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Our Subversive Voice: The History and Politics of the English Protest Song An Interview with Oskar Cox Jensen, an investigator of the use of song to register protest through the ages

Our Subversive Voice: The History and Politics of the English Protest Song

An Interview with Oskar Cox Jensen, an investigator of the use of song to register protest through the ages

by Tim London,
first published: February, 2022
we've found that protest song is alive and well, it has this almost infinitely long and rich history in this country...

The University of East Anglia is hosting Our Subversive Voice, an ’investigation (of) the use of song to register protest through the ages’. The accompanying website features 750 songs chosen from thousands of others with descriptions and, often, links to recorded versions. They range from Ballad of the Cloak, which attacks English Presbyterians (1679) to (for instance) 2017’s Fuck Brexit by 4NBoys and cover many viewpoints expressed to music. It’s a fantastic resource and a fascinating close up of how people were at various moments. There’s something about a song that captures mood in a way that documented history often struggles with.

Here’s an interview with Oskar Cox Jensen, a writer and Senior Research Associate in Politics and one of the key organisers of the project.

Tim London: Any project that focusses on protest invites the question - is the project itself subversive in any way? Or political with a capital P?
Oskar Cox Jensen: It’s very kind of you to put the question so positively! We’ve had accusations from other people that doing something like this within a university, on a state-funded project, can only tame or neuter or sanitise its subject – even that it’s a nail in the coffin of real protest. And certainly the project has to obey certain institutional dictates, and it’s paying my salary, so we’re technically in someone’s pocket – even if that’s partly the taxpayer.

As individuals, most of us on the project have some experience of activism and direct action at some point, although that’s separate to our official role here. But we’ve found that protest song is alive and well, it has this almost infinitely long and rich history in this country, and the hope is that we’re contributing both to the continuation of that history –  in providing protesters with songs and inspiration – and to the wider awareness of that tradition.

English history has always been radical and subversive, and we want to play a small part in giving voice to that, against the constant rhetoric from the right of a sceptred isle and a stable, moderate people.

We’re definitely capital-P Political in that we’re running the project out of a Politics department. But we’re not party-partisan. Just more conscripts providing cannon-fodder in this apparent culture war.

Our worst and weirdest moment so far has been an unsolicited endorsement on Twitter – ‘good work’ – from Dominic Cummings. We’re still not sure what to make of that.


“’good work’ - Dominic Cummings”


 TL: Which song(s) is/are your favourites and why?
OCJ: One diplomatic and true answer is that, in researching more than a thousand songs and being part of a process that selected first 750 and then 250 of them to examine, I’ve come across loads of brilliant songs – in an absolute, rather than purely political sense – that I never knew about before. In recent times, this ranges from the hilarious – 4N Boyz’ ‘Fuck Brexit’ – to the profound – Akala’s ‘Maangamizi’, which also has a deeply sick groove. I hadn’t come across Latin Quarter, Sister Audrey, or Mighty Terror before, and they’ve produced some great records. A little further back, Ethel Smyth’s ‘Laggard Dawn’ and Edward Carpenter’s ‘England, Arise!’, though a little schmaltzy for some, are just really beautiful compositions.

Closest to my heart though, as originally a historian of 18th and 19th-century song, are some remarkable pieces of totally over-wrought music-making. Matthew Dryden’s ‘Perseveer’ [sic] takes a saccharine Victorian love song and turns it into an anthem of unionisation with a heart-tugging cry of a chorus. J. H. Tully gives Thomas Hood’s well-known poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’ a ludicrously excessive arrangement that I find strangely irresistible; the same can be said of Eliza Flower’s music for Harriet Martineau’s ‘Hymn of the Polish Exiles’, all blood and thunder and ominous modulations. We have hundreds of worthy and brilliant songs on our list that you’d be happy to have on at a party, from ‘Gimme Hope Jo’anna’ to ‘Ghost Town’. But there’s something about these earnest, horribly unfashionable Victorian songs that I find very affecting.

I’ve also come much closer to songs when I’ve interviewed their writers about them – especially Sue Gilmurray and Maggie Holland. Special mention too for Oneworld’s charity single ‘Freedom for Palestine’. At least one of my colleagues hates it as plastic, empty pop music. He’s sort of right. But the chorus really does something to me. This is what really interests me – those times when we’re hopeless in the grip of music, even despite our better judgement.

