Listening to the BBC Radio 4 Songs of the Civil Rights Movement this morning I was yet again struck by the importance of music in campaigns. I was 13 when Martin Luther King was killed and remember crying in front of the telly, much more because of the singing and the raw grief on display than because I understood the politics of the Civil Rights Movement. ‘We Shall Overcome’ never fails to move me and it is the one we somehow always return to when we need to stand together in times of trouble.
In the broadcast Bob Zellner talks about a 1963 night march in in Denver, Virginia, where the Civil Rights protesters stood on the Town Hall steps, waiting to make their way to the church. Faced with a make-shift police force of deputies drafted in from fire and garbage collection services armed with fire hoses and table legs, and knowing that 123 people had been hospitalised the previous night in a similar situation, they sang Amazing Grace as they slowly walked towards the police ‘and they [police] parted’. Zellner quotes ‘an old Civil Rights saying: When in doubt, pray and sing!’
BAE Systems have retracted their sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North (GEN) in response to an artist-led public outcry that art should be funded by arms manufacturers. ‘Art Not Oil’ comment that ‘The exhibition’s partnership with BAE Systems was not about money, it was about brand association: the artwashing of BAE’s corporate social licence to operate.’ BAE commented that they would ‘redirect our support to other initiatives’ better suited to its objectives. Currently those ‘objectives’ include arming regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, northern powerhouse minister and MP Jake Berry tweeted that ‘subsidy addicted artists’ and ‘snowflakes’ are supported by taxes paid by the 18000 BAE workers in the North, a vary-loaded statement: artists being on subsidies; not doing a ‘real’ job like the BAE workers; anybody receiving tax payers’ money not being entitled to an opinion, let alone a moral stand…. We are eagerly awaiting a snowflake song from the Commoners Choir!
Two interesting and complementary columns on music side by side in Peace News, 2614-2615, February - March 2018 (p.20). Jeff Cloves writes about 'the 10 best songs about peace', noting the absence of women's songs - either as composers or performers - in one online listing. Meanwhile, in her regular 'Rebel Music' Column, Penny Stone also uses the centenary of (some) women's suffrage in Britian to ask what songs they might have been singing back then, and which stand the test of time. Bread and Roses, which features prominently in S4OL, is also a song that penny notes retain its currency.
In this article one of our S4OL interviewees, Eileen Karmy of Protest in Harmony street choir in Edinburgh, dons her academic hat to consider the 1977 football game between Chile and Scotland. For many observers, the so-called 'match of shame' served to legitimise the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet. It actually took place in a stadium where people had been murdered by the military just a few years before! Eileen focuses on the international solidarity with the people of Chile expressed by social movement activists in Scotland. The song 'Blood on the Grass', written by Adam McNaughton, was an important expression of this international solidarity.
This banner was used in protest outside Wembley during the England vs. Scotland match of 4th June 1977.
Judge our book by its cover? Available from June 2018
Singing for Our Lives: Stories from the Street Choirs centres on more than 40 oral histories gathered from members of the UK’s many street choirs. The title is taken from the lyrics of ‘We are a Gentle Angry People’, a song by Holly Near that is popular in the repertoire of many street choirs. Exploring the role of street choirs in political culture, Singing For Our Lives introduces this neglected world to a wider public, including activists and academics. The book intends to inspire the reader to engage with this world: to find out more, to join a choir in their community, to enlist their local street choir to support campaigns for social change and, more generally, to mobilise artistic creativity in progressive social movements. Singing for Our Lives is introduction to street choirs and their history, exploring origins in and connections with other social movements, for example the Workers Education Association, the Clarion movement, Big Flame and the Social Forum movement. The book identifies the political nodes where choir histories intersect, notably Greenham Common, the Miners’ Strike, anti-apartheid and Palestinian struggles. Signing for Our Lives also elaborates the personal stories and experiences of people who participate in street choirs, and the unique social practices created within them. The book tells the important, if often overlooked story, of how making music can contribute to non-violent, just and sustainable social transitions.
"While we're busy getting ready to write the last chapter (!) of Singing For Our Lives, other people are getting on with writing, sharing and signing songs of resistance for a better future. We asked Ginnie Shaw to share with Campaign Choirs her experience of singing against fracking at Kirkby Misperton
"I was planning to go to Green Monday at Preston New Road on Monday 18 September. I’d even worked out how to get there by train and bus. Back pain kept me at home and I listened to a programme on Radio 4 about choirs. It included reference to Greenham Common and the importance of music in peaceful protest. “I could do that” I thought and for the rest of the week I worked on writing frack free lyrics for songs I was already familiar with. By the end of the week, when I first arrived at the gates of the fracking well site at Kirkby Misperton (KM8) on Friday 22 September, I had written lyrics to four songs.
"I was familiar with the idea of using well-known tunes (the American campaigner Joe Hill is a notable example of someone who has done this) and started with “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes”. The refrain “there’ll be no more fracking anymore”, popped into my head and I wondered if I’d heard it before. I hadn’t: it was just that the tune was so familiar, as it is to lots of folk. What’s more, it is quite easy to pick up. There are five verses, all about the positive alternatives to fracking: [We’ll be] siting our wind turbines off the shore, getting power from sunshine evermore, using tidal power from now on, [And we’ll] insulate our houses so they’re warm, [We’ll be] re-using our plastic: stop the waste. It has become something of an anthem at the gate and I always sing it as a police escorted convoy of delivery lorries goes past. Protectors of all ages have sung it, from children to elders, sometimes in very fraught situations. Police officers have told me it has become an earworm for some in North Yorkshire Police!
