A SERIES OF SHORT SONGS AND CHANTS FOR MARCHES AND DEMONSTRATIONS
People 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 tune!”).
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.
Get Back On Your Bus And Go Home: No 6 in our Series of Singalong Protest Songs
A handy tune to pull out when the racist thugs come to town.
In putting together the video for this song we came across all sorts of footage of anti-fascists in their tens of thousands massing to oppose Oswald Mosley whenever he set up a stage to rally his troops. The opening footage here, in Trafalgar Square, is not from the well-known 1936 ‘Cable Street’ era but from 1962. The sheer numbers of people attending the demonstration – and preventing the rally from going ahead – is a reminder that there is a proud tradition of mass gathering against the fascists.
To bring us a little more up to date we’ve included a segment showing a busful of English Defence League supporters being chased out of Tower Hamlets after a demonstration in 2011. This particular version of ‘Get Back on Your Bus...’ includes a verse targetting the fascist President of the United States, should he ever feel brave enough to show his face in Britain.
What Do We Want: No 5 in our Series of Singalong Protest Songs
Leon Rosselson’s essay, ‘The Power of Song’ asks more questions than it suggests answers. Where have all the protest songs gone? There’s some great political songwriting at the moment, protest songs, solution songs, wake-up songs. Grace Petrie, Robb Johnson, Thee Faction, all the Shake The Chains gang, to name a few – but they’re not songs to sing at demonstrations and on picket lines. Leon’s essay was the inspiration for this Commoners’ series of singalong protest songs, and none fit the bill more than ‘What Do We Want?’, if only because that’s the most recognisable chant on British demonstrations, a boring, monotonous, lazy, annoying and self-defeating megaphone chant. I say ‘self-defeating’ because it reduces argument, anger and passion to a recognisable tinny noise, the noise of a lack of imagination. What do we want, something or other, when do we want it, now. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Fake News: No 4 in our Series of Singalong Protest Songs
Donald Trump has apparently taken credit for creating the word “fake”, during a television interview. The President of the United States suggested he had coined the term as he lashed out at the media for its coverage of his response to the Puerto Rican hurricane victims.
Walk With Me: No 3 in our Series of Singalong Protest Songs
with me on a personal exploration of marching and protesting...
Walking has always gone hand-in-hand with protest: From 1381 and the Peasant’s Revolt on London, through Kett’s Rebellion in 1549, where farmers and labourers marched on Norwich to protest the enclosing of common land on which they earned their living, to the Hunger Marches of the early 1900s, culminating in the Jarrow Crusade and the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout; walking has been the means of carrying protest to the very door of those in power.
There is a Spanish saying that there is no path until people walk it. Commoners Choir was formed from the same bare bones, boots, black earth and DNA as those who have walked in our footsteps before, and it is their path we follow.
My own personal experience of protest marches is limited. There are people in the choir who have dedicated a lot of time and energy in visibly opposing a number of unjust laws and situations. I have been on a few. It is, however, a powerful experience.
London, 1991. My first march. A demonstration against student loans. It wasn’t even my fight, as I was about to graduate before loans replaced student grants. But there was an inherent unfairness about charging people to give up three years of their lives, and forcing those from less well off backgrounds to make a choice as to whether they could afford to go to University. And what a day. To be in a crowd of people with common purpose, sharing a day of laughter, a joyousness of being amongst so many people working together. We saw Jonathan King drive past in his Rolls Royce and we all jeered and flicked our V’s (even before the paedophile scandal, no one liked him). We cheered loudly as Willy Rushton, wit and Private Eye wag, waved us on from the street. We shouted, we roared. It felt good to be there.
I have marched for the NHS, getting piss-wet in the rain, playing melodeon as we went (as if the other marchers weren’t already miserable enough). I have marched against wars, I have marched against unfair governments. I will be marching on Sunday 1st October against the most outrageously unjust and corrupt government of my lifetime, and I will be singing as I march.
‘Walk With Me’ is one of a number of songs written to be sung at marches and demonstrations. It can powerful and heartening to join in the chants on a march, but the repetitive and unimaginative nature of many chants means that they peter out all too soon. A while back, some of us Commoners went to a fairly impromptu march organised to protest against Trump’s introduction of a muslim travel ban. We had a song, a simple call-and-response, that we sang all the way round, and it worked. People smiled. They joined in. We felt a frisson in the air. Be bolshy, be arsey, be funny, be creative. That’s the way to foster a sense of common purpose and community.
Which brings me back to the purpose of marches. We don’t march only for ourselves. We can walk in solidarity with those who march alongside us, and we can march alongside those whose causes aren’t our own. Pride might not be my cause, but I should show that I will walk with those whose cause it is. Black Lives Matter, and I should show that I will walk with them, because we are more likely to succeed together. And we march, too, with all those people throughout history who have marched along the years for us; we can march for things as well as against them.
We should sing our hearts out, not so that people can listen to how good we sound, or how loud we shout, but so that they can join in too, and raise their voices with ours. Sod trumpets. The Walls of Jericho will come tumbling down to the sounds of unity in harmony.
Mark Whyatt, 2017
Descendants: No 2 in our Series of Singalong Protest Songs
Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
“Please, sir, I want some more.” The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear. “What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice. “Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.” The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle. (Charles Dickens) Early in the summer holidays I took my children to the National Coal Mining Museum near Wakefield. (They loved it, honestly, it wasn’t cruel!) While they were scurrying with the other kids through low hewn tunnels 140m below the ground with their helmets and lamps, our fantastic guide explained how children their age would work in absolute blackness – they didn’t waste candles on the children – for 12 hours at a time. It took the drowning of 26 children, when Huskar colliery near Barnsley flooded in 1837, to prick the conscience of enough of wealthy society for them to stop using children under ten years old in mines. And even then, there was opposition. In Parliament, the Marquess of Londonderry said this was “a measure which affected property to the amount of £10,000,000 and such a measure should not be hurried through Parliament.” Throughout our history those with wealth and power have sought to oppose those campaigning against inequality and injustice, fighting for safe working and fair wages, and wanting to enjoy their lives freely. Oliver Twist was punished for asking for more; the master wasn’t afraid of one weak boy. Power and hoarded wealth are never ceded lightly. And we don’t get equality and respect by asking alone. We get ‘more’ only when those with the power and wealth are frightened they may lose even more if they don't give a little. We will only get our fair share and the respect we all deserve by working together to take it. Change never comes as a benevolent gift – though children’s history books champion the Parliamentarians who pass laws rather than those who fought for decades and centuries to force change. It’s 150 years since Charles Dickens described that culture of grim and unrelenting poverty, cruelty and sickness among the working poor. But between then and now we’ve managed to double our average life expectancy, and that’s happened because we’ve improved sanitation, healthcare, diet, working conditions and living conditions; and we’ve improved our freedoms and our choices. These improvements weren’t handed down by grateful factory bosses and land owners, by generous Prime Ministers and judges. They came about through education, protests, strikes, riots and demonstrations. And things are still changing, in much the same way. What history teaches us is that the protests of today will force a better place for our children to live in. That history is being made, now, by all of us. We are the descendants of the history-makers … and we are coming for you. “There is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice.” (Charles Dickens) Alan Smith/Commoners Choir • August 2017