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updated 15th November 2010



protest songs are hard work

and - from folk-song, through jazz, to rap -
at their best they're a work-and-citizen thing


Cuts in education mean aspirations, hopes and life chances are being eroded - on a daily basis.  Lives are getting reshaped, opportunities curtailed, plans abandoned.

Whatever the rights-and-wrongs of this, we should expect protest.  And little compels attention so much as a good song-of-protest. While violent protest convinces nobody - it alienates most people - a subversive lyric undermines all our defences. And not just when we first hear it, but every time it floats back - unbidden - into our minds.

Protest lyrics demand a great deal from their creators - wit that unsettles, images that persist, insight that demands attention. While political head-bangers can uselessly hijack a fist-waving protest with mindless violence, a mindful protest song does so-much more. And, for the most part, lives well beyond their reach.

Plenty of that kind of creativity below - some of it poignant. All interwoven with stories of the experience that lies beneath.

This is where life-chances, citizenship and culture meet.  No career is wholly managed with the words imposed on it by social scientists and careers workers.  This is also art.

But is it a lost art? Former music journalist, John Harris, asks why contemporary music is so mute. He wonders if...

‘...the spirit of dissent is the preserve of past generations,
 there to be reverentially saluted -
rather than re-invented.’

So here’s the salute - looking for the reinvention.  

Lyric is a narrative form. This stuff can take a good teacher to where she can engage her students in calling up their own voice - on how things are, what they feel, and what needs to be done. It's a work-and-citizen thing - and an art form.

Worth sticking around for?

Bill Law




making things happen One long-ago September, brightly coloured posters began appearing on walls all over Austin, Texas. They portrayed a beaming young black man holding a golden trumpet - Louis Armstrong, King of the Trumpet, and his band.

Among those who paid seventy-five cents to get in, was a young white freshman at the university - Charlie. The posters had drawn him in. He knew little about jazz music, and had never heard of Armstrong. He just knew there were likely to be lots of girls. Everyone on the dance floor was white; only Armstrong, his musicians, and the waiters were African-American.

Then, Charlie remembers, Armstrong began to play...

‘...mostly with his eyes closed letting flow from that inner space of music
things that had never before existed
steam-whistle power, lyric grace, alternated at will, even blended
the first genius I had ever seen

It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old southern boy seeing genius, for the first time, in a black guy - and in anything-but a servant’s capacity. There were of course black professionals and intellectuals in Austin, but they kept themselves back-of-town - shunning humiliation.

Charlie liked most of the blacks he knew - like old Buck Green, born and raised a slave. Buck taught Charlie to play the harmonica when he was seventy-five and Charlie was ten. Some were honoured and venerated, in that paradoxical white southern way. Buck was.

But genius - fine control over total power, all height and depth - forever and ever? It had simply never entered Charlie's mind. And he would see it for the first time in a black man. You don’t get over that. The lies that people tell rumble, and contradict one another, and simper in silliness - and fade into shadow. But the truth remains.

Standing next to Charlie was a boy from Austin High School. Charlie remembers...

...we listened together for a long time
then he turned to me, shook his head as if clearing it
and pronounced the judgement of the time and place
'after all, he’s nothing but a goddam nigger!'

The boy moved away. But nothing was ever the same again for Charlie. Louis had opened his eyes wide - and put a choice. 'Blacks', the saying went, were 'alright in their place'. But what was the place of such a man - and the people from whom he'd sprung?'

Charlie went on to become a distinguished professor of constitutional law. He helped provide the answer to the question Louis Armstrong’s music has first posed for him: he volunteered for the team of lawyers, black and white, who finally persuaded the US Supreme Court that segregating schoolchildren on the basis of race was unconstitutional - and could not be tolerated under American law.

Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns
Jazz - A History of America’s Music



'nothing was ever the same again - blacks, the saying went, were alright in their place - but what was the place of such a man - and the people from whom he'd sprung?'


looking down on other people
This Land is Your Land

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat-field's waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went a-walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’.

But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

written and performed by Woodie Guthrie


'as they stood there hungry I stood there asking -
is this land made for you and me?


these things can't happen Swing had been America's favourite music all through the decade. And no location had been too remote for the radio to reach. Dave was, at 15, a rancher's son. His mother wanted him to play classical piano, but his father hoped that he would follow in his footsteps. And as a boy he spent hours on horseback, mending fences and driving cattle. But even as he rode, he had reveries of playing in a band.

His dream was that a band-bus would want to get through the cattle, and he wouldn't let them through unless they let him get on the bus and play with them. In his mind, some day he'd be heard by some band going through there. The bus never did turn up, but Dave's dad eventually relented, and Dave was studying music in college when America entered the war.

