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When was the last time a song stopped you in your tracks?

Some Thoughts on Political Songwriting

This essay was originally written in February, 2003, for the Centre for Political Song based at Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, Scotland. Other essays on the theme of Political Songs can also be read at the Centre's website.


Ever since the dawn of human speech, the first song makers composed songs to help make sense of the events unfolding around them. It was probably around the same time, that disaffected cave dwellers wrote the first political songs in an attempt to sum up their own frustrations at the fact that others of their clan were getting more than their fair share of the hunt. Since that time, I suspect little has changed between the motivations of Cro-Magnon Man and his modern counterparts.

Political songs have been part of my own life for over 40 years. As I grew up in the 1950s, some of the first political songs I recall were on albums released by The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and by Pete Seeger performing as a solo artist.

I turned 13 in 1961, just as the folk revival was getting into full swing. I can still remember listening to Bob Dylan’s early albums and being inspired by the amazing songs he was writing at the time. Of course, I was just as excited by the songwriting of Dylan’s contemporaries such as Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs, and by the many other ‘protest’ singers of that era.

I wrote my first song (a ‘pop’ song), in 1965 or ’66. After all, I was a teenager growing up in the heady years of the ‘60s, and like other teens at the time I was a big fan of groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and performers such as Jimi Hendrix, and many others.

Along with my early attempts at writing pop songs, I was also composing my first protest songs. I still have copies of most of my early writings including the song, You’re a Big Boy Now, dated February 27, 1968. The first verse and chorus are as follows:

Once upon a time, not so long ago,
I took a little boy to a picture show.
I was all about how the allies won the war,
But times have changed, I wish I’d known before.

CHORUS
You must never be afraid to die,
Cover up your face, you’re too big to cry.
And if you’ve never killed before, you will soon learn how,
Go on, board the plane, you’re a big boy now.

It may not be on a par with Dylan, but it was a start. The line about boarding a plane, was a reference to Australian and US soldiers being flown to join the war in Vietnam, which was at its height in 1968.

 

1971, would find me living in a bed-sitter in Willesden Green, North London. I spent five and a half years away from Australia – most of those living and working in that fantastic city. While there, I discovered The Singers Club, an institution run for many years by the great Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. Here were two of the best political songwriter’s on the planet, and I had the pleasure of seeing them perform on many occasions during my years in London.

If I learnt anything at all from listening to MacColl and Seeger, it was to not be afraid to spell out in verse, my own thoughts and feelings about the injustices I saw around me. In 1974 (exact date unknown) I wrote my song, The Golden Age.

Its eight verses were a prolonged attack on the capitalist system which began:

In an age that is cursed by a system that’s burst,
And rotten through to the core,
That refuses to die and continues to try
To govern, rancid, and sore.
Expect nothing better than shackles and fetters
That hold you and keep you in check,
That seize and mistreat you, and thoroughly beat you,
A burden around your neck.

This song still stands up well, despite being written almost 30 years ago. In the years since I wrote the song, I have continued to write and sing political songs because they help channel the anger and frustration I feel, at the inequities that still beset the world.

My latest song, No Blood For Oil, (written in January 2003), is a topical song – that is, a song written for a specific event or period in time (in this case the threat of war with Iraq). Once that event has passed, the song will have served its purpose and hopefully, will no longer need to be sung again.

You burn the truth at midnight, the flames light up the sky,
You stand around and warm your hands, and watch our freedoms die.
You start your wars for Mammon, for capital and greed,
You start your wars for land and oil, and watch our children bleed.

CHORUS
No blood for oil! No oil for your ‘freedom’,
Your freedom is worthless when you pay with our lives.
No blood for oil! No oil for your ‘freedom’,
Your freedom is worthless when you pay with our lives.

So, what have I learnt after 40 years of writing, singing, and listening to political songs?

That no matter how good a political song may be, on its own, it will never be enough to change the minds of dictators, or the minds of our elected representatives once they have decided to pursue a particular course of action.

However…

Good political songs (and preferably lots of them), are great rallying points for individuals and organisations which gather together to fight for a common cause.

Good political songs are also a great way to help keep people motivated to continue their particular struggles, whether they be for a peaceful world, a cleaner environment, or real equality between the sexes. And long may it be so.

Keep your spirits up – and keep on singing.


© 2002-2007, Jim Lesses

 

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