TL: Apart from the lyrics are there other elements that can make a protest song? Arrangement? Instrumentation? Production? Personnel? Although I haven’t read all 250 descriptions (let alone 750!) I don’t think there are any instrumentals here. Would some, say, early jazz not be seen as an act of protest? Or 90s rave tunes released against the CJ Act? (Happy to be corrected if there are instrumentals). Would a ‘protest title’ be enough?
OCJ:
So I’ve accidentally already touched on the first part of this in the previous answer – and one really nice example is the anonymous Greenham Common Peace Camp song, ‘Brazen Hussies’. All I had to go on was a short lyric and a tune direction, ‘I Wish I Was In Dixie’. At first glance there was no way the words fitted the tune. Except, of course, they did – and in working out how, I discovered a song that took some really raw, defiant, funny lyrics, which were in themselves really short and humble, and created something that, I think, is just amazing to sing. Really infectious, full of momentum, just really enjoyable to be a part of. It’s the ideal of what song, especially protest song, can be. And that comes down to offering both singers and listeners something they want to participate in, rather than simply something worthy or edifying.

Ideally, of course, in order to endure songs should be replicable, easy to remember and perform – I think production, personnel, even arrangement, are red herrings and very much limit us to the age of commercial recorded music. Much more significant are the things that ‘Brazen Hussies’ has going for it – a catchy and singable tune that elevates the words, an engaging spirit, a simplicity. I’m trying not to say ‘authenticity’ because that word is worse than useless!

We do actually have an instrumental, Coldcut’s ‘Timber’, that nearly made it on to the 250. There’s also ‘Repetitive Beats (Kill the Bill mix)’ from the ’90s rave culture you mention. But these are exceptions. This is a two-year project involving a professor of rhetoric, my colleague Alan Finlayson, so there’s been a pragmatic decision to focus on more conventional ‘songs’ with lyrics. Of course protest music goes so very much further than this! In all sorts of ways, instrumental music, rough music or charivari, pure percussion, are all integral to protest, especially during direct action. Silence and the refusal to speak or sing can also be really important aspects of protest, and my friend David Kennerley is doing work on this in relation to the Chartist movement. All this takes us more, academically speaking, towards sound studies. We’re up against the clock here, and we know our limits!

That’s a great point about titles, too. In earlier centuries, especially during the Georgian era, a lot of instrumental dances had political or satirical titles. In this case, the music itself was completely generic, uncontroversial, no kind of protest – but it was a sort of Trojan horse that introduced an idea or a subversive message via the title. The forces of the status quo did the same thing of course, perhaps rather more successfully. Which leads me to the next question – effectiveness!

TL: What have been the most effective protest songs and why?
OCJ:
Another easy question, eh? Everyone’s familiar with the example of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the US’ being misinterpreted and used by the Republican right in the US – success is not the same as effectiveness. Try making the case for John Lennon’s song ‘John Sinclair’. It was written as part of a campaign to free the activist John Sinclair, as a result of which, John Sinclair was released. Was that down to Lennon’s song? It’s not as if the song operated in a vacuum. We can’t say for sure.


“John Lennon’s song ‘John Sinclair’… was written as part of a campaign to free the activist John Sinclair, as a result of which, John Sinclair was released.”


You could say – indeed, Daniel Defoe did say – that ‘Lillibullero’, the military marching song of 1688–9, ‘sang James II out of three kingdoms’, and in that sense, few songs have ever been as effective.

There are two lessons to take from this. One – a point made to me by several songwriter activists – is, you can never say what would have happened without the songs. Whether they worked is the wrong question; what matters is that they were sung, and that people will continue to sing protest songs. It’s not about measurable cause and effect, it’s about motivation, hope, persistence.

This leads to the second point: the most effective protest songs have probably always been, not those that argued precisely for a single definable goal, but those that were instrumental in creating a mood and a movement. Many of these, like ‘Lillubullero’, have always been marching songs, anthems, hymns – things to be sung by a collective body that constitutes its own solidarity in the singing. People who want the vote, proving their cultural capital by singing in four-part harmony. Disparate people coming together and literally, musically demonstrating their unity by joining their voices. The archetypal songs here, the most effective, are those that transcend their original context: the ‘Marseillaise’, ‘The Red Flag’, the ‘Internationale’. Have their causes been won? No. Have they significantly aided innumerable causes and actions? Yes.

TL: Pre-industrialised recording (20th century) was it important that a protest song be easily sing-able for it to be effective?
OCJ: I think you have the answer to this one by now! But one thing is often overlooked here. When we talk of a song being ‘singable’ we often think – as I’ve been thinking in my previous answers – of crowds, of streets, of pickets, of marches. Sometimes, however, it’s just as important that a protest song is fit to be sung in a pleasure garden, or a middle-class drawing room. For anyone interested in the abolition of slavery, or in the history of song, I heartily recommend Julia Hamilton’s recent thesis, which is available online. She makes clear the fundamental importance of domestic music-making to the abolitionist cause.

