Styles & Forms | Political Folk & Protest Songs

The relationship between politics and folk music has always been fuel for lively debate. Some argue that the two should not mix, and that aligning traditional song with politics demeans it. Front-line singers such as Dick Gaughan and Roy Bailey, however, argue that folk songs are inextricably linked with politics, and perform plenty of strident material to prove it.

In fact, Bailey’s occasional shows with the veteran left-wing former MP (Member of Parliament) Tony Benn have entertainingly detailed the history of social dissent in stories and music, and been a popular staple diet of the British scene for many years.

The modern folk revival, in fact, is indelibly linked with songs of dissent. While the folk music that Shirley Collins talks about is merely an expression of people’s daily lives – whether it involves ploughing fields, falling in love or getting drunk – protest song is inextricably tied to modern folk song. Protest music of the 1960s took its cue from Woody Guthrie and his acolytes, who founded the Almanac Singers and People’s Songs musical co-operative in the 1940s and devoted themselves to union benefits and workers’ groups. Most of Guthrie’s best work had a political edge, from his early songs about the plight of the migrants heading west after their lives had been wrecked by dust storms, to championing causes and fighting the corner of the oppressed wherever he found them – as in ‘Deportees’, a song about a group of nameless refugees killed in a plane crash. Even his most famous song, ‘This Land Is Your Land’, was conceived as a workers’ antidote to Irving Berlin’s sentimental patriotic anthem, ‘God Bless America’. The folk movement was outraged when Guthrie’s edgiest verse was removed from this work, and the song was used as an anthem in Ronald Reagan’s presidential election campaign. Bruce Springsteen’s later version, though, reclaimed it for the people.

Guthrie adapted many of his songs from existing country blues, itself a fiery conduit of protest, and became close friends with the great blues star Leadbelly. Leadbelly himself wrote a catalogue of protest songs that have long passed into folk legend, such as ‘Midnight Special’, ‘Scottsboro Boys’ and ‘Bourgeois Blues’, all confronting the realities of racism, poverty and workers’ rights. The politicization of folk music created various causes célèbres. Swedish railwayman and songwriter Joe Hill became a martyr of the American union movement in 1915 when he was convicted for murder on flimsy evidence and executed in Utah. Hill, whose most famous song was ‘Casey Jones (The Union Scab)’, written in aid of striking railwaymen, wrote his last song, ‘My Will’, the night before he died. On the 10th anniversary of his death, Alfred Hayes wrote a tribute, ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill’, set to music by Carl Robinson. Hill’s name was prominent when protest music rose again, with artists ranging from Paul Robeson to Joan Baez covering ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill’.

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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