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Folk music and the politics of resistance

By Russ Chandler | 26 February 2017

Steve White and the Protest Family

The folk music scene has always had a political, radical edge. This is a short, personal survey by Russ Chandler of the level of political engagement in the scene today.

Although never as politically homogenous as often supposed by those following the standard narrative of the folk revival centred around the likes of Alan Lomax, Ewan McColl and A L Lloyd’s original project to develop a tradition of self-consciously proletarian music back in the fifties, folk music has always been an engaged and pretty overtly left wing movement.

Many of the great political singer songwriters of the revival are still active. Artists like Leon Rosselson, Roy Bailey, Frankie Armstrong and Sandra Kerr are still performing and recording very militant and self-consciously political music.

These artists have produced songs of real power and sophistication and it is worth catching them if you have the chance since several are moving into semi-retirement.

There is also later generation of songwriters whose output is centred around politics. Artists such as Robb Johnson, David Rovics, Kath Tait, Maggie Holland and Janet Russell work very much in the traditional folk club format and are still making very active and current political statements through their music.

Resistance

Amongst the younger generation there are fewer specifically political artists. One notable exception is Grace Petrie. A fine songwriter, her music has charted her often winding journey as she attempts to find herself politically, and her experience must be one that is very typical for many people attempting to chart a time of tremendous uncertainty and injustice but without a strong current of resistance to orientate around.

If there are less polemic songwriters working today, there is also a firm strand of performance style within the folk scene where artists whose primary focus is traditional music or more personal song writing include material with an overtly political and sometimes quite militant tone.

Folk stalwarts like Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Martin Simpson or Dick Gaughan are well known for dropping uncompromising political material into their sets without apology and that tradition is as strong as ever.

Artists such as Nancy Kerr & James Fagin, Lucy Ward, The Young Un’s, Sam Carter and Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin are not afraid to take strong political stances within their performances when the mood takes them.

I think it is fair to say however that much of the political tenor of many of the current crop of writers does tend towards the reflective or nostalgic. There is an emphasis on an idea of compassion, and maybe abstract notions of solidarity, but little that engages with any idea of struggle within the real movement or speaks to any kind of working class agency, never mind aspiring to any thought of using the music to actually rouse the rabble out on the street.

An example of this is the “Sweet Liberties” project in which a group of noted folk musicians were asked to contribute to a “… musical journey exploring the pursuit of democracy and the events that have made a difference to our liberties…”. However, the sponsors included the House of Parliament and brief for participants made it clear that the material should be “…political but not partisan”.

Injustice

The result, although musically very accomplished is either limited to the celebration or condemnation of historical triumphs or injustices, or else reduced to a level of dissent that never recognises the possibility of fundamentally challenging the system.

When looking at the folk scene it is important not to put too much of a distance between the professional headline performers and the ordinary people contributing with amateur performances and floor spots.

This is where the tradition of protest singing is really still thriving with great, polemic songwriters like Graham Larkbey and Steve O’Donoghue working virtually anonymously and completely beyond any mainstream interest. Steve’s song Dandelions was the used as the centre piece of the No Glory campaign to commemorate the centenary of the battle of the Somme in 2016. This entirely non-commercial project was very much an example of folk music as activism.

Beyond the walls of the orthodox “folk scene” there are also some notable artists focussed around rallies, demonstrations and Trade Union events. Often disconnected or even hostile to the traditional folk scene and including poets and rock bands this is none the less in the protest song tradition of the likes of Woody Guthrie.

At the acoustic end of this scene you’ll find artists like Joe Solo, Efa Supertramp, Comrade X and my own outfit Steve White & the Protest Family.

This has been a very brief and personal summary of my experience of how politics and folk music are interacting at the moment. It’s centred very much on the London folk scene and the broader political music scene, in which left wing politics are the accepted standard. I wonder if the situation is less clear cut if one listens to the floor singers and buskers elsewhere in the country?

But I hope I have challenged the lament so frequently heard in the lazier parts of the media of “where have all the protest songs gone?” to demonstrate that the flames of dissent are still burning, if a little uncertainly, within the music that dares to present itself as the voice of the people.

Russ Chandler is a folk music promotor and member of Steve White & the Protest Family. Their new album Protest for Dummies is out now.

Russ has put together a short playlist – see the video link below.



5 comments

  1. Peter said:

    An interesting piece Russ.
    I have a few comments:
    First there are indeed some pockets of resistance outside London. Alun Parry in Liverpool; Sing Political in the Midlands; I think there is still the Janey Buchan Collection in Glasgow; However you are right that most of this is nostalgic (incidentally I think you were a bit harsh on Sweet Liberties – I thought that Martyn Joseph’s song Nye was a powerful defence of the NHS)

    However – the key point I want to make is that folk is no longer the vehicle of choice for protest amongst the young. I think that has now moved over to Rap. Have a listen to Akala in particular (https://genius.com/Akala-find-no-enemy-lyrics) for example.

    I doubt that many in the folk community are listening to rap, and not many are writing lyrics that powerful.

    26 February 2017 at 2:32pm
  2. Russ Chandler said:

    Thanks Peter.

    I didn’t mean to imply Sweet Liberties didn’t have any merit, it’s got some great stuff on it.

    Very interesting point about rap and I suspect you are absolutely correct. But there are still lots of people who can express themselves with a guitar rather than a rap. In the seventies there was punk rock but also a radical, engaged strand to the folk scene.

    I wish we could bridge that gap.

    26 February 2017 at 8:14pm
  3. Mark Gregory said:

    Your readers may be interested my 2014 dissertation titled “Australian Working Songs and Poems – A Rebel Heritage”

    downloadable as a PDF from

    http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/4293/

    26 February 2017 at 10:16pm
  4. Huw pudner said:

    Very interesting article. Thank you. I would like to give a mention to the late and much lamented Alistair hull who sang powerful political songs and recorded several albums of note.
    Also o holey and tidy sing quite a few songs about social justice..The lovely song mothers comes to mind!
    Huw

    28 February 2017 at 7:03pm
  5. James said:

    Listen in to Beans On Toast, Will Varley, Ben Duckham, Frank Turner……!!!

    12 March 2017 at 10:45pm

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