In my piece ‘Are you sure you’re not a radical?
’ I wrote: ‘Over the centuries folk music has been important in supporting the oppressed and Ireland and many countries in South America have a long tradition of revolutionary music.’ So I have chosen in this ‘summer recess’ to present some of that ‘revolutionary’ music to make the point that such music has influenced, and continues to reflect and influence, social and political movements. There are over 40 songs linked here, so it is not intended that you listen to every track in one sitting. Take your time over the next ten days, come back a few times, and check out as many as you wish. I hope you find some that you like. [Please note that these are not always what I consider the ‘best’ songs but I have been limited to some extent by what is available to link to.]
In the 1840s Thomas Osborne Davis in Ireland wrote ‘A Nation Once Again
’ which set the tone for the Irish fight for independence for the next 80 years. Davis recognised the power of song and wrote
“… a song is worth a thousand harangues". He felt that music could have a particularly strong influence on Irish people at that time. He wrote: "Music is the first faculty of the Irish... we will endeavour to teach the people to sing the songs of their country that they may keep alive in their minds the love of the fatherland.”
Many songs were written about the 1916 uprising but one I particularly like is ‘The Foggy Dew’ — this version by The Wolfe Tones.
Davis’s words were prophetic and ‘rebel songs’ have continued into the modern era in Ireland with songs written about The Troubles in northern Ireland: ‘Man Behind the Wire
’, and ‘My Little Armalite
’. Very late one night in the Canberra Irish Club I heard a similar song when a young man, not long arrived from northern Ireland, sang a song that included reference to an AK47. It was the first time I realised how the Irish tradition of rebel songs continued to this day.
It is not only in folk music that the influence is felt — U2 performed this song
about ‘Bloody Sunday’.
An Australian folk-rock group, Rough Red (which spends much of its time touring Europe), gives a slightly different twist to The Troubles in ‘Innocent Victim’ which captures in simple verses the ‘para’ who had fought in the Falklands and the ‘slum bred Irish boy’ who meet on the streets of Belfast.
Hail the innocent victim
Hail the hapless pawn
They’ll bury you with honours
It’s the reason you were born
That continues a long tradition of folk songs that question the futility of war and why working people are the ones who go off to fight the rich men’s wars.
Eric Bogle’s ‘The Green Fields of France
’ captures a similar sentiment in its last verse:
I can’t help but wonder now Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
The suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain
For Willy McBride it’s all happened again
And again and again and again and again
Song has been, and still is, used in support of unions, supporting the need for working people to unite. In Australia some Trades Hall union councils have, over the years, employed singers and song writers to record the workers’ struggles. One of the earliest that I am personally aware of was the late Don Henderson who wrote songs about the Mount Isa strikes in the 1960s. In more recent times a group calling itself The Travelling Agitators was used by the CFMEU.
An ‘oldie but a goody’ written in the 1930s, and popularised by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, was ‘Which side are you on?’ It has been performed by many singers but here is a Pete Seeger version
. And there was a version by Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan rewritten to reflect the Thatcher years
in Britain and the war on the National Union of Miners (NUM) — an example of how, in the folk genre, songs and tunes can be used and used again and reworked to reflect the times. A number of early Bob Dylan songs used this approach: for example ‘With god on our side
’ (here performed by Joan Baez as she is easier on the ear) used the tune and structure of the Irish song, ‘The patriot game
’ (here presented by The Dubliners).
Another old union song is ‘Joe Hill’ and it continues to resonate to this day. Here is a 2014 version by Bruce Springsteen
— not now a folk singer but an example of how some folk songs can continue in importance through the years and also cross over to other music genres.
Modern folk singer-songwriters and modern bands continue the tradition writing new songs supporting the workers and their unions. For example ‘There is power in a union
’ by Billy Bragg. ‘Ordinary Man
’, by Christy Moore, captures the plight of the worker who, even though he has not actively fought against the bosses, still suffers when factories close — while the bosses continue smoking their cigars and driving their brand new cars.
For something different, the ‘Workers’ Song’, written by Ed Pickford and performed here by the Dropkick Murphys
, a Celtic punk group from Massachusetts, USA. (The previous link gives you the lyrics but there is a live version here
in case anyone wants to see a Celtic punk band in the flesh, noting that Celtic punk can be considered a blending of folk and punk following The Pogues.) The song also harkens to the workers’ role in war in the verse:
And when the sky darkens
And the prospect is war
Who’s given a gun
And then pushed to the fore
And expected to die
For the land of our birth
Though we’ve never owned
One lousy handful of earth
Of course, there are many songs about continuing the struggle. Here are two performed by Roy Bailey, an English folk singer now in his 70s who, unlike many modern folk singers, does not write his own material:
- Bread and Roses
Look up the sky is burning
With blood the workers shed
We’ll carry on the battle
For roses and bread
- Winter turns to Spring
You have to know the difference
Between the round-abouts and swings
No matter what the distance
Winter turns to spring
From Prague to Santiago
From Belfast to Beijing
Underground but undefeated
Winter turns to spring
(‘Winter turns to spring’ was written by Robb Johnson and I will come back to some of his songs.)
