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
I've just added Voices Now to our Links page. The forthcoming Voices Now survey looks like a chance to make the voices of street choirs heard on the choral map of Britain? The previous Voices Now survey did not, unsurprisingly (?), have categories for 'street choir' or 'protest music'. Maybe it should? The survey - 'the first ever comprehensive snapshot of choral singing in the UK' - is well worth a read (even if it plainly isn't comprehensive and, pedantically, 'snapshot' and 'comprehensive' seem antithetic terms!)
See and hear the massed Campaign Choirs sing the Fracking Anthem to marchers taking part in the People's Assembly demonstration at the Conservative Party conference. Interesting to meet, march and sing with Commoners Choir for the first time. Shame they couldn't come to take part in the Campaign Choirs sing and meet street choir members from Liverpool, East Lancs, Sheffield, Leicester, Cardiff, Aberystwyth...
Campaign Choirs will be singing for the demo around the Tory Conference in Manchester on Sunday 1st October. People's Assembly have suggested the combined street choir stand at the end of the march to sing to people as they finish the route. See you there!
It was great to hear Birmingham Clarion Singers feature on Radio 4's series 'Choral History of Britain' with Jane Scott and Annie Banham giving very good interviews. The programme also featured Greenham Common and the role of women singing at the peace camp. Both Birmingham Clarion Singers and Greenham are vital elements of the story of the development of street choirs in Britain. Our Campaign Choirs Network writing project is forging ahead nicely with a few chapters 'in the bag' that feature stories from street choir members across Britain. Hearing the Radio 4 programme has re-energised us for all the hard work of writing, editing, proof-reading... Excitingly, there's a really talented artist working on the cover of our Singing for Our Lives book due out next year from Hammer On Press. Hopefully the next episode in the series 'Choral History of Britain' will provide more food for thought and inspiration.
After weeks of head-down working on Singing For Our Lives - actually having a wonderful and challenging time, working with and learning from everyone on the S4OL team - I (Kelvin) took a day off yesterday. I chose to go to Cardiff for a mooch about and - of course - ran into the irrepressible Cor Cochion Caerdydd. They were taking a big part in an action against cuts to public services. As usual, they'd put the effort in to make their singing a real piece of street theatre. It was an honour to sing a couple of songs with the Red Choir. And they're surely right, what is the point of Labour if they don't oppose the swingeing budget cuts being forced on them by the Conservative government? All our councils, whoever controls them - Plaid CYmru, Lib Dems, independents - can't keep saying 'there's nothing we can do, it's Westminster'. True, if they resist individually, they'll get hammered. But if they get together, say a collective and resounding 'NO' and demand the money that they need, they might actually put a stop to the brutality, maybe even bring down this crass government that should by rights be in its death throes, and win back the respect and support of the people. And look, in the background of these photographs, whose name is embossed in gold! 'Save our public services, this is not the only way out!'