"Pete Seeger is a particular inspiration for my generation and another song we sing at Minster Ukes is “Where have all the flowers gone”. So I’ve written four verses of frack free lyrics about what we will lose if the frackers have their way : clean air, fresh water, farm land, tourists.
"The ukulele group I play with (Minster Ukes) often sings “Don’t fence me in” so I had a go at writing frack free lyrics to this Cole Porter classic. I have to admit that, though somewhat more difficult to pick up than the others, it is the one I am most pleased with. The lyrics reflect the love I have for the county of my birth, Yorkshire (and they could just as easily be applied to the county of Lancashire: no War of the Roses here). “There’ll be no more fracking (anywhere)” to the tune of Frere Jacques is always popular with activists at KM8 and is of course lovely sung as a round (a police officer once asked for it as a request). I’m delighted to say it has often been sung when I haven’t been at the gates, helping people to keep going in the face of the inexorable progress of the lorries and the disproportionate and frequently heavy-handed police presence.
"I have visited the site every Tuesday since September 26 to sing, come what may. I hoped that making this a regular date (between 1100 and 1545) would encourage others to come along too and though this has not been as successful as I had hoped, there are always other activists who join in. The availability of a “Frack free songbook”, including laminated versions, certainly helps.
"Most people value the presence of singing at the gate and during slow walking. They refer to its ability to raise morale and keep the situation calm, all-important in maintaining the spirit of peaceful, non-violent protest that matters so much to us all."
This video work by graphic artist Majid Adin, a refugee from Iran, shows one way that a non-political song can become a protest song. Sometimes it's not just about having earnest lyrics, it's about context - who's singing the song, where they're singing it, who they're singing it to... Who hears. Musically, Elton John's Rocket Man already captures an almost ethereal sense of loss and longing, perfect in its terrible way for the stories of refugees...
Early September, not yet dawn. 10,000 dead in the Yemen, (drink and a blanket) 1 million homeless,(packed lunch, cake?)£3.3 million spent by Saudi Arabia since 2015 on British weapons, (remember the banner): we’re getting a coach, swaying through the lanes, hurtling down the M42, singing once we’ve passed Oxford, heading to the Excel Centre, where Britain will host its biennial International Arms Fair, (roll up, roll up, get your killer materialshere, all welcome).Of course it is known (unknown) by a nice anonymous set of initials, DSEI, concealing the fact that billions of £££ of guns rockets tanks bombs and new ways to torture people are sold here to virtually anyone.
So here we are, 22 of us , mostly from a choir based in Presteigne in the Welsh borders, coming to support the blockading of deliveries before the trade begins. For some of us it is our first demo, for most of us it will be the first witnessing of ‘lock-ons’. We are not sure quite how this will work.
East London Dockland, windy, open, looking like an extended supermarket car park; we’re at the East Gate, police vans, high metal fences erected and a knot of yellow jackets guarding 3 people lying down across the road. Linked by their arms hidden inside steel tubes, blocks of concrete, glues, wires, suitcases-and locked on deep inside by carabiners, they are voluntarily making themselves vulnerable and POWERFUL at the same time. It is extremely impressive and effective.(Could I find thecourage? ) One similar blockade has been dismantled here; deliveries have been halted at both gates.
It is 12 o’clock. We start singing: “The war machine rolls on and on…,” “We are, we are together...”, “Better light a candle than curse the darkness…”
From behind the encircling yellow jackets comes the noise of hammers, chisels, drills. Occasionally we are moved away and shields are raised as they use angle-grinders to cut through the encasements( cannot imagine what that feels like, lying there so still; theirwill-power is amazing) It’s particularly moving to sing “I’m gonna lift my sister up, she is not heavy… if I don’t lift her up, I will fall down” They have been lying here for nearly 3 hours.
Our voices blend, separate, rise and fall; our energies combine. These blockaders are released, carried to vans; another blockade is forming further down the road. A man emerges from nearby flats with coffee and biscuits, comes back with tea, herb teas, enough for everyone.
We walk to the West Gate (15 minutes away, this place is huge. No! it’s called The Abu Dhabi Excel Centre!)
A small camp, pop-up café, windmills of all shapes and sizes and another blockade. We form a circle and sing our hearts out; held in another circle, joined by other singers, we could sing on and on. But the tacograph means we must leave at 4. It’s a long way home.
A few days later, our minds still whirling with images, we have exchanged messages: ”Singing for our lives seems to be a very important thing to do” “Uplifting despite grim purpose” “Reawakened my conviction in the value of standing up tall against atrocities”
And messages from London that it had meant a lot that we had come from Wales, that the singing had raised spirits and boosted morale at a tired moment.
Here in the Borders we can feel a long way from ‘the action’; taking part in this protest reminded us all of our connections, our possibilities, of the power of song to deliver not only the message but the emotion- ‘we care about this’.. let’s sing on! An edited version of this article appears in Peace News