Our Subversive Voice? The history and politics of English protest music

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Politics Philosophy Lang & Comms Studies

Abstract

Music is widely acknowledged as a form of political communication. However, despite an increasing scholarly interest in the political uses of music, our understanding of how exactly it communicates political ideas, values and sentiments remains obscure. Studies of political music - and the protest song in particular - have tended to assume that, where there is a cause and a singer with a conscience, songs will inevitably appear. This is, we argue, mistaken, and protest songs are better understood as part of a specific political and musical moment, mediated by multiple processes and contingencies. This more complicated story is essential to understanding why and when musicians intervene in politics and the form taken by these interventions.

This project will deepen our understanding of the political uses of music by focusing on the phenomenon of the protest song. It will do this in three ways. Firstly, it will provide a wider historical perspective on the protest song, using this to refine what is meant by a protest song and to highlight the many forms it may take. Protest songs are not confined to folk music, but are to be found in almost all genres of music - from broadside ballads to music hall satires, from rock to grime. Secondly, the project will identify, understand and explain the conditions (political, technological, cultural, and economic, as well as aesthetic) in which such songs are produced. Finally, this project will enhance understanding of how such songs work as a distinct form of political communication, bringing new theories and methods to bear to highlight the role of voice, melody and rhythm. As Simon Frith (1996) has argued, lyrics 'are a form of rhetoric or oratory', and protest songs may affect how people speak, as much as how they vote or organise.

Focusing on the single case-study of England the project answers the following three sets of inter-related research questions:

1. What does the protest song look like when viewed in a longer-term historical perspective? Subsidiary questions here include: Does our concept or definition of the protest song change once we look at its range across time? What are the trends and patterns in the development of the protest song from the 17th century to the present day? How comparable are early broadsides with modern forms of musical protest? Do contemporary protest songs belong to a 'national' tradition or to a different sort of musical tradition? How have technologies (from recording to the internet) changed the nature and reach of the protest song? Does the protest song have its own history as an art form?

2. What conditions are necessary for the creation, circulation and appreciation of protest songs? Subsidiary questions here include: How do songs interact with the wider rhetorical and political culture of which they are a part? How significant are individual performers with a 'conscience'? How do protest songs interact (and clash) with infrastructural conditions such as the availability of public spaces/venues/platforms, political organisations, state regulators and music industry intermediaries and networks?

3. How do protest songs communicate ideas and how can they best be analysed? Subsidiary questions here include: How do melody and rhythm combine to convey meaning and significance, and to move or mobilise listeners? Are protest songs best thought of as a mode of political communication alongside, say, speeches, pamphlets and blogs or do they speak in radically different ways? What kinds of political ideas can and do protest songs communicate - and what might this tell us about the nature of political ideas? What kinds of rhetoric - what means of performance and persuasion - do protest songs employ?

As part of this research the project will create significant impact through the organization of performances, filmed interviews with performers, a playlist, a songwriting workshop, a mobile exhibition, and a practitioners' symposium.

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from this research?
Outside of the academic beneficiaries, the other main beneficiaries will be: a) the general public; b) performers; c) political activists and music industry personnel (including journalists)

How might they benefit from this research?

a) The primary benefits to the general public will be in greater awareness of the tradition of the protest song in England, and the multiple issues and causes it has addressed and forms that it has taken. This benefit will be achieved by a number of means. The project will fund an exhibition that provides a narrative history of the protest song, illustrated by specific detailed examples. These examples will form the basis of the DVD and accompanying booklet, as well as the playlist. They will also form part of the two concerts in which these songs will be performed.

b) The historical research, together with the interviews with songwriters and others, will provide a resource for contemporary performers. It will offer potential additions to their repertoire and insights into their craft. This will be achieved by providing online access to the history and to the interviews. This same resource will form the background to the songwriting workshop, in which professional performers and songwriters with work with local musicians to help them develop the songwriting skills, particularly in relation to political songs

c) The research will reveal in detail how political organisations and the music industry have contributed to the creating, performing, and disseminating the protest songs. It will also contribute to our understanding of the effect that such songs have. These insights will be aired in the planned symposium and will be an opportunity to engage with debates about the value of, and constraints upon, political music more generally. It will explore with performers, political activists and others how best to articulate, produce and disseminate political ideas in musical form.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Our Subversive Voice Zine 
Description We produced a pamphlet for our exhibition (and for public talks). It was designed to emulate the zines that flourished during punk (1976-78). Using the same cut-up techniques, the zine included the list of the 250 protest songs highlighted by the project, the lyrics of two banned songs, and a case study on religion and protest songs, 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact The zine, like the exhibition it accompanied, was designed to inform readers of the long history of the protest song. 
 