There is another song also called ‘Bread and Roses
’ because that phrase dates back to the early 1900s, was used in a strike by female textile workers in Massachusetts in 1912, and signifies the need for both fair wages and dignity and respect.
Continuing with Roy Bailey, ‘I ain’t afraid
’ is an example of the folk songs that question religion — not religion per se but what it leads to.
I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh
I ain’t afraid of your Allah
I ain’t afraid of your Jesus
I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your god
On a different tangent, ‘Origin of species
’ by Chris Smither, takes a lighter-hearted look at ‘intelligent design’:
God said: "I'll make some DNA
They can use it any way they want
From paramecium right up to man.
They'll have sex
And mix up sections of their code.
They'll have mutations.
The whole thing works like clockwork over time.
I'll just sit back in the shade
While everyone gets laid.
That's what I call intelligent design."
The banks have been a target of many songs including this one from the 1950s: ‘Banks of Marble
’ here performed by Pete Seeger.
But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miners sweated for
The GFC inspired many modern singer-songwriters in the folk genre to pen their own songs about the banks and associated issues. ‘House of Cards
’ by Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan:
We bought that dream and we sold it on
But it ain’t worth nothin’ now the money’s gone
And the only shelter that credit buys
Is a house of cards and a pack of lies
Or ‘Surprise Surprise
’ by Chris Smither;
They told you they would fill your cup
Work hard, they said, you’ll never sink too low
The trickle down will float you up
Surprise, surprise, it ain’t so
And from the Irish side, ‘Bankers
’ by Kieran Halpin;
The bankers have all got their mansions in place
Apartments in New York and Rome
The ‘I’m all right’ culture is leading the race
And the bankers are taking your home
Writing stories about and commenting on current issues has been standard folk fare for generations and the modern songwriters continue that tradition. It is often that which makes a ‘folk’ song, not simply that they are acoustic — because there are now folk-rock bands and even Celtic punk as shown earlier. Telling stories often differentiates folk music from popular music with its emphasis on romance and relationships, or expressing personal feelings.
The Scot we claim as our own (he is now naturalised), Eric Bogle, wrote this song about the death of an African man fighting for freedom: ‘Singing the spirit Home
’ (or a concert version here
). It powerfully captures the ‘brothers’ united at the death of their comrade. The song ‘If they come in the morning’ by Jack Warshaw (here performed by Christy Moore
) captures the fear and uncertainty of the early morning knock on the door to whisk people away to internment or imprisonment or simply to ‘vanish’. Both are written with detail, not just expressions of sentiment, and that helps creates the sentiment in the listener.
The refugee crisis in Europe is now focused on those coming from Iraq and Syria but a few years ago the main source of refugees was those crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa. English folk singer, Pete Moreton wrote ‘Shores of Italy
’ about those refugees:
So many dreams lost on the lonesome sea
So many dreams lost beside the shores of Italy
Pete Moreton also presents an interesting take on the Israel-Palestine conflict, using the analogy of children fighting — simplifying it to that level makes it more poignant: ‘The Two Brothers
Israel give him his ball back
And stop pulling his hair
Both of you, my sons, I know it isn’t fair.
I don‘t care who started it
Just stop all the noise
I can see you’re two very over-tired little boys.
Palestine, I saw you kick him
Israel sit still
Let us get some peace now, if you will.
I mentioned Robb Johnson earlier. He is an English singer-songwriter from the Left, not as well-known as many, but his songs have been performed by many as he writes very political songs and has done so for some time. Early on there were songs like ‘Rosa’s lovely daughters
’ (the women of the Left, or the inheritors of the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg) and ‘Send me back to Georgia
’ about the US ‘war’ in El Salvador. He has written about the Iraq and Afghan wars, including ‘North west frontier
’ and ‘I am not at war
In 2011 he responded to the riots in London with ‘When Tottenham burned’ emphasising the role poverty had played in what happened:
Well you try living on a minimum wage
See how little you’re worth, how little you earn.
Faces of the poor finally made the front page
When Tottenham burned, when Tottenham burned.
Some songs will stand alone for the intensity of their lyrics or tune but others will have tunes and choruses that people find easy to follow, join in and repeat. While the former present important messages and raise awareness, it is perhaps the latter that become true songs of the people, true ‘folk’ songs.
I mentioned that South America also has a tradition of revolutionary songs. A prime example was Victor Jara, a Chilean who sang against oppression, supported Allende, and was subsequently murdered by the Pinochet regime. That in itself emphasises the power of song: that an oppressive regime had to silence a singer-songwriter — someone fighting them not with a gun but only with words and music.
One example of his songs is ‘Zamba del Che
’ written after Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia. In English:
They exploit the farmer,
the miner and the worker,
how painful is their destiny,
hunger, misery, and sorrow.
