“THERE’S A PROTEST SINGER……..
………..he’s singing a protest song.”
Bob Dylan, I thought. But what was the song? To my surprise a quick Google revealed that it’s a line from Dire Straits’ ‘Industrial Disease’, which leaves me doubly surprised as this would be among my favourites of their songs. I should have known that. It is funny how the memory plays tricks but you must admit it does sound Dylanesque.
Protest singers and their songs have been on my mind for the past six months or so, not a shock given that the world is beginning to lean so far to the hard right as to be unbalanced in every sense of the word. Tick them off on the list – The UK (Brexit), France (LePen), Holland (Wilders), Hungary (Orban) plus a rising, threatening nationalistic front in both Germany and Italy. Yes, we were in deeply troubled times even before President Trump and the dark forces around him took control in the United States.
I didn’t always care about music delivering a message or making a statement, indeed I’m not particularly proud to say that years ago I revelled in music with some of the most banal lyrics known to man and in some cases with outrageously sexist lyrics too. The theory goes that as you get older you get wiser and I like to think that I did, eventually.
The act of protest through music is far from new. In the modern era Woody Guthrie is most often cited as the father figure of the movement. His world view was coloured by his experiences of Depression era America in the 1930s, the time of the Dust Bowl and the sufferings and deprivations of millions of working class Americans. His best known song, ‘This Land is your Land’, was written as an angry response to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’, as a counterpoint to that song’s optimism if you will. The sub-text was how in a land of such beauty and opportunity could so many of its citizens be destitute and starving? It’s worth anyone’s time to look up Guthrie’s lyrics as they were originally written, containing as they do some sharp lines omitted from most recordings of the song.
Guthrie’s influence on subsequent generations was profound, Bob Dylan most obviously who in turn influenced the next wave including people such as Bruce Springsteen. I find something very satisfying in that passing of the torch, the handing down of knowledge. It’s as if each is saying ‘I’ve done my bit now it’s up to you to carry on the fight’.
In the 1960s Dylan was responsible for several songs adopted by the Civil Rights and Anti-VietNam War movements, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times they are-a changin” need hardly be explained here but considering the upheaval and tumult of the 1960s I must admit I’m hard pressed to think of too many others who were leading the charge at the time.
Creedence Clearwater Revival were one of the few, and how. The VietNam War loomed large in many of their John Fogerty written songs and as luck would have it I was privileged to witness CCR’s John Fogerty deliver a blistering version of ‘Fortunate Son’ at a concert in Ohio in 2004, one of a series of shows organised to garner support for John Kerry’s bid to win the Presidency from George W. Bush . Kerry was unsuccessful of course and the world had four more years of W.
It’s quite a reflection on where we are today that Bush, once so reviled, is now looked upon with, well, affection might be too strong a word but he certainly doesn’t seem quite so bad. The Bush Presidency if nothing else did have a galvanizing effect on many recording artists. Remember the Dixie Chicks affair? Let me remind you. During a European tour and in response to the invasion of Iraq band member Natalie Maines told an audience ‘We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas’. The backlash was furious with everyone from mainstream media to fellow country performers calling for boycotts of airplay and record sales among other things, calls which had an impact. It was shameful, herd mentality stuff. This prompted Mary Chapin Carpenter to take a blowtorch to Bush and his supporters in the scathing ‘On With The Song’ from her 2007 album ‘The Calling’. That same year Springsteen released the critically acclaimed album ‘Magic’ which, while it never mentions Bush by name, contains several songs aimed unmistakably at the President.
What of Great Britain? With the hardening of attitudes and the coarsening of what passes for political discourse in the wake of the Brexit vote it was thought in some circles that this might lead to a renaissance for protest through music not unlike the explosion of Punk during the down at heel 1970s. So far I can’t see any evidence of it which is not to say it’s not there but the big names of the entertainment world do seem to be reticent about nailing their colours to the mast. With that in mind it’s heartening to report that Billy Bragg continues to speak eloquently not only through his music but also most recently on television. He turned up as a panelist on BBC’s Question Time last month during which he delivered this wonderful quote, paraphrasing the late Labour MP Tony Benn – ‘The way the government treats refugees is instructive because it’s the way they’d treat the rest of us given half a chance’.
Billy’s entire career has been tied to the Labour grassroots movement, left leaning by political philosophy and it’s always been at the heart of his music. Indeed he expanded on this just a couple of weeks ago on his Facebook page, having just watched a re-run of a 1983 edition of Top of the Pops. ‘It reminded me of what I was up against when I first strapped on my electric guitar….. It was the antics of the Thompson Twins, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet that inspired me to take my music back to basics : style over content vs. content over style’.
More power to him for as I say, his generation and preceding generations in Britain appear to be looking the other way, whistling past the graveyard.
For the ultimate example of cocking a snook at the establishment there aren’t many bands who can compare to Pussy Riot. You’ll probably be familiar with their story – highly pro-active on LGBT and feminist issues in a country where being so can be dangerous, not to mention being very critical of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, accusing him of oppression and returning Russia to a police state. Now many critics of Putin have either been murdered or died in mysterious and unexplained circumstances so this act of defiance is perhaps foolhardy but undeniably brave.
Musically what are they like? Well I’ve heard some of their stuff and to be honest it wouldn’t encourage me to seek out their CDs in the local store (As if!) but that’s beside the point. The fact is that they’re doing it and taking the risks, facing the opprobrium and the consequences. At least three of their fluid number of members have spent time in jail for their efforts. That makes them worthy of celebration in my eyes – they not only talk the talk………
The fact is that in 2017 we exist in a world where the President of the United States trades insults on Twitter with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Snoop Dogg. We need protest singers and their protest songs now more than ever before.
Stand up. Resist!