By Rowan Gavin

Last year, two-tone legends The Specials released an album entitled ‘Protest Songs 1924-2012’. It featured covers of tracks by Bob Marley, Leonard Cohen, Big Bill Broonzy and other legends of protest music – but not one song penned by a British person, despite the band’s Coventry origins. This, UEA Professor John Street tells me, was part of the impetus behind the project Our Subversive Voice: The History and Politics of the English Protest Song.

Launched in January with a Norwich Arts Centre gig and accompanying exhibition, Our Subversive Voice (OSV) is centred around a website that catalogues 750 songs dating from 1600 to 2020. A team of academics from UEA, Warwick and Reading (along with 55 other contributing experts) put together the list with the intention of being “in a sense, provoking”, as Street puts it. It’s not meant to be definitive – it’s a selection curated to the topics the team are interested in investigating, with a particular set of questions in mind.

The OSV team have amassed a very diverse collection of tunes, reaching far beyond the folk ballads that are most commonly associated with ‘protest music’, from calypso to grime to metal to hymnals. Their focus was on songs that help us understand the conditions that bring protest music into being and the ways in which it operates as a form of political communication. But before we get to History or Politics, there’s another word from that project title that is nagging at me. In his UEA office on a sunny Monday morning, I ask Street: what is OSV’s interest in ‘Englishness’?

Singer Maggie Holland features on the OSV list, and was interviewed by the project. Credit: Jeremy Searle

“We wanted to engage with how ‘Englishness’ was being communicated in song”, he replies. “Now and historically, the nature of England, of Englishness, has often been the subject of political dispute” – and as with so many other political issues, that dispute has often been expressed in music. Street cites Maggie Holland’s ‘A Place Called England’ as a key example. In this 1999 recording, Holland speaks out against the “landowners”, the “men who think that England’s only a place to park their cars”, and celebrates the gardeners, activists and old folk heroes who still stood against the corporatisation of England at the turn of the millenium. It is part of a long tradition of songs that tackle the question of who gets to control the land and wealth of this place called England, pitting the common people against the villainous landowning and ruling classes. The oft-rerecorded ‘Diggers’ Song’, credited to Gerrard Winstanley of the 17th century land rights movement, is another crucial tune that highlights the notion of ‘Englishness’ as one perpetually caught up in class war.

that notion of a continuous, consistent, inviolable English identity is fuzzy and baseless

What ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’ mean has always been a contentious question. As ideas and political realities they are continually being disrupted and reinterpreted, and evolving over time. That same Maggie Holland song, which had been called an ‘anthem’ by commentators on release, was described as a ‘lament for England’ in reviews of The Young’uns’ 2017 cover version. It’s no secret that these past 20 years have marked a profound change in the shape and volume of English nationalism; “I’m quite sure I couldn’t write it now”, Holland says in an interview with OSV.

On another level, the ‘Englishness’ of the songs themselves is a point of contention. “It’s fuzzy”, Street says, “there is no absolute hard line that says ‘this song is English, this song is not English’.” Many songs on the list are written by migrants, such as the anti-racist calypso ‘If You’re Not White, You’re Black’ by Trinbagonian musical legend and Windrush passenger Lord Kitchener. Others voice the experiences of those born and raised in racist ‘post-empire’ England – the most recent song in the collection is Bob Vylan’s ‘We Live Here’, a scorching assertion of the plain truths about modern Britain that the neo-fascists and liberal commentators of the 2020s both fail to comprehend.

OSV have also published a zine featuring material from the project. Images by the author.

The vindictive tendency among English nationalists to exclude certain people – and the music they create – from the concept of Englishness is long-standing and well-known. But that notion of a continuous, consistent, inviolable English identity is fuzzy and baseless. There is a “battle over what you claim and how you claim it [with regards to Englishness]”, Street says, citing the way organisations like the BNP took up certain folk songs in an attempt to reinforce their claim on English identity – a move which resulted in the formation of the Folk Against Fascism movement in 2010. “This notion of some continuous and unbroken tradition [of Englishness] is a myth that is imposed politically from on high in certain ways – and is reproduced, sometimes thinkingly, sometimes unthinkingly, by certain forms of music.”