Bolívar gave him the path
and Guevara followed it:
to liberate our people
from exploitative control.
(A full English translation is here
The last song he wrote before his death was his own musical ‘Manifiesto
’ which I quote in English in full because it expresses the use of music to support the oppressed:
I don’t sing for love of singing
or to show off my voice
but for the statements
made by my honest guitar
for its heart is of the earth
and like the dove it goes flying
endlessly as holy water
blessing the brave and the dying
so my song has found a purpose
as Violet Parra would say.
Yes, my guitar is a worker
shining and smelling of spring
my guitar is not for killers
greedy for money and power
but for the people who labour
so that the future may flower.
For a song takes on a meaning
when its own heart beat is strong
sung by a man who will die singing,
truthfully singing his song.
I don’t care for adulation
or so that strangers may weep.
I sing for a far strip of country
narrow but endlessly deep.
(In that regard, take note of the picture at the start of this piece and the sticker Woody Guthrie has on his guitar.)
The British pacifist poet Adrian Mitchell wrote a poem about Victor Jara after his death and it was subsequently set to music by Arlo Guthrie: here performed by Christy Moore
When Pinochet took Chile
They arrested Victor then
They caged him in a stadium
With five-thousand frightened men
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong
Victor stood in the stadium
His voice was brave and strong
And he sang for his fellow prisoners
Till the guards cut short his song
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong
This song is about Irish involvement in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s: I have posted it before but I post it again, especially for Talk Turkey — Viva La Quinte Brigada
performed live by Christy Moore at Barrowland
in Glasgow. The Christy Moore version was rewritten to reflect the Irish experience but an original Spanish version is performed here
by Pete Seeger.
Although the tradition of rebel songs is not as strong in Australia, we do not miss out completely. We have songs like ‘The Ballad of 1891
’ about the shearers’ strike that ends with the words ‘If they gaol a man for striking, it’s a rich man’s country yet’. The poem ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ by Henry Lawson was also written at the time of the shearers’ strike and later set to music and performed by many groups and singers including this version by The Bushwackers
So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
Of those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours,
If blood should stain the wattle.
In 1962, Dorothy Hewett wrote ‘The Ballad of Norman Brown’ about a man killed during the mining strikes of 1929 in the Newcastle area (there is an audio link to the song on this site
and, for those interested in this story, parts of the song in this 30 minute video interviewing miners
who were present). Its chorus:
Oh Norman Brown, oh Norman Brown
The murderin' coppers they shot him down,
They shot him down in Rothbury town,
A working man called Norman Brown.
And in 1964 after the Voyager disaster this song
was written and also expresses an anti-war sentiment in its last lines:
Will your age-old answers now make you realise
That ships must sail the seas for peace before another dies
We continue to write songs about the futility and suffering of war. I include ‘I was only 19
’ by Redgum in this selection of ‘folk’ songs because, although it was a popular hit, it was closer to the folk genre. More recently, Fred Smith has written songs about the Australian experience in Afghanistan: ‘Dust of Uruzgan
’ (this version performed in Afghanistan in front of Dutch soldiers and using Afghani musicians).
Modern Australians may not be oppressed but there is still plenty for the singer-songwriters to write about. An Irishman living in Melbourne, Enda Kenny (not to be confused with the Irish Taoiseach), wrote ‘Sorry little man’ about Howard refusing to make the apology to the Stolen Generation. More recently he wrote about coal mining using the story of Jonathon Moylan
, the activist who put out the fake press release
in 2013 that the ANZ bank was withdrawing funding from the Whitehaven coal mine.
There have also been songs about saving the Tasmanian wilderness and wider issues like saving the ‘Amazon
’, the latter written by Bruce Watson:
In the time it takes to sing this song
There’ll be four acres cleared in the Amazon
Bruce Watson is also known (at least in folk circles) for his humorous songs: one example is this parody of ‘Bad Habits’: ‘Bad Abbott
For those who love music, particularly the power of lyrics with a good tune, then this music can shape and support social movements for the betterment of society. It can raise awareness of issues or present new perspectives and retell the historical struggles that still mould society and modern movements. With humour, it can ridicule existing ideologies, the powerful and politicians. Radical ideas and social and political commentary have been reflected in the music of the people for centuries. Long may it continue to be so.
What do you think?
Apologies to our readers who took note of the previously announced timing of pieces during January. That has now changed as you can see from this post.
We hope you enjoy this musical interlude and find something you like. Is Ken right in suggesting that music can play an important role in social and political movements? Please feel free to add links in your comments to your favourite ‘political’ songs, no matter which musical genre.
This thread will remain open until Wednesday 20 January when our first political piece for the year will be posted. On that date Ad Astra returns with the first of a three-part article on ‘Framing the political debate — the key to winning’. Part 2 of that piece will appear on Tuesday 26 January and the conclusion on Sunday 31 January.