To those that read in on my July post many thanks. From comments on Frank Sinatra to the consideration of what it means to be a writer in Canada, your voices are much appreciated as this discourse on protest in the arts continues. Pride in work and joy in living to all, as summer moves towards the day our labours are celebrated! The harvest lays ahead!
September, The celebration of work. The season of harvest and bounty, comes with its complexity. With many a union decimated at the cost of greater corporate gain, the virtue of work seems to have changed face. In many instances, work does not exist. With the repression and disappearance of work (jobs) comes idleness and idleness of this manner is not self-inflicted. Be it the contemporary voice of Senator Bernie Sanders or the riling of Christ in the Temple, the voice of protest is as given a part of living in the twenty-first century as it has been across history. Artists have rendered Christ's seminal moment. El Greco, Jheronimus Bosch in visual art. De Mille, Scorsese in film. In song, injustice towards workers finds its voice in everything from the French National Anthem to ballads dedicated to Joe Hill, the Swedish immigrant who joined the Industrial Workers of the World, and to union anthems in as many languages as exist on the planet.
Initially there is the work song. The one that you associate with grease and coal on the face and sweat on the back. Where you heard the first one as such. In a trench, on a scaffold, across an open field where women and men bent over a farmer’s field? Probably not. More likely, the work song was taught to you in school, church or someone could actually sing one by a camp fire. How did those songs come into being?
And protest songs? Where did they originate? How did you know it was a song of protest and not merely a sing-a-long work tune? What makes up the difference in distinguishing the two? How did the two come together?
Most protest songs of the twentieth century came to us through folk music. Instrumentally acoustic songs with a simple verse /chorus structure. For the most part, the words were essential to participation. The music? As long as you could hum the tune there would always be someone capable of setting out the two or three chords required to move the song along. Even songs in a foreign language could be sung as long as they were phonetically uncomplicated. But when (in personal experience) were they clearly informed by a full understanding of what the ‘poetic’ nature of the lyrics intended or expressed? ie: What makes one listen and accept the universal message in a protest song? Is the collective consciousness there or is it driven by the courage of the writer? How do we come to recognize the importance? What cultural circumstance or background makes the conscience shift? Move to a higher level of awareness?
Many a protest song was corner-stoned by either an external or personal factor of desired or needed change. The expression of hope. The hope of an expression. Some songs only expressed archetypes of oppressors and those desiring liberation from oppression. Some songs were specific in their intent, with a clear and contemporary journalistic like rendering of news with real live recognizable characters and current events. Yet differentiating the point of singing along from a greater awareness of the world around us was (is) a more enigmatic and elusive process. A shift in consciousness and conscience? How can a song with simple musical structure and words cause this?
With this post I explore the songs of four singer-songwriters by looking at their backgrounds, the current events and life experiences that surrounded them : the artists that influenced them, in relation to ’protest’, rock and roll and the power of song to shape and sit at the forefront of how we relate to the world we live in.