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


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.


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