This is a great way, before the era of the Suffragettes, of thinking about women’s agency in protest song. There were a lot of female ballad-singers in the streets, who played a crucial role, and of course Chartists, bluestockings, and other activists. But the soft diplomacy of songs in the home could be just as important. And writers of abolitionist song knew this, and fitted their arguments to the conventions – both lyrical and, above all, musical – of the sentimental ballads of Vauxhall pleasure gardens and the London theatres. The result was a lot of problematic, racialising songs, with Black ciphers as helpless victims. But they worked in their goal of advancing the abolitionist cause, primarily because they were so singable.

TL: What happens when a crowd of people sing a protest song together?
OCJ:
Contagion is a useful metaphor. As we all know to our cost in 2022, you catch things in crowds. More poetically, I sometimes like to think of a wood of tall trees, reaching skywards, and the sense of oneself as a single trunk amid a host of others. It can be epiphanic.

On the other hand, think of a stadium crowd singing an anthem; they can drag behind the music, sound turgid and stale. Or you create conflict: in 1792, Irish medical students at Edinburgh University tried to sing the ‘Marseillaise’ over the top of a theatre audience singing ‘God Save the King’. It descended into predictable violence and a lot of people got barred.

All of these possibilities are, I think, captured in the famous scene in Casablanca. It makes me cry even when I play it to my students. Rather embarrassing, really.


“songs can be cathartic, and in that sense a safety valve, a release of pressure – or giving the sense of a duty done, with nothing actually achieved”


TL: Is it possible that protest songs might have the opposite effect to the one, presumably, intended, that by singing or listening protesters are pacified or their need to protest is assuaged?
OCJ: This is a more interesting take on the ‘Born in the USA’ problem – yes! The idea that songs can be cathartic, and in that sense a safety valve, a release of pressure – or giving the sense of a duty done, with nothing actually achieved. The French philosophers Rousseau and d’Alembert were fretting about this in the 18th century and it’s still a problem now; in his interview with our project, Billy Bragg told us he’d cut ‘Between the Wars’ from his live sets because he didn’t like his audiences being nostalgic for the Thatcher era and old fights, he thought it was precisely that sort of sentimental wallowing that stops things getting done. I’m usually suspicious of cries of ‘virtue signalling’ but it can be a danger. What’s the alternative though? To stop singing altogether? I hope not.

TL: Does a project like this absorb protest into the mainstream? Now we have ‘professors of punk’ running music departments in universities is this an acknowledgement that, unless protest songs have an ironic or humourous flavour, they are now seen as anachronistic (in the UK, at least) and consequently less effective?
OCJ: Aha, you are asking this after all! Having addressed much of this already, I want to refute, in the strongest possible terms, the idea that protest songs are anachronistic – there are more than ever, in every conceivable genre of music – as well as the idea that the historical has no relevance in ongoing struggles. If that were the case, why topple Colston? Why change street names? Our perception of our history matters.


“most right-wing songs don’t register as songs of protest – because they don’t have to”


TL: There are less songs listed from the right of the political spectrum. I’m not complaining but is the reason that there are just less written from that perspective, particularly in the last 100 years? If that’s the case, what might be the reason for that?
OCJ:
Forget the last hundred years – we can honestly say that we’ve looked, and there really do seem to be very few protest songs that originate from what you might loosely call the right. We’ve included a handful of exceptions, despite concerns it might look tokenistic: songs by Mosley’s Blackshirts, by Noël Coward, by neo-Nazi skinheads, by Brexiteers, by anti-vaxxers. And in centuries past, there are songs by Royalists during the Republic, by Tories during the Whig ascendancy, by reactionaries who nonetheless were campaigning for animal rights in the 1800s. But they’re vastly outnumbered.

What you do have, of course, are centuries of songs, from the beginning to the present day, that endorse the status quo, the ancien regime, capitalism, the social contract – endless songs that are racist, sexist, classist, any number of things that you might typically associate with the political right. One example from my own research are the thousands of songs reacting against the French Revolution and the threat of Napoleon, the democratic ideas coming across the Channel. But of course they’re not protest songs. Because they’re reinforcing existing power structures.

It’s less down to anything to do with protest songs, than the basic facts of political history. To have a protest song, you need to be on the wrong end of a power imbalance. You need a cause, maybe even an ideology. You have to want to change something – even if that’s about changing something back rather than being progressive. These conditions have historically aligned themselves with the left. So most right-wing songs don’t register as songs of protest – because they don’t have to.

Needless to say – shedding my scholarly detachment for a second – the right-wing songs we have included are uniformly dreadful. But what else can you expect when the left has Kae Tempest or Dave or Sault or Grace Petrie, and the right has ... Dominic Frisby?


Essential Info
You can find Our Subversive Voice here

Tim London

Tim London is a musician, music producer and writer. Originally from a New Town in Essex he is at home amidst concrete and grand plans for the working class. Tim's latest thriller, Smith, is available now. Find out more at timothylondon.com


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