson agreed to play Trump’s inauguration on the sole condition she could sing Strange Fruit for him, it was deeply disturbing how relevant the 1939 song now feels.

If a change is gonna come guys, we better damn well learn the chorus.

A Soldier’s Sad Story: Vietnam Through The Eyes Of Black America 1966-73 is available on Ace Records. 


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Written by Liz Buckley

Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.