Saturday, 22 January 2011

Where are All the Protest Songs?

In an interview found in "The Guardian" on the 11th January, Bily Bragg laments the dearth of protest songs, given the credit crunch and the Afghan War. He says:
"When I was first plying my trade, people were willing to talk about these issues. Now they'd rather write about getting blasted than changing the world".
For the most part, I agree, although there may be an unwelcome explanation for this. One explanation is simple political apathy, caused by the fact that most people feel that they can have no real influence upon events, whatever they do. After all, runs this line of reasoning, 1000, 000 people demonstrated in London before the start of the Iraq War, and it didn't stop the invasion.
There is also the age issue. I have not encountered the argument that protest songs are "old hat", belong in the past and are for the older generation, but I am sure that this attitude does exist.
Lastly, there is the argument that people like the anodyne pop songs of today because they provide them with an escape from reality. There might be some point to this. In the 1930s, when war loomed, people loved some of the most trivial, escapist music imaginable. How else can we explain the popularity of Gracie Fields and George Formby?
Some would argue that protest songs are a waste of time, pointing to the anti-war songs of John Lennon as an example. Yoko Ono is on record as saying that Lennon really believed that songs such as "Give Peace a Chance" and "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" could change the world and end all war. Ah, say the cynics, such naivety!
As someone who has penned a few polemical verses himself, I find this last point of view the most inaccurate. Songs of themselves change nothing; people do that. But a song can inspire and help to unite people in a common purpose, raising our spirits and pointing us towards the ideals we strive for (I think Lennon would have agreed). We may yet see peace marchers singing "Give Peace a Chance" again, and student anti-cuts marchers lifting their spirits with a chorus of "We Shall Overcome". Deep in my heart, I do believe...


  1. Perhaps you don't go on enough demos Geoff, as I have heard 'We Shall Overcome' and 'Give Peace A Chance' sung on anti-war demos in the last couple of years. I saw Peggy Seeger sing to an anti-BNP demo in Leeds. Also, singer songwriters in the folk scene and elsewhere do still write anti-war or environmental songs. They won't be played on Radios 1 or 2, but they're still there.

    However, there is some truth in your general point. While you have pop singers mass produced by Simon Cowell, all you'll get is anodyne slush. If we get back to the position where singers and groups with original material start to be popular again, I suspect political songs may be mainstream again, like 'Imagine' was.

    Perhaps we sometimes miss them: 'Dancing With Tears In My Eyes' by Ultravox was about a nuclear explosion, but you probably wouldn't realise just listening casually.

  2. You're right there, Nev - I don't get to many demos these days. In spite of that, I'm pleased to hear that the old protest songs are still sung. One that springs to mind is "A Far Flung Mile From Truth", but I can't remember who wrote or sang that. If folk artists are still writing songs of anger, then it's a good thing for society.One great example of protest music is "North-West Frontier" by Robb Johnson. It can be found at:

  3. I've dusted down "A Far Flung Mile From Truth" ready for reuse. There were only two lines I couldn't recall, so I played the recording to refresh my memory. I haven't played it in public since May 1997, but I think the Coalition has made it relevant again.