Joan Baez performs at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1965.
“… In a year that marked the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta and 750 years since the Simon de Montfort parliament, the four celebrated the pursuit of democracy and sung songs new and old, written about the rights and liberties that people have fought to achieve and protect over the centuries. ‘The topics in our songs all deserve to be celebrated – but we’d also like to highlight some uncomfortable truths which matter to vulnerable people today,’ says [Nancy] Kerr. ‘Folk music reflects the creativity of working people, who often used it as a political voice. This kind of project could link present concerns with previous radical struggles and help us find a new collective voice.’ Kerr’s mother, Sandra, was a ‘folk apprentice’ to Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, whose Critics Group met in London’s Union Tavern in the 1960s and 70s to promote political change through music. Kerr has long since established her own profile (she won 2015’s BBC folk singer of the year award) and believes current issues, from fracking to climate change to welfare cuts, offer rich material. She is disappointed that what she terms the ‘artistic left’ seems to have backed off from the politically focused music that MacColl and co once sung. Where have all the protest songs gone? The reasons behind the silence range from the generational to the cultural and economic. While politics remains a prominent subject in the arts as a whole – with standup and fringe theatre routinely used for agitprop – some claim that changing social habits have eroded music’s political significance. … [Billy] Bragg’s generation in the 1970s and 1980s could also draw inspiration from the US, where legendary protest artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax had ended up on Senator Joe McCarthy’s blacklist, and later arrivals such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez lent musical backing to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. Music was, for a time, a powerful countercultural force. In the UK, too, folk music was long a tool of political protest, influencing writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Dickens and Hardy. Songs helped shape popular moods: Richard Thompson’s Blackleg Miner highlighted the plight of colliery workers, while Song of the Lower Classes by the chartist poet MP Ernest Jones drew on rousing works such as Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. …”
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