Political songs concert showcases 420 years of protest music
21 September 2022
On Friday 23 September, protest songs written between 1600 and 2020 will be showcased at Cecil Sharp House, in London. Featured songs – performed by The Carnival Band – include themes such as inequality, suffrage, and nuclear weapons. There will also be an exhibition displaying more information about the English protest song, and context and analysis of individual songs.
Professor Matthew Worley, University of Reading, said: “From 17th century songs about religion, war, poverty, and even environmental risks, right through to the work of Peggy Seeger, Billy Bragg, Kae Tempest and Dave, England’s tradition of political song persists.
“Recent songs about Amazon’s working conditions, the Grenfell Tower fire, Brexit, and police brutality show us that there is still power in musical protest.”
Songs objecting to vaccinations, lamenting environmental change and complaining about politicians didn’t originate in the last decade – or even the last century.
Protest song is often said to have been born in the United States in the 1940s–50s, to have flourished in the ’60s and ’70s, and to have faded into obscurity in recent years. But this project shows that its origins go back more than 400 years to complaints King James was selling honours.
‘Our Subversive Voice’, a project led by UEA (the University of East Anglia) and involving the universities of Reading and Warwick, is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
750 English protest songs, from 1600–2020, have been catalogued. These feature in a website, www.oursubversivevoice.com, which includes the 250 most distinctive songs along with case studies and interviews with musicians (Billy Bragg, Peggy Seeger, Chumbawamba and more), academics and others.
Selecting the title of any song on the website leads to its individual page, which includes information such as the lyrics and, where possible, a recording. Case studies look at everything from what motivates writers of protest songs – structurally, socially and personally – to legendary venues and women’s protest song writing.
UEA’s Prof John Street, the project’s lead researcher, said: “When people think of protest songs they probably think first of American music, and then perhaps of the great tradition of Irish or Scottish protest songs. We wanted to find out what things would look like – and sound like – if you focus just on England, especially given the current attention given to ideas of Englishness.”
Songs opposing vaccination were heard in the 1800s, just as they have been in the last three years (Van Morrison’s No More Lockdown). From 17th century ballads lamenting beer price hikes and excessive spending on ‘starched ruffs’, to passionate contemporary performances, ‘Our Subversive Voice’ covers the spectrum.
There are surprises in what the list includes – and excludes. In are Rule Britannia, God Save the King, and Jerusalem, and Edith Nesbit, Noël Coward, Benjamin Britten and Joan Armatrading, keeping company with Sault, Dave and Kae Tempest. Out are some of punk’s songs and singers.
UEA Senior Research Associate Oskar Cox Jensen said Our Subversive Voice has uncovered “songs that are prejudiced – anti-Semitic, xenophobic, fascist – or politically reactionary. But these are actually astonishingly rare.
“We found that the real revelation was the rich influence of other traditions – from the Black Atlantic to French communists, and migrants from right across the Commonwealth. Across the centuries, we hear people fighting to give voice to an Englishness that is proudly diverse, progressive and subversive.”
Co-investigator Dr Angela McShane of the University of Warwick said: “Although the purposes of making protest songs might have been similar over the centuries, the stakes were very different for those that wrote and sang them. In earlier centuries performers and publishers were imprisoned, and one singer-songwriter was executed for sedition, while in later periods, fortunes could be made from protest songs that became popular.”
With the London event celebrating 420 years of English protest music, Prof Alan Finlayson, of UEA, said: “What could be more appropriate as we head into what is sure to be an economically challenging and politically fraught winter when discontent might turn into protest?”
For more information on the project, visit: www.oursubversivevoice.com. To find out about the concert, exhibition or other events, check the project’s Twitter account: @subversivesong
Tickets for the concert are free but must be booked in advance: https://www.efdss.org/whats-on/26-gigs/11248-the-carnival-band
Photo credit: "IMG_1551" by GrubbyPix is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0