After graduation, he joined the army and, on a three-day pass, married a fellow student. Then he shipped out to the war zone, fully expecting to go right into combat. Instead, he was picked to lead a band entertaining the men in the field. The US Army may have been segregated by race, but Dave Brubeck's band was not. The mc was African-American; so was the trombonist. The men lived together, and shared adventures they would never forget.

They stayed with that army until the war ended. Through it all, they remained integrated. But when the men eventually got home the following year, nothing in America seemed to have changed. Dave remembers...

...when we landed in Texas we all went to a dining room to eat
but they wouldn't serve the black guys
they had to go around and stand at the kitchen door
and this one black guy said he wouldn't eat their food
'what I've been through - and the first day I'm back in the US, I can't even eat with you guys'
'I wonder why I went through all of this?'

As the leader of his own quartet, Dave Brubeck would eventually become one of the best-known musicians in
jazz. He refused ever to play anywhere audiences were segregated. He once walked off a television show when he saw that the director planned to shoot his band so that the bass player, who happened to be black, would never appear on screen. To him, jazz was always 'the music of freedom!'. His wartime experiences had something to do with that.

So did an experience from his boyhood with the first black man that he ever saw: his dad took him to see a friend, and asked him to 'open your shirt for Dave'. More than half-a-century later, Brubeck's eyes fill with tears at the memory. 'There was a brand on his chest. And my dad said,"These things can't happen!".'

that's why I fought for what I fought for?

Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns
Jazz - A History of America’s Music


'Dave Brubeck refused ever to play anywhere audiences were segregated'







'my dad took me to see a friend - and asked him "open your shirt for Dave" - there was a brand on his chest - my dad said "these things can't happen!" - that's why I fought for what I fought for?'


being black and being poor
Ol’ Man River

Ol' man river,
That ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin',
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.

He don't plant taters,
He don't plant cotton,
An' them that plants 'em
are soon forgotten,
But ol' man river,
He jes' keeps rollin' along.

You an' me, we sweat an' strain,
Body all achin' an' wracked with pain,
Tote that barge!
Lift that bale!
Git a little drunk
An' you land in jail.

I gets weary
An' sick of tryin'
I'm tired of livin'
An' feared of dyin',
But ol' man river,
He jes' keeps rollin' along!

written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein
performed most famously by Paul Robeson


'he don't plant taters,
he don't plant cotton - an' them that plants 'em is soon forgotten'




'I gets weary -
an' sick of tryin' -
I'm tired of livin'
an' feared of dyin' -
but ol' man river,
he jes' keeps rollin' along!'


Losing Your Job
Buddy Can You Spare a Dime?

Once I built a railroad - made it run
made it run against time
Once I built a railroad, now it's done
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower up to the sun
Of bricks and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it's done
Buddy can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Full of that yankee-doodlee-dum
Half-a-million boots went sloggin' through hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Say don't you remember, you called me 'Al'
It was 'Al' all the time
Say don't you remember - I’m your pal
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

written by Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney
performed most recently by George Michael


'say don't you remember, I’m your pal - buddy, can you spare a dime?'


punk hero Necks craned, lungs bursting, voices shredded, sweat-drenched, ears ringing, wired on adrenaline, we came together to charge our souls on the kinetic energy generated by Joe Strummer's band - The Clash. The next day we woke up different, intent on working out how to change the world.

Joe Strummer gave us a new language
Joe took a stand

In the local-government elections, the National Front took 44% of the vote in Deptford. Three months later, the Notting Hill Carnival was subject to an eight-fold increase in policing. The constant stopping and searching of black youth led to confrontation. What followed was the biggest race riot since the 1950s. Among those caught in the first police charge on that bank-holiday Monday was Joe Strummer. It is a reflection of the heightened tensions of the times that the song he subsequently wrote with Mick Jones about the incident, White Riot, was a call to arms.

Having seen that black youth were prepared to confront the authorities, the song urged disaffected white youth to do the same. At this critical moment, The Clash pointed to where the barricades were for my generation. The first political thing I ever did was to take part in an Anti-Nazi League march through the streets of East London to see The Clash headline a massive free gig in Hackney. And, if anyone was in any doubt about whose idea it was to mix pop and politics in such an explicit way, there was Joe singing his heart out, wearing a Red-brigade T-shirt. That day, I witnessed for the first time gay men kissing openly - a sight which forced me to rethink what we were marching for.

It wasn't just the immigrants that the National Front was after. The fascists felt threatened by anyone who was different. From that day on, that's what I vowed to do: be different, challenge authority, express an opinion, make a stand. For me, this was the attitude that punk was really all about. Joe Strummer taught me that. The Clash were a wake-up call, a kind of boot camp that prepared us for what was to come. When the confrontational politics kicked in, we were ready with our bullshit detectors.

