Friday 30 July 2010

Songs Of Our Fathers

The Power of Song: A young Bob Dylan joins voices with veteran protest singer, Pete Seeger. "There is no life without song,’" said the Czech resistance fighter, Julius Fuchik, "as there is no life without the sun."

On Wednesday, 28 July 2010 I delivered the following speech to approximately 120 workers and students attending the "Fightback" rally organised by Unite on Campus (Auckland) in Basement Lecture Theatre B28 of the University of Auckland Library. Other speakers included The EPMU’s Bill Newson, the NDU’s Karl Andersen, Former Green Party MP, Sue Bradford and Unite General Secretary, Matt McCarten. The rally was chaired by Unite organiser, Joe Carolan.

WHEN JOE INVITED me to address this "Unite on Campus" protest rally last week, I must confess to feeling a pang or two of trepidation. It’s been many years since I stood in front of a room full of workers and students with clear rhetorical intent.

What could I possibly tell you about trade unionism or student activism that is even remotely relevant to your situation? The world has changed dramatically since I was last a trade unionist – let alone a student activist!

You don’t need me to tell you that back in the 1970s and 80s, when I was in my early 20s, it was so much easier to be both.

But the organisers of tonight’s rally have reassured me that a backward glance or two might actually be helpful in the battle to halt this Government’s attack on workers’ rights. And, as an historian, I can hardly disagree.

So I’ve asked myself: "What’s the easiest way to convey the sentiments of Activists Past to Activists Present?"

My answer is – their songs.

Protest songs were the You-Tube clips of their day: cheap to produce, easy to access, and if they were any good they could be passed on to tens of thousands of people in an astonishingly short period of time.

So I hauled out my copy of Kiwi Youth Sings – a songbook put together in 1951 by the Student Labour Federation and the Progressive Youth League. The songbook’s editors, Conrad Bollinger and Neil Grange, were in no doubt concerning the importance of political song.

"Locked in the dungeons of the Gestapo the Czech resistance fighter Julius Fuchik could not be stopped from singing", they told their youthful readers. ‘"There is no life without song,’" said Fuchik, "as there is no life without the sun."

The first song in "Kiwi Youth Sings" is, very appropriately, "The Internationale". Just listen to the anger and red-hot determination of its opening lines:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world is now in birth.
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us!
Arise ye slaves no more in thrall!
The earth shall stand on new foundations,
We have been nought – we shall be all!

Stirring stuff!

But not all the songs rely on the rhythms and language of the Bible.

"It’s My Union", an Australian ditty, is much more colloquial:

They can call me agitator,
They can even call me traitor,
They can tell me that my brain is off the track.
But I’m smart enough to see
What the union’s done for me
So, I’m rolling up my sleeves and fighting back.

From England came the poignant "People’s Anthem" – the most popular song of that first great mobilisation of working-class people, the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 40s.

Rather than ask God to save the Queen, the song’s author, Ebenezer Elliot, implores the Almighty to save the people.

Shall crime bring crime forever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father,
That Man should toil for wrong?
No! say thy mountains, No! thy skies:
Man’s clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard instead of sighs.
God save the People!

And, of course, we could not walk among England’s poor without acknowledging William Blake’s mysterious incantation of a poem "Jerusalem":

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon these clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Nor could we leave them without at least quoting the chorus of what Bollinger and Grange called "the great hymn of the British Labour Movement:

Then raise the scarlet standard high!
Within its shade we’ll live or die!
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here!

Years later, I’m reliably informed, Conrad Bollinger penned a wicked parody of "The People’s Flag":

O Labour’s flag is deep magenta
It flies on high – just right of centre!

Interestingly, on the night of 5 July 1945, when it became clear that the British Labour Party had won the General Election, the vast crowd of working-class Londoners which had gathered outside Transport House to welcome in the Red Dawn didn’t celebrate their victory by singing "The People’s Flag". The song they sang that night, to usher in Britain’s new welfare state was much older. It was William Blake’s "Jerusalem".

I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land

But nowhere, in the English-speaking world has the battle for workers’ rights been harder – or bloodier – than in the United States.

Small wonder, then, that it is from the USA that we have inherited what is, perhaps, the greatest union anthem of all – "Solidarity Forever!".

Just listen to the enormous confidence that rings out in the song’s verses: the absolute conviction that workers’ power can not only defeat the bosses, but transform the world:

They have hoarded untold millions
That they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power,
Win our freedom when we learn -
That the union makes us strong

In our hands we hold a power
Greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the strength of armies
Multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world
From the ashes of the old -
When the union makes us strong!

