“A song can educate , inform , support, give courage, inspire or pacify. Music gets used in all these different ways. A marching band can send young people off to war. That same marching band at the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco sends people off to love. You can have a lullaby that puts a child to sleep or you can have muzak that puts a whole nation to sleep. Music is a very powerful gift we have access to and people should take it seriously.” Holly Near
Music is life and politics are an integral part of life so why are there not more songs dealing with social change on people’s I-pods or on AM radio?. Look at the Billboard Top 100 or on streamed music sites and songs about oppression and liberation are few and far between. For most Canadians, it seems music is strictly entertainment.
However, look around the world and you see the power of political music. Members of Pussy Riot were thrown in prison in Russia for singing a satirical ditty about Putin. Fela Kuti, an amazing Nigerian musician, was arrested over 200 times because of his songs that were critical of the government. In Pinochet’s Chile , one the founders of the Nueva Cancion movement, Victor Jara, first had his hands smashed and then was shot 40 times a few days after the coup. There are hundreds of other examples where the ‘power of song’ has made tyrants tremble.
What is this power? One of the best political songsters of our time, Billy Bragg, believes “music has the power to incrementally change hearts and minds and enlist co-conspirators in the fight against ignorance and injustice.”
Political music can be broken into three strands. One is the protest song that is usually topical and about a specific event or issue. A good example is Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s “Ohio” about the Kent State shootings. Another example could be zipper songs sung on picket lines. Another strand is historical, songs that remind us that the struggle has been waged for a long time and over many of the same issues. A classic of this is Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” which told the story of the Diggers of England in 1649.
Lastly there is the broad category of social music which while not overtly political, describes stories or expresses feelings of ordinary people’s lives and circumstances such as Steve Earle’s “Home to Houston”. Some, like George Lipsitz, would argue for an even broader scope “If one views politics as only the public struggle for political power then rock and roll songs are apolitical. But if one defines politics as the social struggle for a ‘good life’ then these songs represent politics of the highest order.”
Labour has a long association with music. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were known as the singing union. Joe Hill, immortalized in the Joan Baez version of ‘I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night,’ wrote many Wobbly standards like ‘The Rebel Girl’ and ‘Power in the Union’. ‘Solidarity Forever,’ the trade union anthem, was written by another Wobbly, Ralph Chaplin. The IWW even had its own songbook “The Little Red Songbook – Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent.”
During the 30’s and 40’s there was a wave of organizing into industrial unions and the people being organized, like Appalachian coal miners and Southern textile workers and tenant farmers, already had a strong musical heritage so the music came out of those struggles naturally. Florence Reese, the wife of a Kentucky coal miner, wrote the iconic ‘Which Side Are You On’ while Lucille Simmons, during a tobacco strike in 1945, wrote ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Until McCarthyism suppressed the musicians and their music, people like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly , and Pete Seeger were extremely popular, filling music halls and being played on the radio.
Unfortunately, as many American unions became more conservative as a result of the Red purges, they became disconnected from the vital new culture of the 60’s and early 70’s, from the Folk Revival of Dylan and company to the Counter Culture Revolution. This is epitomized in Phil Ochs’ brilliant “Links on the Chain.” The bloom was off the rose by the mid 70’s though as corporate America swallowed up the ideals and the music, and spit out the safe digestible pablum represented by Debby Boone, the BeeGees and disco.
Punk, with its DIY accessibility and ‘question authority’ credo, burned brightly for a bit but its nihilism led to a dead end. However one of the best bands ever, “The Clash,” emerged with albums ‘Give ‘em Enough Rope’ and ‘London Calling’. Rap and hip hop had its roots in the same period and developed into a worldwide music phenomenon that is still going strong. When it stayed true to its roots it was incredibly powerful, like ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy.
As can be seen by this very quick overview, political music has always been with us. So why do some lament “Where are the protest songs today?” Josh Hall says, “Clearly music with a political dimension is alive and kicking. When Owen Jones and John Harris write there is no new protest music, they really mean that there are no new singers rehashing tired old party political themes. Instead there is something far more mature and far more radical, a wealth of vital new music screaming about what it is to be young, black, working class or simply alive in the world today.”
With radio in the grip of a few multinationals and the Internet divvied up into multiple musical silos it can be very hard to find songs, that in the words of Anne Feeney, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but they are out there.
Here are a few musicians and songs I enjoy, Keep in mind they are the choices of a 64 year old white male, so be kind.
Elvis Costello –Shipbuilding
Chumbawamba – English Rebel Songs
Anais Mitchell – Hadestown
Gord Carter – The Day they Shot Ginger Down
Anne Feeney – Have You Been to Jail for Justice
Ry Cooder – My Name is Buddy
Blackalicious – Nia
James McMurty – Childish Things
Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of
Anything by Steve Earle