On Monday 23 September, the museum held a tour looking at 200 years of politicised music, from Peterloo to the present day. Former placement student Gilly Reynolds lead visitors around our galleries and introduced them to the many links between our story and protest music to show us how there have ‘always been ideas worth singing for’. In honour of this, we’ve bought out a few objects from our collection and archive to share with you.
‘Music is a global language that speaks to everyone’ Tony Benn recognised the potency and significance of protest music whilst reminiscing about the movement of the late 1970s Rock Against Racism which utilised guitars and lyrics for clear political purposes; it hoped to smash racism and promote racial equality. Yet music and politics have a long history, in fact you could argue that song has always been seen as a weapon in the armoury of individuals who want to change the world.
From the workers’ songs of the early 1800s which sang for better working conditions to the punk bands of the 1980s who demanded an end to homophobia, music and politics have always been inextricably linked.
The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 was meant to be a peaceful meeting of local radicals campaigning for political reform of parliament. Henry Hunt was the principal speaker at this gathering of thousands of men, women and children wearing their Sunday best, yet within minutes of his speech, his arrest was ordered and the Manchester Yeomanry, followed by the army, were sent in to disperse the crowds. 18 people died as a result of the violence at St. Peters’ Field, and hundreds more were injured. This song book, dating from immediately after Peterloo in 1819, holds songs and poems commemorating the “heroes, whose firm and active zeal has stamped their lasting fame till time shall be no more”. The book is therefore used in order to remember the events and push for political reform.
Protest music and folk songs describing the inequality and poor conditions many faced during the nineteenth century were frequently used by the working classes, and have proved to be a foundation to much of the music used in the English folk revival in the 1960s. For example the song, ‘The Four Loom Weaver’, a classic Lancashire ballad was revived by Ewan MacColl in 1957.
MacColl was an influential singer/ songwriter producing politically inspired folk music for a large portion of the twentieth century. He is said to have been one of the main artists producing protest songs during the folk revival. The PHM hold a number of objects relating to MacColl including this signed portrait and this songbook, taken from his album The Shuttle and the Cage inspired by the everyday life and troubles of miners in Britain.
Miners across Britain have quite often been the inspiration behind many of the folk songs and protest music released in the twentieth century, none more so than during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. We hold a fascinating collection of broadsides produced by miners during this period at the People’s History Museum. Illustrated sheets present songs calling for support and recognition of the extremely hard times they were facing. This particular example is a copy by the Nottingham miners union taken from the song ‘It’s miner this, it’s miner that’ written by retired Durham Pit deputy, Jack Purdon.
Songs produced during the Miners’ Strike gained attention and notoriety when popular artists, such as Billy Bragg covered them. ‘Which Side Are You On?’ was originally written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of a mine workers union organizer and was originally meant as a reaction to the bitter and violent struggle between the mine owners and the workers; however Bragg adapted the ethos of the original song during the Miners’ Strike in 1984 and released it to coincide with the very contemporary strike. Bragg was at his most famous during the 1980s and 1990s as a singer/songwriter and left-wing activist. Our Archive and Study Centre hold a number of items relating to him, such as this photograph. It is said that the Miners’ Strike further politicised Bragg and led him to play many benefit shows across the UK to raise money to support the families of the miners.
Bragg’s broadly left-wing activism meant that he lent his name and support to a number of causes throughout his career and in the period leading up to the 1987 general election, fronted Red Wedge, a collective of musicians who attempted to engage young people with politics in general, and especially the Labour Party, in an attempt to oust Margret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Red Wedge produced a number of major tours. The first, in January and February 1986, featured Bragg, Paul Weller’s band The Style Council, The Communards and picked up guest appearances from Madness, Heaven 17, Bananarama, Elvis Costello, Gary Kemp, Tom Robinson, Sade and The Smiths.
After a third consecutive Conservative victory in the 1987 election, Red Wedge lost its main drive leading funding to eventually run out in 1990 and what was left of the group formally disbanded.
Although Red Wedge didn’t fully achieve their aim, there have been numerous examples before and since of musicians banding together to lend their support to protests and political causes. One such example in the UK is Rock Against Racism (RAR), a campaign set up involving pop, rock, punk and reggae musicians staging concerts with an anti-racist theme, in order to discourage young people from embracing racism and the increasing prominence of white nationalist groups such as the National Front. The People’s History Museum holds numerous collections relating to RAR including the pictured newspaper extract and badge. We are also currently displaying ‘Hidden’ a photographic exhibition by one of the RAR founders, Red Saunders, looking at great moments in the long struggle for rights and representation in Britain- it ends this week so hurry down if you would like to see it at the PHM!
In spring 1978, 100,000 people marched six miles from Trafalgar Square to the East End of London (a National Front hotspot) for an open-air music festival at Victoria Park in Hackney organised by RAR and the Anti-Nazi League. The concert featured The Clash, Buzzcocks and the Tom Robinson Band amongst many others. Numerous concerts and marches followed this, leading RAR to largely be known as a great success. Both RAR and Red Wedge used music to communicate ideas, and mobilise the masses. However, where RAR used music as a mechanism for bringing people together against a common idea, Red Wedge used music and musicians more as a marketing tool to influence the formal political process and this can be used as a suggestion to explain why RAR had a greater amount of success and longevity than Red Wedge.
As can be seen in this selection of objects from our stores and archive, protest songs can provide a voice for the voiceless, or can be an expression of opposition. Politicised music appeals to the listener to take action on the ideas they believe are worth singing for.
For more images from our collection on protest music, or images from the tour, visit our Flickr site.