Our theme for our 10th anniversary is VIVA! The Freedom Songs. A four disc boxset CD documenting histories most Iconic protest songs.
If you’d like to discuss appearing on Viva, please contact us here
From the freedom sounds of Jamaica to the Urban revolt of two tone the voice of social comment and protest has been ever present. Nowhere does music collide more dramatically with the wider world than in the protest song, Where some will say that music and politics shouldn’t mix others know that music as I voice of protest is interwoven with the history of humanity .
Rather than being merely a addition to the business of pop, protest music is woven into its DNA. from the traditional to the modern Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, the Clash or Kendrick Lamar
you are not sitting down to a boring seminar;
you are on the heart beat of music when it is most alive.
The Vulgar Tongue
The Vulgar Tongue was an expression that as once used to describe the voice of common men and women. English folk songs from the late medieval and early modern period reflect the social upheavals of their day. In 1944 the Marxist scholar A. L. Lloyd claimed that “The Cutty Wren” song constituted a coded anthem against feudal oppression and actually dated back to the English peasants’ revolt of 1381, making it the oldest extant European protest song. He offered no evidence for his assertion, however and no trace of the song has been found before the 18th century. Despite Lloyd’s dubious claim about its origins, however, the “Cutty Wren” was revived and used as a protest song in the 1950s folk revival, an example of the importance of context in determining what may be considered a protest song. In contrast, the rhyme, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”, is attested as authentically originating in the 1381 Peasant Revolt, though no tune associated with it has survived. Ballads celebrating social bandits like Robin Hood, from the 14th century onwards, can be seen as expressions of a desire for social justice, though although social criticism is implied and there is no overt questioning of the status quo.
The era of civil and religious wars of the 17th century in Britain gave rise to the radical communistic millenarian Levellers and Diggers’ movements and their associated ballads and hymns, as, for example, the “Diggers’ Song”.with the incendiary verse:
But the Gentry must come down,
and the poor shall wear the crown.
Stand up now, Diggers all!
The power of the hidden meaning
People have been using music as a means to express dissatisfaction with their lot for as long as we know. Since medieval times in England, we have records of songs of protest. As sheet music became popular following the advent of the printing press, broadsides (single-page proto-newspapers) often featured ballads, which sang of familiar subjects such as love and loss, but also addressed matters that concerned the people of the day. The British Civil Wars gave rise to songs criticizing Oliver Cromwell, for example. These so-called “broadside ballads” gave way to songs promoting socialism, or lecturing about temperance, slavery and other such moral matters.
The power of collective singing
The best of these remain alive today as cultural anthems or traditional folk songs. The communal singing of songs was also used by slaves in the United States. While dancing was forbidden, the singing of songs was allowed – as long as they weren’t critical of their masters, of course. The slaves used songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’’ and “Steal Away’’ as hidden messages of escape through the underground railroad.
“Bella ciao” (Goodbye beautiful”) is an Italian protest folk song that was written to hide its true meaning as a protest song. It originated in the late 19th century, sung by the mondina workers in protest to the harsh working conditions in the paddy fields of North Italy. The song was modified and adopted as an anthem of the anti-fascist resistance by the Italian partisans between 1943 and 1945 during the Italian Resistance, the resistance of Italian partisans against the Nazi German forces occupying Italy, and, during the Italian Civil War, the Italian partisan struggle against the fascist Italian Social Republic and its Nazi German allies.
While perhaps not protest songs as we might think of them, this collective singing had a power that would become familiar around the world as songs the likes of “We Shall Overcome’’ and John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance’’ were chanted by thousands at protest marches.
“Strange Fruit’’ was most notably sung by Billie Holiday in 1939. So powerful was its message that her record label, Columbia, refused to record it. They did, however, allow her to record it for another label, Commodore; it would go on to sell over a million copies.
The song arrests the listener from the off: “Southern trees bear 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.” When Holiday first began performing in the clubs of New York, it was always the last song of the set (nothing could follow it); the room would be plunged into darkness, save for a single spotlight on her face, and the waiters would halt service for the duration of the performance.
The force of the delivery and the message never left its audience, and the song would continue to live on long after the deaths of Holiday and Meeropol. The great Atlantic Records producer Ahmet Ertegun described it as “a declaration of war… the beginning of the Civil Rights movement”.
Nina Simone breathed fresh anger into it when she recorded it in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights movement. And when the British singer Rebecca Ferguson was invited to sing at the inauguration of President Donald Trump, she replied, “If you allow me to sing ‘Strange Fruit’, a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington.”
With “Strange Fruit,’’ the protest song became more than just reportage, elevating the idea of protest songs to the level of art. Not all proto-protest songs and singers would invoke such power, and yet the directness of the message became something of a blueprint.
The power of the pop song
Pop against populism
While the very big and obvious Civil Rights and anti-war movements pioneered the use of protest songs, their use wasn’t entirely limited to those campaigns. By now, politicians were well aware of the power of the pop song. In 1960, during one of the tightest presidential elections in history, John F Kennedy was grateful to have the support of Frank Sinatra, who was able to rally many of his connections in support of the young Democrat, standing against Richard Nixon. The singer re-recorded a version of his Oscar-winning hit “High Hopes,’’ changing the lyrics to express his support of Kennedy: “Everyone wants to back Jack/Jack is on the right track/’Cause he’s got high hopes.” (Not all presidents would successfully ally themselves with the right songs, however, as Ronald Reagan discovered when he cited Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA’’ as a message of hope; meanwhile, The Rolling Stones flatly refused to allow Donald Trump to use their “Start Me Up’’ at his campaign events.)
As the 70s progressed, the hopes of the 60s turned once more to anger, and this was reflected in songs like Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’’ (on which he sang, “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out”), “War’’ by The Temptationsand, later, Edwin Starr, while Bob Marley’s “Exodus’’ reflected the changing face of politics in Jamaica. This latter had a huge impact in the UK, where the children of the Windrush generation of immigrants from the West Indies were coming of age.
Reggae and punk were an outlet for the dissatisfied young people of the UK as the 70s and 80s saw rioting in many British inner cities brought on by oppression, prejudice and open racism. Joe Strummer of The Clash had grown up on the songs of Woody Guthrie (even adopting Woody as a nickname for a while), and his band’s fusion of politics, reggae and punk was as infectious as it was forceful.
New moments in history
Today, protest songs continue to flood out from singers and songwriters old and new. Lady Gaga turned to Guthrie when she performed at the 2017 Super Bowl, singing “This Land Is Your Land,’’ a year after Beyoncé had used the same platform to support the Black Lives Matter campaign and honor the Black Panthers.
At a time when politics has spilled out onto the streets once again, the power of the protest song looks set to be exploited afresh. Whether any artist will take up the baton of Seeger and Lennon and create a new anthem to be sung in the streets remains to be seen. That music is still being used, as it always has been, as a means to raise awareness and share a common goal looks set to continue.
More recently, artists like Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, Hozier, The 1975 and M.I.A. have provided powerful political anthems, rallying a new generation of young activists and protestors.
“The point of protest music…” explains Dorian Lynskey in 33 Revolutions Per Minute, “is not to shift the world on its axis but to change opinions and perspectives, to say something about the times in which you live, and, sometimes, to find that what you’ve said speaks to another moment in history.” And only when this happens is Marvin Gaye’s prophesy going to come true, and a change is gonna come.