The Clash always were a mass of contradictions. They wanted to be rock stars but also men of the people. They rejected commercialism, yet they let Levi's use one of their songs in an ad. And, yes, Joe did go to a fee-paying boarding school.

But that’s why they called themselves 'The Clash'.

Billy Bragg
Red Pepper (February, 2003)


'Joe gave us a new language - Joe took a stand - the lyric was a call to arms'


'black youth were prepared to confront the authorities - the song urged disaffected white youth to do the same'


The Clash were a wake-up call, a kind of boot camp that prepared us for what was to come - when confrontational politics kicked in, we were ready with our bullshit detectors'


Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

written by Abel Meeropol - pen-name Lewis Allan
performed most famously by Billie Holiday


'black body swinging in the southern breeze -
strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees'


Vietnam War
One, Two, Three, Four

Come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
he's got himself in a terrible jam
way down yonder in Vietnam - so
put down your books and pick up a gun we're
gonna have a whole lotta fun

And it's one, two, three, four - what are we fighting for
don't ask me I don't give a damn, next stop is Vietnam
And it's five, six, seven, eight - open up the pearly gates
ain't no time to wonder why, whoopee we're all gonna die

Come on Wall Street don't be slow
why man this war is a go-man-go
there's plenty good money to be made by
supplying the army with the tools of its trade
let's hope and pray that if they drop the bomb,
they drop it on the Viet Cong

Come on generals, let's move fast
your big chance has come at last
now you can go out and get those reds
‘cos the only good commie is the one that's dead and
you know that peace can only be won when we've
blown 'em all to kingdom come

Come on mothers throughout the land
pack your boys off to Vietnam
come on fathers don't hesitate
send your sons off before it's too late
and you can be the first ones on your block
to have your boy come home in a box

written and performed by Tom Lehrer


'what are we fighting for? -
don't ask me I don't give a damn - open up the pearly gates - ain't no time to wonder why


musical dynamite Niomi left home at 15 to live in a hostel and, for a while, she was thoroughly miserable. She went to school, but otherwise stayed in, with curtains drawn, drinking and smoking by herself.

It was mc-ing that saved her. One night, drunk at a West End club, Niomi grabbed the mike and had a go - the crowd went wild. From there, it took just a few short months for Niomi to morph into Ms Dynamite.

This 22-year-old mixed-race girl blows away all the ghetto stereotypes that label today's urban music. She says she is an extremely positive and ambitious young woman, who thrives on the need for a change to society, to discrimination and injustice. For her, this is so much more than just music. It's about putting herself into a position to help her people.

She walks it and she talks it too: she split her Mercury-Prize winnings between a children's charity and one that supports sufferers of sickle-cell anaemia.

Niomi understands the power of the microphone, the potency of being centre stage.

I'm not here to be a stereotypical feisty young girl
who just wants to get up on-stage and chat
I'm trying to provoke thought
I just want people to think mor

'But', she says, 'the UK media don't understand black culture, and people in general don't either. All they get to see is stupid black families on tv'.

What about women in abusive relationships? She sympathises, but insists that they get rid of men who mistreat them, if only for their daughters' sakes. And what about the familiar 'gangstas', 'pimps' and 'whores' attitudes of young black men? Niomi says, 'you're talkin' like we're just a racist man's fossey. Now, who gives a damn about the ice on your hand?'.

But, she says, 'I feel, in some cases, that I'm being patronised by the British media. They come out with condescending stuff like "wow, you're so intelligent", or "you speak so well". They've said stupid stuff about me wanting to go to university'. Niomi turned down a place to study social anthropology at Sussex - to continue with her music. 'The worst thing is that they're putting me on a pedestal, when there are so many young black women out there who are just as talented, intelligent and expressive as I believe I am.'

Miranda Sawyer
New Statesman - 10/03/03


'for me, this is so much more than just music - it's about helping my people'






'they put me on a pedestal - there are so many intelligent and talented young black women out there'



Bad Teachers
We Don’t Need No Education

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the class room

Teachers leave those kids alone
Hey, teachers! Leave those kids alone!

All in all, it's just a
Nother brick in the wall
If u dont eat ur meat u kant have ne pudding
How kan u have any pudding if u dont eat ur meat

written and performed by Pink Floyd


'we don’t need no thought control'


Putting Young People Down
What's Going On?

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
What's going on
Ya, what's going on

written and performed by Marvin Gaye



Any use?

Or should I be going to different sources?

A lot of this is pop-music, some of it is show tunes - but it's an art form. And there are lines that still make me swallow hard. As some writer, with a capacity for self-mockery, once remarked - 'it's extraordinary how potent cheap music can be'.

The point here is, can you use it to fire-up the work-and-citizen creativity of your students? We badly need them for that.

Let me know.




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'strange fruit'
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more on Pink Floyd

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