Subject Material

Songs of Discontent

Published: 01.03.2013, Updated: 04.03.2017
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During the mid-1960s the Scottish poet and pop-folk singer, Donovan, had a slogan in bold letters across the front of his guitar that read: This Machine Kills Fascists. This may seem a bit extreme, but is nonetheless an unmistakable and candid manifesto.
Many singer-songwriters have more or less explicitly declared their political agenda both from the stage and in their songs. No one can blame a performing artist with a message for using his songs as a channel to express what he thinks is important to communicate to the audience.

 

Woody Guthrie

Woody GuthrieWoody Guthrie
Fotograf: The Granger Collection
The American working man song tradition developed among the toiling labourers working for a-dollar-a-day on the railroads or in a mine. The songs were about harsh working conditions and exploitation by employers, or they could be teamster songs to spur the union spirit and advocate the right to organise. This tradition was kept alive by folk singers leading a hobo life, doing odd jobs and singing for a living. One of them was Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) whose songs have inspired many folk singers who later rose to fame. One of Guthrie’s most famous songs is "This Land is Your Land", which has become an anthem celebrating the diversity and greatness of the American nation. However, when the song is sung or performed, some stanzas from Guthrie’s original version are usually left out:

One bright Sunday morning in the shadows of the steeple
By the Relief Office I seen me people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking, I saw a sign there.
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”.
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That land was made for you and me.

Protest

During the 1960s many folk and protest singers took up Guthrie’s critical agenda. This was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, the Cuba Crisis and the Vietnam War – issues that evoked protest in people in general and also in many singer-songwriters. The most prominent representatives of this new wave of folk singers with a political message were Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Though Dylan never proclaimed any political standpoint and refused to be called a protest singer, many of his songs, particularly during this period were clearly about political issues. These songs gave voice to the fears and thoughts of many young people. These are some stanzas from his "Masters of War" (1963):

Bob DylanBob Dylan
Fotograf: Corbis
Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
(…)
You fasten the triggers
For others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
(…)
And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch when you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

During his long career and vast production Dylan has from time to time continued to make personal comments on political matters in his songs. These are two stanzas from his "Union Sundown" (1983):

Well you know, lots of people complainin’ that there is no work
I say, Why you say that for
When nothin’ you got is U.S-made?
They don’t make nothin’ here no more
You know, capitalism is above the law
It say, It don’t count less it sells.
When it costs too much to build it at home
You just build it cheaper someplace else.
(…)
Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid
From Broadway to the Milky Way
That’s a lot of territory indeed
And a man’s gonna do what he has to do
When he has a hungry mouth to feed

Well, it’s sundown on the union
And what’s made in the USA
Sure was a great idea
‘Til greed got in the way

Northern Ireland

English occupation and the persecution of Irish Catholics through the centuries have given rise to a protest song tradition that is an important part of Irish / Celtic culture. These are two lines from "The Wind That Shakes the Barley", written by Robert Dwyer Joyce in the mid-19th century:

‘Twas hard the woeful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us
But harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us

The Irish question has stirred many contemporary pop and rock artists to state their opinion about the troubles. Even Paul McCartney, who is not primarily known for political songs, wrote "Give Ireland Back to the Irish". His former partner John Lennon wrote the ironical "The Luck of the Irish", from which the following lines are taken:

John Lennonjohn lennon
Fotograf: AP
If you had the luck of the Irish
You’d be sorry and wish you were dead
You should have the luck of the Irish
And you’d wish you was English instead
A thousand years of torture and hunger
Drove the people away from their land
A land full of beauty and wonder
Was raped by the British brigands. Goddamn! Goddamn!
(…)
Why the hell are the English there anyway?
As they kill with God on their side
Blame it all on the kids the IRA
As the basters commit genocide. Aye! Aye! Genocide!