So how exactly is it that music can exercise this kind of political power? Street’s OSV and UEA colleague Professor Alan Finlayson is focusing on questions like “How do you analyse a protest song? How do you understand how it works?” It’s still the early days of this research, and the team are hesitant to draw firm conclusions, but one current contention that Street and Finlayson can get behind is that “We should understand [protest songs] as a form of rhetoric, a form of oratory, like a speech.”

you’d struggle to find any politically engaged person who isn’t motivated or re-energised by the ideas, joys or bitterness of political music

Street has heard some scepticism, in part from academic circles, about the idea that music can really be seen as an effective tool of political communication. The naysayers’ argument is simple: protest songs don’t work. It’s true that music doesn’t directly change the world, as Street admits: “The thought that if Bono commits a political thought to music somehow the world will stop on its axis is not true. It doesn’t happen like that.” But to me this argument doesn’t add up. There’s more to politics than policy and election results. The real currencies of change are hope, anger, conviction, the personal motivations that drive us towards working for a better life for our loved ones and those we share this world with. In my life at least, music has been one of the most constant sources of that motivation. Cliché I know, but I really did develop my first political thoughts listening to Bob Dylan as a child, and in the decades since I’ve built the emotional core of a personal ideology as much out of punk, reggae, folk and hip-hop as out of any speech I’ve heard or book I’ve read.

It’s an experience I share with Street: “To an extent John Lennon is my political mentor”, he says. And you’d struggle to find any politically engaged person who isn’t motivated or re-energised by the ideas, joys or bitterness of political music. “If you read autobiographies by Tracy Thorne or Billy Bragg or Andy Burnham, these people do write about how they learned about politics through music.” Bragg in particular has spoken at length about what protest songs can and can’t do. In an interview with OSV he chuckles about his fans: “they hate it, they hate it, when I say ‘music can’t change the world’.” But he knows that those same fans leave his shows with the drive to work towards making a change: “my job is to recharge your activism and send you home to make a difference, because that’s how music makes a difference.”

The Common Lot theatre company are performing songs from the OSV list in Norwich in June. Credit: The Common Lot

The music we listen to changes how we think, how we perceive the world, how we move, how we are ourselves; in Street’s words, “we’re given forms of expression or forms of understanding that we might not have otherwise had through music”. There is real power in that, as we’ve seen in the trajectory of grime, for example, over the past two decades. As a genre born on pirate radio and in council estate bedrooms, outside of the economic power dynamics that shape most recorded music, it was “able to give a voice to people who were otherwise completely unheard”. As teenagers in London in the noughties, my friends and I would play tracks that our classmates had laid down on their home laptops out of the tinny speakers of our not-yet-smart phones. Over a decade later, artists like Stormzy and Dave feature on the OSV list with tracks that have undoubtedly shaped modern Britain. As Street says, they “clearly articulate in a really extensive and public way what the issues are – it’s not trivial.” 

The Our Subversive Voice project makes clear that the English protest song is alive and well, while breaking down the oversimplified notion that there is a single tradition of protest songs, just as many of the musicians it features break down the boundaries around the idea that there is a single continuous tradition of Englishness. The project runs until September, with opportunities to get involved and experience the music of change for yourself – collaborations with radical theatre company The Common Lot and other Norwich community groups to give voice to some of the older songs are in the works for the summer, and a concert, exhibition and conference will take place in London to mark the end of the project. Until then, keep listening: music may not change the world, but note by note, bar by bar, it makes the people who do.

Featured image: Ren Aldridge, lead singer of feminist punk band Petrol
Girls, who was recently interviewed by OSV. Credit: Corinne Cumming

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