Protest songs as a human rights complaint

Last month 40,000 people in Olso sang songs of defiance after Anders Breivik has begun spouting hate at his trial, there are dozens of songs on Soundcloud associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement (tag: “the revolution will be sonified”) and no current democracy or Los Indignados-style protest is complete without horns, drums and rhythmic chanting.

There’s no doubt about it, music + vocals = protest.  But, what about actual protest songs? And what are they anyhow, and are there any good ones around these days? Hmm, not an easy thing to sum up, but …. in fact, I’m going to cheat and borrow some words from Woody Guthrie, the uber-influential US folk-blues troubadour-agitator who cast a spell on the young Bob Dylan. In an interview-cum-music session in 1940, Guthrie was asked how he’d define the “blues”. In a nice off-the-cuff go at it, he says:

“The blues is … plain old being lonesome … You can get lonesome for a lot of things. People down where I come from [Oklahoma], they’re lonesome for a job, they’re lonesome for some spending money, lonesome for some drinking whiskey, lonesome for good time, pretty gals, wine, women and song, like they see stuck up in their face every day by other people. Thinking maybe that you’re … down and out and disgusted and busted and can’t be trusted … it gives you a lonesome feeling, that somehow the world’s sort of turned against you, or there’s something about it you don’t understand, being out of work, being lonesome, or either being in jail, and some of the best blues come from jailhouses …

The blues are “a sort of complaint”, says Guthrie. To me the blues (American blues mostly, but from elsewhere as well) are the most important form of protest music. People before and after Guthrie - the likes of Leadbelly, Son House, Robert Johnson, John Hurt, John Lee Hooker and hundreds of others - inherited African rhythms, slavery-era laments and added topical stuff from the Depression and a host of other embellishments and hey presto, blues music, music of hardship, regret and complaint. The genre helped give voice to millions of people living with the institutionalised racism of pre-Civil Rights USA (and also gave Bob Dylan, Mike Jagger, Jack White and countless other white blues-rockers a whole lifetime’s worth of music to work with).

Here are just a few great blues protest songs: John Lee Hooker, “House rent boogie” (unemployment and homelessness); Herman E Johnson. “Depression blues” (unemployment); John Jackson, “John Henry” (exploitation by employers); Big Joe Williams, “Chain gang blues” (prison hardship); Big Bill Broonzy, “Baby please don’t go” (more prison hardship).

I love this music now but once upon a time I really didn’t relate to it. When I was about 20 somebody played a blues LP late one night and, post-punk type that I was, I just dismissed it. Where was the energy, the aggression? Huh, the Clash was real music - protest music - not this wishy-washy slow stuff. (Oh what a fool I was …). Anyway, the Clash and punk contemporaries were definitely churning out some good protest-type stuff. Well-known tunes like the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy” or (the once-again-topical) “God save the Queen,” and the Dead Kennedy’s “Kill the poor” or “Holiday in Cambodia”, but also lesser-known songs like Alternative TV’s “Action time vision” or the Desperate Bicycles’ “Don’t back the front”. There were hundreds of great punk/new wave songs, many overtly political (big-P or small-p) or at least suggestive of protest against the status quo in look and feel.

Blimey. Protest music is a vast area and so far I’ve only touched on blues and punk. What about ska and reggae? Er, this is also a huge treasure trove of superb protest music. Reggae-wise, I like - to name just three - Johnny Clarke’s “Tribal war”; Hugh Mundell’s “Africa must be free by 1983”, and Jah Stitch’s “Evilous thing” (a really nice tune protesting against consumerism and the seeking after money). Meanwhile, excellent ska/ska revival tunes with “socially-conscious” lyrics include: Dandy Livingstone, “Rudy, a message to you”; Rudies, “Train to Vietnam”; the Specials, “Ghost town” (and numerous others); Laurel Aitken, “Skinheads are wrecking the town” (a beautiful tune this) … the list goes on and on (in fact a massive chunk of early ska seems to be calling for “rude boy” gangsters to stop terrorising Kingston neighbourhoods in Jamaica). And then there are endless modern reinventions of ska, including in India …

I seem to be getting carried away …. but, what about the well-known ones, I hear you cry? Well, I guess they don’t get more famous than the Communist/socialist anthem “The Red Flag” (composed by an Irish docker on a train to New Cross in south-east London in 1889) or, 82 years later, John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Or, staying with Lennon, what about the irresistible “Give peace a chance” (check out this video, with a super-fast-talking woman raving about it - it may itself drive you to a protest of your own...). My own Lennon fave is (the undeniably maudlin) “Happy Xmas (war is over)”, partly because I associate it with a (rather nice!) Christmas when I was 18, but it’s also a simple, powerful anti-war protest song (see the exceptionally hard-hitting video, it’s virtually an Amnesty film about war crimes …).

And recent big ones? Er, they’re less obvious. As music writer Dorian Lynskey says, the modern equivalents of Lennon, Bob Marley or the Specials don’t seem to exist. In a sense I don’t find that overly surprising - commercial success and politicised protest aren’t obvious bedfellows. Maybe those past examples were unusual. The thrust of Lynskey’s pieces seems right: that you need to look to the musical margins to find up-and-coming protest music. For my own part, in recent years I’ve heard quite a bit of decent post-Billy Bragg punk-poetry-with-guitar stuff, while just last week I enjoyed Stanley Brinks’ stubbornly un-pigeonhole-able neo-folk (sample lyric: “Who wins the lottery? / The lottery / Who wins the war? / The war itself / Who wins the game? / The ruler of the game”).

So, to wrap up (I’m taking the needle off the record …), here’s my Simon Cowell-type challenge. Vote for your favourite protest song, and your answers will be used to accompany the results of a nationwide Amnesty poll asking the same question. That's right: VOTE!

And … teachers should look out for the Amnesty “Power Of Our Voices” education pack about protest music, with a lesson for young people to write their own protest song and enter it in an Amnesty protest song competition. The winning songs to be announced in spring 2013 (will there be a modern-classic protest song born next year …?). So, in the words of the late Adam Yauch and his B-Boys, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-check it out …

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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