Sunday 22 October 2017

The Protest Song from Richard II to Donald Trump by Catherine Hokin

In line with our household's apparent 'let's only watch unremittingly depressing things on tv' policy, I've been immersed for the last couple of weeks in BBC4's excellent documentary series on the Vietnam War. It's so watchable because it feels like 'old-school' history - director Ken Burns uses archival footage, photographs and interviews rather than awkwardly mugging actors to capture the nuances of the conflict and its political, social and personal consequences. It's a style he perfected in his 1990 series on the American Civil War which was incredible in its detail, although very long - to the point where you can start to believe you're watching the war unfold in real time.

I've always been fascinated by Vietnam - it was one of my specialist areas at university, my Dad's first job as a rookie sailor was bringing the traumatised French soldiers home and the draft stopped 2 weeks before my American husband's 18th birthday. His bag for Canada was packed and ready. Due to the daughter's PhD edits which keep falling my way, I'm also becoming something of an aficionado of the protest song. The documentary's soundtrack is full of them - not great if Bob Dylan sets your teeth on edge (guilty) - and many people associate the genre with this particular war and the songs it gave rise to such as Eve of Destruction and Blowin' in the Wind. Protest songs however have much deeper roots and span every political creed known to man.

 Sheet Music Cover
Most of us are familiar with L'Internationale, the anthem sung with clenched fist and an awful lot of lip-syncing past the title. This was written in 1871 by Eugene Pottier, its title taken from a congress held by the recently-founded International Workingmen's Association in 1864. Its lyrics exhort the enslaved masses to rise up and take over (I'm paraphrasing) and it has become a rallying cry spanning groups as diverse as East German anti-Stalinists in 1953 to protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Rumours that Jeremy Corbyn still sings it in the shower are pure speculation. Going further back, the Diggers and Levellers movements, which followed the religious and political turmoil of the seventeenth century, gave rise to a number of ballads on a similar theme to L'Internationale, the most well known being The Diggers' Song with its world-order challenging refrain:

But the Gentry must come down,and the poor shall wear the crown.
Stand up now, Diggers all!

The Diggers Song likely dates from around 1649 although its lyrics weren't printed until 1894 but it has a challenger for the title of oldest known anti-oppression song in the shape of The Cutty Wren. This ditty comes from the tradition of English folk songs traditionally sung on St Stephen's Day (26th December) which was also known as Wren Day. These songs (whose origins now are very murky) may have an association with the symbolic slaughter of a wren just after the winter solstice, this replacing the human sacrifice once made to the old Year God. Or the eponymous wren may be King Richard II who the peasants intended to kill and feed to the poor in the 1381 rebellion. That was Marxist historian A.L. Lloyd's theory, published in 1944 and happily taught to me at university as 'fact' - ah Manchester, so dogmatically left wing in the 1980s. I think we may have sung it on a protest march or ten - how many levels of pretension there are in that defeats me.

 Statue of Thomas Davis Dublin
The move to industrialisation in the nineteenth century spawned workers' movements and a rise in topical protest songs as did the growing political struggles in countries such as Ireland where the rebel song is a huge musical sub-genre. According to my family legend, Thomas Davis, writer of one of the most famous Irish protest songs A Nation Once Again, was an uncle many times removed. Say that in any bar in Dublin and, trust me, you crawl out clutching your liver. Nineteenth century America also saw a huge rise in the angry or disillusioned voice as a political weapon, particularly in protest against slavery (Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child) and against the American Civil War (When Johnny Comes Marching Home). Groups such as the abolitionist Hutchinson Family Singers who appeared at the White House in the mid nineteenth century started off a musical legacy that can be seen running through the works of the big 1950s and 60s names such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Dylan. And war increasingly became a catalyst for protest - in 1915, the song I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier sold 650,000 copies in the USA although not to Theodore Roosevelt who was deeply upset by its sentiments.

 Born in the USA 1984
The golden age was in many ways the 1960s and 1970s with Vietnam, the growing civil rights movement and struggles against apartheid finding mouthpieces in the music world from the UK and the States to South Africa, Israel and Latin America. There have been more recent examples although they haven't always had the desired effect. Poor old Springsteen must cringe every time he hears his anti-Reagan Born in the USA (an account of how badly the working man has suffered from American economic and military policies) turned into a jingoistic rallying cry. Groups such as Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine have continued the fight against racism and capitalism but audiences have changed and are perhaps less unified against causes than they once were. Artists such as M.I.A and Kendrick Lamar have created a stir with their anti-Trump songs but, with the change in the way we all access music nowadays, I imagine the heady days of an artist as big as Paul McCartney getting banned by the BBC and it mattering are long gone - it was in 1972, it was called Give Ireland Back to the Irish and it was one step away from including a frog chorus. You do not need to hear it no matter where your sympathies with the sentiment may lie.

Nowadays a lot of what we hear as protest songs are the old faithfuls, either in their original state or re-worked with topical inserts or non-political songs like We Are Family which have become politicised. My current favourite of the doctored variety is Mr Tangerine Man which featured in pretty much every anti-Trump Women's March this year - and is now lodged firmly in your head. Perhaps the History Girls' next competition should be for lyrics...


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this post, Catherine! And greet your husband from me - if he was planning on coming across to Canada at Detroit/Windsor, he would probably have met my parents, who were part of the underground railroad helping to get young men across the border. I remember being in the car a couple of times, and the look on those young men's faces will stay with me always.

(I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the Vietnam series, but the young men in my house are and say it's amazing.)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Your daughter's PhD is on protest songs? How wonderful! Perhaps it will be publishable by an ordinary press? Then we can all read it.

Catherine Hokin said...

Hi - it's on the use of music by Irish prisoners on both sides of the divide and at draft stage but it's superb!