During the conflict in Northern Ireland, the 30th of January, 1972, has gone down in history as “Bloody Sunday”. At a peaceful demonstration 13 unarmed civilians were shot and killed by English soldiers. This incident is the background of the Irish rock group U2's song, "Bloody Sunday":

Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up
It puts my back up against the wall
(…)
And the battle’s just begun
There’ many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
Torn apart

Whenever U2 perform the song, Bono introduces it by saying that “this is not a rebel song”. This provoked the Irish performer Sinèad O’Connor to write a song, "This IS a Rebel Song", calling attention to the political message in her song:

Ah, please talk to me English man
What good will shutting me out get done
Meanwhile crazies are killing our sons
Oh listen, English man

Satire and Irony

The American singer-songwriter Randy Newman has a slightly different approach in his political lyrics. Though his songs are in some way ironic his political message shines through quite clearly. In his song "Rednecks" (1974) he addresses racist attitudes in general and the “mind of the south” the way he sees it:

American singer-songwriter Randy NewmanAmerican singer-songwriter Randy Newman
Fotograf: Tim Mosenfelder
We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We’re too dumb to make it in any northern town
And we’re keeping the niggers down
(…)
We’re Rednecks, we’re Rednecks
We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re Rednecks, we’re Rednecks
And we’re keeping the niggers down

Now your northern nigger’s a Negro
You see, he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the north has set the nigger free
Yes he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to put in a cage on the
South-Side of Chicago and the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage
in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage
In East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage
In Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage
in Roxbury in Boston
They’re gatherin’ ‘em up from miles around
Keeping the niggers down

Randy Newman has had many critical reactions from people who don’t get his ironic meaning, which in a way proves his point. In a more recent song, "A Few Words in Defence of my Country" (2008), he leaves no doubt as to what he thinks of the political leadership of his country:

I’d like to say a few words in defence of my country
Whose people aren’t bad, nor are they mean
Now the leaders we have,
While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen

(He then goes on to mention some really bad political leaders throughout history, such as the Caesars of Rome, Spanish Kings during the Inquisition, Hitler, Stalin and King Leopold of Belgium.)
(…)
We don’t want your love
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question
But in times like these
We sure could use a friend
(…)
The end of an Empire is messy at best
And this Empire is ending like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave and the home of the free

Sticking Your Neck Out

“Killing fascists” certainly is an extreme declaration of a political ambition, and in general artists with a political message may want to think twice before they state their views so outspokenly. In a democracy where freedom of speech is respected, it will be unproblematic for artists to pronounce their message as explicitly as e.g. Randy Newman, but in other contexts it could be quite risky to stick one’s neck out and openly criticise the political leadership. The Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara was arrested, tortured and killed by the junta police after the coup in Chile in 1972. Political leaders fear the influence these artists may have, particularly on young people. In the early 1970s, the CIA and the Nixon administration went to quite some lengths to have John Lennon thrown out of the country because of his left-wing political views, and the influence he might have on first-time voters.
Political artists are not a new phenomenon. During the Romantic Age poets like Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were exiled for their radical views and immoral conduct. But in a way, that is the fate of artists with a political message; the risk of consequences will not keep them from writing or singing.

 

Tasks and Activities

  1. Why do you think the two stanzas of Woody Guthrie’s "This Land is your Land" are usually left out?
  2. What is a “relief office”?
  3. Working man songs would be in the language of the working class. Do you see any examples of that in Guthrie’s song?
  4. What is the general message in "Masters of War" by Bob Dylan?
  5. Explain “outsourcing” in connection with Dylan’s "Union Sundown".
  6. Pick one or two lines from "Union Sundown" that sum up the whole message of the song.
  7. Why do you think Bono introduces "Bloody Sunday" like he does? (If you look carefully at the lyrics you will probably understand.)
  8. Randy Newman is from California. What happens when he replaces “they” with “we” in his song "Rednecks"?
  9. Explain the irony of the last stanza of "Rednecks".
  10. Explain the satirical element of Randy Newman’s “A Few Words…”
  11. How does the last line of “A Few Words…” connect with the title of the song?
  12. Go on the net and find the lyrics of " A Few Words..." Do you think it is fair to compare the old despots with the leadership of a modern democratic society?
  13. Can you come up with examples from our time where artists are arrested for criticising the political leadership?

Suggested Further Activities

  1. Follow the link and read more about John Lennon’s career and his struggle for American citizenship. John Lennon - Working Class Hero 
  2. Check this link for more information about Bob Dylan and his poetry. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen - Rock Poets
  3. Follow the link below and read more about Percy Bysshe Shelley and why he was exiled from England. Percy Bysshe Shelley - A Romantic Rebel
  4. Check YouTube for clips or performances of the songs mentioned in the article.