The Music of Protest
Beannachtaí na Nollag agus Bliain Úr faoi mhaise daoibh. Let me wish readers and bloggers and facebookers everywhere a peaceful and happy Christmas and a great New Year.
I like music. And a lot will be played over the Christmas break. I play it all the time. In the car. In the office. At home. I have music on my IPad and my phone. And I like all kinds of music from classical to Irish traditional to folk to rock. Two weeks ago several of us took time out of a mad schedule in the Dáil to walk round to the Olympia for a Kris Kristofferson concert.
It was almost two hours of really good music. Just him and his guitar. With a few sets in harmony with his daughter Kelly and a young man who may have been his son. Many of the songs brought back memories of earlier times and were warmly welcomed by an appreciative audience. He sang all the standards from ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ – which Bobby Sands sang for us in Cage 11 - through ‘Help me make it through the night’ to ‘The Silver Tongued Devil’.
He sang of love, and drink, and friendship and God and politics. His admiration for President Barack Obama stated quietly. His voice is not as strong as it once was – he is 76 – but there was never a wrong note struck or a lyric stumbled over as he worked his way through his extensive back catalogue.
Much of Kristofferson’s best known work is as a performer on his own, although the Highwaymen period with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash produced great music.
I find, like most people that music is full of memories. Sometimes sad and happy but most often associated with specific times in our lives. It is also a great way to get a message across.
Over the centuries there have been some great songs of protest and resistance. In the USA the abolitionists sang songs of freedom for slaves; the trade union movement internationally has a wealth of songs of resistance; almost every war fought in recent centuries has produced songs of protest and opposition; and almost every campaign for civil and human rights, including the right to vote for women produced songs of solidarity.
In a very real way these are songs and music of propaganda.
Irish music is full of them. I was reminded of this last week when I met Conal Kearney, whose grandfather Peadar Kearney wrote The Soldiers Song, as well as Down by the Glenside (The Bold Fenian Men); The Tri-coloured Ribbon, and Down by the Liffey Side. There have been many others including, ‘The Broad Black Brimmer’, ‘Boolavogue’ and Kevin Barry which was memorably song by the American civil rights activist Paul Robson and also by Leonard Cohen. ‘A Nation Once Again’ song by the Wolfe Tones, was voted the number one song in the world in 2002 by listeners to the BBC’s World Service.
The Bold Fenian Men is a particular favourite. It was written around the time of 1916 and was a potent and evocative call to arms.
Over the years it has been sung by the best, from the Clancy Brothers to the Dubliners, and it even made an appearance in the John Wayne classic Rio Grande. The fact that the film was set in the American west 40 years before the song was written did not diminish the potency of its performance or its message.
‘Some died by the glenside, some died near a stranger
And wise men have told us their cause was a failure
But they fought for old Ireland and never feared danger
Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men
I passed on my way, God be praised that I met her
Be life long or short, sure I'll never forget her
We may have brave men, but we'll never have better
Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men’
There have been countless others up to and including the most recent period of conflict with songs like The Men behind the Wire, 90 Miles from Dublin and On the Bridge, by Christy Moore about the women prisoners in Armagh Gaol.
Christmas hasn’t escaped from a mention in protest songs. One of the best is John Lennon’s 1971 anti-war anthem ‘Happy Xmas – War is over’.
Lennon was writing about the Vietnam War but his words from 40 years ago are as powerful today as they were then. From violence on the streets of the north by unionist protestors, to the continuing denial of Palestinian rights in the Middle East, to the Congo and the Sahel region of north Africa and scores of other places around the world, war and hunger and inequality continue to inflict great hurt on millions of citizens.
Lennon’s message was simple and direct:
‘A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let's stop all the fight
A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year’