Title Our Subversive Voice exhibition 
Description We created an exhibition based on our initial findings. This included a display of 250 protest songs (from 1603-2020). The display consisted of 250 'beermats' on which were, on one side, the title/date/author of the song; on the other, a short description of the subject and context of the song. The beermats were colour-coded to represent different time periods, and the boards on which they were displayed documented major events in the relevant timeline. The display was designed to be interactive, and to provoke suggestions for other songs, which could be written on blank beermats. We also created 'placards' that highlighted particular themes or case studies from the research. Finally, we created a form of bunting on which we documented songs that had been censored and songs that used borrowed tunes. The exhibition was largely the work of our colleague Helen Stokes. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact The exhibition has so far been displayed at the Norwich Arts Centre (January 13th 2022) and Mile Cross Library (February 11th-18th 2022). 
 
Title Our Subversive Voice interviews 
Description We have created illustrated interviews with a range of contributors - songwriters, performers, collectors and academics. These are being released at regular intervals over the course of the project. Five are currently available. Each have been edited to highlight their key themes or ideas, and have been supplemented by recordings of relevant songs. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact These have received considerable attention, particularly the interview with Billy Bragg 
URL https://oursubversivevoice.com/interviews/
 
Description The Our Subversive Voice project, which runs until the end of September 2002, is concerned with the long history of protest song in England: 1600-2020. Following consultation consulting with 55 experts in various periods and traditions, we have produced a list of 250 songs that highlight some of the major themes and development of the protest song. Our website lists a further 500 songs.
Geographically, the bulk of our songs across the period stem from London, the centre of the music and publishing industries in all their iterations, with strong showings from the urban centres of the midlands and the North. While we have isolated rural songs from across the country, the south-west and East scarcely feature - though each can claim an outstanding protest song in 'Trelawny' and 'The Powte's Complainte', respectively.
In terms of composition, the default mode of songwriting until the 1950s has been that of contrafactum - selecting a well-known pre-existing tune, and giving it new words - though some songs specify no tune, and the nineteenth century sees the first significant wave of original musical composition, along with the more high-brow practice of creating a song by setting pre-existing verse to music. All of this broadly accords with what we know of song culture as a whole - though there are perhaps more instances of direct parody, where the choice of tune serves an explicit political purpose, than is the case in other areas of songwriting.
As far as we know, the history of the English protest song up to the twentieth century (with a handful of important nineteenth-century exceptions) is overwhelmingly that of white, straight, male writers - almost all of whom, it should be added, will have identified as Christian. And before the nineteenth century, the majority of these were educated men of means. Set against this rather underwhelming generalisation, we must remember just how many of our songs, well into the nineteenth century, are anonymous: it is certain that a good number will have been written by women, and the law of averages suggests some will have been produced by queer writers and writers of colour. It is easy to think of reasons why such writers were either reluctant to, or prevented from, putting their names to songs of protest.
As to the themes of the songs, the two most prominent are 1) the 'high' political process, including constitutional and franchise issues and the power of both Church and state; and 2) civil rights and the social contract. It is the shifting prominence of these two themes that defines change over the long history of the protest song.
Exploitation Route There are a number of ways in which our research might be developed. The first would involve a re-examination of our data to reveal other narratives and interpretations. A second might be to develop a comparative study of the protest song, using our approach both to the collection of data and to the model we use to explaining and understanding the protest song. Finally, there is scope for more detailed research into specific songs and themes.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://oursubversivevoice.com/
 
Description We have been able to use the initial findings to create a public exhibition that has so far been displayed in two settings: the Norwich Arts Centre and Mile Cross Library in Norwich. The NAC event also involved a concert of political songs and a Q&A with the musician Steve Ignorant. The Mile Cross collaboration also involved a public talk. We have also produced a catalogue for the exhibition (in the form of a 'zine) which was freely available to visitors to the NAC event and the Mile Cross events. It was also distributed to participants in the Common Lot singers, who are rehearsing songs from our list of protest songs.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Title Our Subversive Voice: Database of English Protest Song 
Description Accessible via a website this dataset consists of a record of 750 English protest songs from 1600 to the present day. For each entry the following information is provided: Title, date (where known), composer and/or lyricist (where known), the lyrics and the music. The data base is searchable by identifying features: use, theme, subject of address, target of protest, and by a variety of tags referring to, for instance, generic category (ska, anthem, theatre song etc.), geographical location and other features (such as singer-songwriter etc.). The database affords easy access to a uniquely wide range of examples across time, genre, form and content. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact At the time of this entry the database has received X hits. 
URL https://oursubversivevoice.com
 
