Music, protest and democracy
’There’s a feeling shared today
By the people whose freedom has been taken away
And as in the past when things were wrong
the common folk come together in song
How shall we win?
with what will we fight?
We hope with this song
our world we shall unite’
(‘They can’t take away our music’, Eric Burdon and War, 1970)
The above lyrics illustrate how music can play an inspirational role by voicing discontent while offering hope.
In the history of protest, rebellion and revolution, music and song have played a special part - from the mid-seventeenth century English Civil War, when the revolutionary Diggers sang in a hymn ‘But the gentry must come down, and the poor shall wear the crown’ to more recently, when John Lennon provided an anthem with the song ‘Power to the People’.
I have personally felt the power of music as a spiritual force in the struggle against injustice. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when solidarity with South Africans fighting apartheid was a significant issue in Australia, a comrade and I would prepare for each demonstration by listening to Eric Burdon’s ‘Every One of Us’ album. It featured a monologue by a black American ex-serviceman, angrily describing and condemning racism. The music helped to give us courage as we sometimes faced violence and arrest back then during demonstrations.
In Australia, our tradition of protest songs dates back to colonial times, when English and Irish convicts and migrants sang ballads that challenged authority. ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, about the Irish rebel, convict and bushranger, Jack Donahue, is a fine example.
But it was in the decades following World War 2, with the ‘baby boom’ and rise of a teen market in the western world that protest music flourished in a way it hadn’t before. The transistor radio was a key piece of technology that allowed teenagers to develop musical tastes independently of their parents, while the advent of television helped raise awareness of injustices everywhere. Rock music bound many young people into a ‘youth culture’ which sometimes complemented the more political movement that opposed the US-led war in Vietnam.
Ronnie Burns’ hit song, ‘Smiley’, referenced a popular Australian feature film, made in 1956. The main character was a young, blonde, blue-eyed country boy, a stereotype of how many saw the typical Australian back then. Smiley was an innocent young fellow and Burns’ song, released in 1969, contained poignant lyrics:
You're off to the Asian War
And we won't see you smile no more
No we won't see you smile no more
No more laughter in the air
No more laughter in the air
Feel the tension in the air
Where is love?’
Protest songs allow for the poetic articulation of lament and grievance but can also create a positive vision of a better future. They can be angry, like Nina Simone’s version of ‘Revolution’ (1969) or conceal a strong message within a deceptively gentle melody like John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (1971); both classics of the genre.
Radio stations were reluctant to play Simone’s song, even in Australia. She was a black American militant activist in the civil rights movement and a brilliant classically-trained musician. In her rejoinder to the Beatles’ song, she sang:
‘I'm here to tell you about destruction
Of all the evil that will have to end.’
‘Some folks are gonna get the notion
I know they'll say I'm preachin' hate
But if I have to swim the ocean
Well I would just to communicate
It’s not as simple as talkin' jive
The daily struggle just to stay alive’
Some of the songs reflect a particular moment in history; others became classics. Lennon’s memorable line ‘Imagine there’s no countries’ has continuing relevance in a world with 68 million people displaced or seeking asylum.
Democracies generally allow for freedom of expression, which means protest songs can be sung in public and broadcast on the airwaves without penalty. However, there are occasions when they encounter problems with censorship, though this is usually to do with sexual lyrics or drug references.
The protest song in autocratic and authoritarian regimes has a precarious existence, as do the singers. In China during the Tiananmen protests, as the tanks rolled in, protestors sang ‘The Internationale’, one of the greatest songs of dissent and hope.
’Arise, ye workers from your slumber,
Arise, ye prisoners of want.
For reason in revolt now thunders,
and at last ends the age of cant!’
A more recent example of the courage of musicians in authoritarian systems is Pussy Riot whose founding members received prison terms of two years for ‘hooliganism, motivated by religious hatred’. Their crime was to have entered a cathedral in Moscow where they performed their ‘Prayer for Putin’ (2012):
‘Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin
Banish Putin, Banish Putin!
Black robes brag, golden epaulettes
Freedom's phantom's gone to heaven
Gay Pride's chained and in detention’
With the emergence of new global communications technologies after World War 2, protest music became international. No longer confined to wandering balladeers, inns and halls or local radio stations, some protest songs became international hits, such as the great anthem of women’s liberation, ‘I Am Woman’, by Helen Reddy. And what a powerful song it is!
‘I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an' pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna keep me down again‘
It was a number one hit in many countries, both reflective of the dynamic women’s liberation movement and inspirational to its growth. Its spirit is not just about protest but defiance and determination to win, as are the best in the genre.