A SERIES OF SHORT SONGS AND CHANTS FOR MARCHES AND DEMONSTRATIONS
don’t tend to sing on protests here in Britain. We usually gather
in our groups around the brittle rasp of rented megaphones, barking
out monotone call-and-response chants. Or at best we bellow
spontaneously, throwing our repeated short phrases up against the
surrounding buildings. These chants have their place, but they lack
imagination. They make our protest sound flat and uninspired; we’re
demanding change using worn-out old cliches (“What do we want? A
Leon Rosselson recently wrote a short and beautiful plea for us British activists and demonstrators to get in step with the melodic, tuneful and imaginative songs of protest from around the world. The article (https://medium.com/@rosselson/the-power-of-song-2aa90e6a5a7d) is inspiring, partly a potted history of protest song and partly an admonition for us to get creative. He tells of how ‘In Soweto, women and children sang as they were shot down by the police. The Vietcong carried songsheets into battle with them. Civil Rights demonstrators in the States sang as they were being attacked by Alsatian dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs because it made them feel less alone, less afraid. The importance of the new song movement in Chile can be gauged by the lengths the junta went to to destroy it.’ And Rosselson also talks of ‘the silence at the heart of the labour movement’. Perhaps that’s going too far: there is noise, it’s just that the noise is mostly well-worn and dry.
At a recent demonstration in Leeds – several thousand people protesting against Trump’s Muslim travel ban – a group of us in the Commoners Choir struck up some of our own songs and were surprised how quickly people gathered and walked with us, learned the gist of the songs and joined in. It was what we suspected – there’s an inclusive sense of welcome in a melody. Melody (and, let’s be brave, harmony) doesn’t have to imply sweetness and light. Melody can carry anger as well as any chant. When our choir sings of wanting Boris Johnson’s head on a stick, we do it with a tune that at best has you smiling and swaying rather than dissecting and debating the political effectiveness of beheading politicians.
It’s not that British people aren’t able to sing communally. People sing well enough at football matches. I’ve listened as relatively complex words are learned by heart by thousands of people without the use of choir leaders or sheet music – Martin Carthy calls football terrace songs “the one surviving embodiment of an organic living folk tradition.” At pop concerts we love our mass singalongs, wallowing in the tangible, spine-tingling power of our shared voices. And there are choirs springing up all over the place, indulging our rekindled love of a lung-bursting sing-song. Choirs pop up at lots of demonstrations too, handing out songsheets and encouraging a more creative and tuneful protest (there’s a group, if you’re interested, called ‘Campaign Choirs Network’, at www.campaignchoirs.org.uk) street and community choirs that meet to sing at protests and demos. But somehow our protest culture, with all its diversity of tactics and methods from sit-ins to marches, strikes to riots, vigils to blockades, is still, in the main, soundtracked by SWP megaphones and one-note barking.
So we had an idea. We thought it’d be useful and community-minded and a challenge (and fun – never forget fun) to write some original songs specifically for singing on protests. Short and easy to pick up, no need for printed-out words, with rhythms that fit with the left-right beat of walking. Songs about stuff that’s in the news right now, that might go out of date very quickly – so let’s make them disposable, expendable. Sing them and move on. Songs without verse-chorus-verse structures, just simple, catchy snatches of ideas that can cycle round, appear and disappear before being discarded.
The idea is called Singalong Protest and we’re aiming to write, record and put out a song every month for as long as we can muster. Each song will have an accompanying video, simply because that’s an effective way of distributing music and ideas over social media (people online are, apparently, much more likely to ‘watch a song’ than listen to one). All the songs will be there for people to take and sing (and they’ll be there to completely ignore, too). Their subject matter will be born out of a salvo of conversations and emails between Commoners singers and we don’t have much of a plan as to which snatch of a song we’ll record and release next.
And that’s it, in a nutshell. Hats off to Leon Rosselson for giving us a kick up the arse and here’s to anyone brave enough to gather and sing on your next protest march. Because, for sure, there are enough reasons to be out protesting right now.
Song number 1 in the Singalong Protest series (collect the set!) is ‘Hey Theresa!’ (video above)
Commoners Choir July 2017