Description A Discussion of Songs of Hope and Protest 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project PI John Street and the Co-I Alan Finlayson addressed an audience of 26 at Mile Cross Library and a further 25 online, presenting findings of the project, discussing the protest song and answering questions. The event also promoted partnership with The Common Lot Theatre Company.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description A live launch of the project's findings, exhibition, discussion and performance 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project held an event at The Norwich Arts Centre. This included an exhibition and one-to-one discussion attendees, a live Q&A between project Co-I Matthew Worley and the musician Steve Ignorant (with Q&A) and a performance. It promoted the work of the project and involved the audience in looking at and responding to our archive, suggesting additions and discussion of what protest songs are and how they matter.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description Article for The Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The article 'Why it's no surprise that pro-Trump rioters sang Bob Marley songs outside the Capitol', by Oskar Cox Jensen was published on The Conversation, on 15 January 2021. It explains how and why right-wing groups may appropriate seemingly politically antithetical songs into their protests and presents examples.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://theconversation.com/why-its-no-surprise-that-pro-trump-rioters-sang-bob-marley-songs-outside...
 
Description Interview for regional news package 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A 10 minute item on BBC East Politics and BBC Norfolk News reported on the project and on the wider culture of song in East Anglia. It featured an interview with project PI John Street and.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00143n2
 
Description Interview on Radio Norfolk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviewed on Radio Norfolk discussion programme about the relationship between rhetorical eloquence and political protest, including political song.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description Interview with Outside Left Magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Project RA Oskar Cox Jensen was interviewed by Outside Left magazine and a story published introducing the project, discussing the ways in which music affects politics and some examples. This led to a reciprocal dialogue, with the interviewer going on to contribute a constructive output to our website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://outsideleft.com/main.php?updateID=2187
 
Description Interview with Times Radio 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview of project PI John Street, about music and politics, broadcast on Times Radio, 16 May 2021
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description Media Contribution 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Discussion of the project with PI John Street, Co-I Angela McShane and RA Oskar Cox Jensen. Broadcast on BBC Radio Norfolk as part of the programme "Common Lot Tuesday Takeover" on 18th January 2022. The Common Lot are a Norwich based theatre group and the programme was one event which led to a deeper partnership with them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description Media Contribution 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview and report on the project and on developing collaboration with the theatre company The Common Lot, featuring project PI John Street, printed in the Eastern Evening News and Eastern Day Press, 8th Feb. 2022.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.eveningnews24.co.uk/news/songs-of-hope-and-protest-8665604
 
Description Media Contribution 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview with project PI John Street on Greatest Hits Radio, promoting the project and the web-based resource, on 12 January 2022
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://planetradio.co.uk/greatest-hits/norfolk/news/protest-song-exhibit-norwich/
 
Description Our Subversive Voice Website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The website OurSubversiveVoice.com is both a research database and a public-facing resource promoting public understanding of the history, theory and analysis of the interaction between politics and music. The website makes available information about 750 protest songs from English history, offering introductory context, lyrics and searchable tags. In addition it hosts short public facing reports on the research findings, essays and commentary from people beyond the project team and a growing series of interviews with practitioners and researchers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL http://oursubversivevoice.com
 
Description Participation in Broadside Day 2021 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact A presentation by Dr Oskar Cox Jensen (SRA) and Dr Angela McShane (CoI) on Our Subversive Voice, explaining the project and its aims, and soliciting suggestions for our list of 750 English protest songs.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.efdss.org/images/present/Docs/Library/BroadsideDay2021.pdf
 
Description Participation in Broadside Day 2022 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The occasion was used to introduce the website and to highlight some of the key themes of the research. The participants from the project were Dr Oskar Cox Jensen, Professor Alan Finlayson and Dr Angela McShane.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.efdss.org/images/present/library/BroadsideDay2022programme.pdf
 
Description Participation in Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Project PI John Street was interviewed and the interview included as part of a podcast produced by the Dash Arts Theatre Company. The topic was protest song and in particular the history and uses of The Internationale.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022