Subversive Voices: New website seeks to index protest song history

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Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg performing in Vancouver, Canada during the Body of War concert. Image by Kris Krug (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A new project to catalog the history of English protest song from 1600 to the present day is underway. Thanks to this, many songs that inspired radical action through crucial events in English history, from the Civil War to anti-Thatcher protests, will be preserved.

The project is called “Our Subversive Voice” and includes notes, lyrics, recordings and, for a more contemporary fare, interviews with key songwriters. So far, the website has the details of 750 songs.

The project has an academic aspect, providing resources for current and future researchers. The project was set up by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The earliest songs come from both sides of the English Civil War and the most recent is Grace Petrie’s 2016 song “I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist”.

Looking through the songs, the diversity and range is vast. From 1860 there is ‘Lay of the Lash’, described as ‘a compelling articulation of the power of women’s appeal to effect legislative change’; and from 1982 there is ‘Shipbuilding’, written by Elvis Costello and sung for the first time by Robert Wyatt. “Shipbuilding”, a protest song against the Falklands War, was banned from broadcasting by the BBC when it was released.

In terms of objectives, the site asks three questions that it seeks to understand:

  • What does the protest song look like when considered in its long-term history?
  • What are the necessary conditions for the creation, circulation and appreciation of protest songs?
  • How do protest songs communicate ideas and how best to analyze them?

The project has been endorsed by singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, who has often said that while music can’t change the world, it can change the way people think about things and help bring people together. having common concerns, cementing solidarity. Bragg himself has two of his songs in the catalog: “Between The Wars” and “It Says Here”, the latter song making a splash in the tabloid press.

Bragg explains to the BBC that the project was important to show the political tradition of songs in England: “People think that political pop music was invented in the 1970s, but traditionally the song was used to convey messages , without being edited by the government or establishment”.

Professor John Street, who leads the project, tells the New Musical Express that there are many examples of how protest songs have become embedded in the social fabric, reflecting and sometimes helping to propel societal change. He cites The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” as a key example, with the song drawing attention to Mandela’s unjust imprisonment and the apartheid system in place in South Africa to young people in other parts of the world.

Street also states that Tom Robinson’s “Glad To Be Gay” is an example of another song that helped usher in change, along with The Smiths’ “Meat is Murder”.

The protest song is particularly linked to the English tradition, where folk music represents music that reflects time and place. Bragg himself regularly updates his songs to meet current issues. One example is with his song ‘Sexuality’, which he updated to be trans-inclusive.

The song’s original lyrics include the verse: “Just because you’re gay, I won’t push you away / If you stay, I’m sure we can find common ground”.

Bragg’s updated version, which is part of his touring repertoire, is now: “Just because you’re them, I won’t push you away / If you stay, I’m sure we can find the right pronoun”.


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