Are we too strummed out
for protest songs,
asks Roger Ratcliffe? 

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I am struggling to think of a time that was more terrifying than right now. The grotesque post-truth Trumpisation of UK politics by the Tories is one hideous example of how we’ve hit a scary new low in the modern age, but even that pales in comparison to the biggest assemblage of troops and military hardware since World War II currently massing on the Ukraine-Russia borders and the recent burning of our net zero climate change targets in order to pump more oil and gas from the North Sea.

Events like these used to inspire folk singers and rock stars to reach for a guitar and distil the fears of their generation in an anthemic protest song. I’m thinking of early popular examples of the genre like Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? which railed against the endless cycle of war, and the rhetorical questions about peace and freedom in Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind.

Both were adopted by marchers in the 1960s and spawned a golden age of protest songs, but there are many more. On the desert island to which I imagine the execrable Priti Patel would love to banish all street demonstrators, there would be plenty of songs to keep up their spirits. High on any Desert Island Discs protest playlist would be another Seeger song, We Shall Overcome, which became the unofficial anthem of the US civil rights movement.

My own favourites include Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire from 1965, a chilling rallying cry to join the ranks of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with lines like “If the button is pushed there’s no runnin’ away” and “this whole crazy world is just too frustratin’”. Then there is that Motown classic War by Edwin Starr (“what is it good for? Absolutely nuthin’”), and also Helen Reddy’s pioneering song for feminists I Am Woman (“I am invincible, I am strong, I am woman”), and Marvin Gaye’s seminal green wake-up call Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), in which he queried “What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?”

A revival of protest songs in the 1970s saw the scope narrowing to more parochial issues like The Jam’s Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, about growing right-wing violence in the UK, The Ruts’ Babylon’s Burning, inspired by racial tension in inner cities that presaged the riots in Brixton and Toxteth, and The Clash’s Career Opportunities, about economic woes and lack of jobs for young people.

These rousing songs are as relevant now as the day they were written. A potentially catastrophic face-off between the old Cold War foes could happen at any moment. Racial and sexual inequality are still of serious concern. Our abuse of the planet is worse than ever. And now the renewed spectre of rising costs is creating more poverty and the sense of hopelessness that gave birth to punk bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols.

The music most people listen to these days is still moon-in-June stuff, however, and last week Adele won the Brit’s Song of the Year award with a pop ballad inspired by a failed relationship. While I think Easy on Me deserved its massive success,
I am left with a feeling that these worrying times surely call for a whole new raft of protest songs.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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