The author of "Solidarity Forever!", Ralph Chaplin, was writing in the optimistic early years of the 20th Century – when it seemed that the long-awaited "Commonwealth of Toil" could not be long-delayed.

But the First World War, and coming of the Great Depression drove iron into the soul of the American Labour Movement.

Listen to the bare language and stark choices laid down by Florence Reece, who battled alongside her husband for miner’s rights in the Kentucky coal-fields during the 1930s. She wrote down these words on the back of a calendar after a gang of strike-breakers crashed into her home and attacked her family.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

And that’s a sentiment, Comrades, that never changes. To every human-being, be they old or young, black or white, man or woman, rich or poor, a moment always comes when the choice that changes lives must be made, and an answer given.

Which side are you on? 


Don Franks said...

Class war song

You front fifty bosses doorways clutching your cv
At last you score a part time gig to clean the lavatory
You keep it spotless ninety days but then you’re out the door
You don’t have to be in the army to fight in the war

You wake up with a runny nose a cough and aching head
You ring in sick and tell the boss you need a day in bed
He says you need a doctor’s note to prove you’re really sore
You don’t have to be in the army to fight in the war

Down you go to WINZ to try and get a benefit
They talk to you as though they’re looking at a piece of shit
They say you might find casual work if you shift down to Gore
You don’t have to be in the army to fight in the war

Away up in the Beehive they all sit on their arse
Taking turns to suck more blood out of the working class
Labour brought in GST , National made it more
You don’t have to be in the army to fight in the war

Now you see your situation as looking very bleak
But its just in isolation that the working folks are weak
Stand up and show the bastards what a union’s really for!
You don’t have to be in the army to fight in the war
No, you don’t have to be in the army to fight in the war.

July 2010
Dorset/ Franks

ak said...

Kapai deadly Kihiritowha, your genius and prolificity never fails to amaze. Look after yourself, son, you're a one-off.

And so timely. Where's the army of neo-musoes nurtured at Helen's breast for nine years, now cast on their own recognizance?

Get your shit together, young people, or forever accept the title of the Wanker Generation Who Let the Bankers Take Over. And sat on their dicks as the corporations framed the debate.

1968 rocked our cradle: if you can't meet that standard, piss off. Art means challenge; and change.

Here's a crusty lyrical taster from gen A: improve on it please:

Ode to HoneK

Kia ora rawa atu

You slippery hunk of shit.

You raised us just a little bit

Then crapped on us as quick

With Fire at Will.

Tari took a punt

But you're just another cunt.

Like all the other tories

Trying to use the hories

You're a dickhead, dabbling dilletante.

And you're doomed.

Victor said...


I recommend this:

And then there's 'Joe Hill'

Anonymous said...

Yes a good post Chris.
Quite inspired use of the place of song in history.
The last song with the last line "which side are you on?" is very strong, great, but so long ago that few of your 'Unite on Campus' students would be aware of it.

In today's context the quote would read: "which side are you on, for now!"

At 72 years I have watched myself change with amazement alarm, horror even, but still change..


Anonymous said...

Gee- the left is reduced to ruminating on songs?How about Dancing in the Dark?

Anonymous said...

I filmed you (from the back) singing the Brecht song, and it is on U Tube entitled Chris Trotter sings with maybe the date on it.
But I guess the photographer at the front probably has the whole thing actually -your speech and songs

Anonymous said...

Please do not encourage the Labour Caucus to sing again.

Anonymous said...

Being of a generation that was raised on songs that actually said things I feel sorry for the modern generation who pretty much haven't heard them...(Seeger, Dylan, Baez, Guthry, et al- my iPod,s full of them!). HOWEVER! Being of a generation that was raised on songs that actually had tunes, I perhaps shouldn't feel sorry for the modern generation because their 'songs' MAY actually say things, too and I haven't heard them because they don't have tunes. I MUST listen to some/one...(one day...maybe?)Yeah, right.

Bearhunter said...

Kutarere: Dylan was okay once he discovered electricity, Seeger was an enjoyable folkie, but Baez never had an original idea of her own. As for not writing them like that any more, what tripe. This is from 2000 and one of the best songs of the strike I've ever heard:

"Forty years of coal-dust
Is a lot of pain to carry
It made a cripple out of Harry
But his family came and took up his tools
And they faced the Orgreave cavalry
While the world looked on and wondered
Their right to work was plundered
By the statesman-ship of fools."

Or perhaps this from Christy Moore:

Victor said...


Joan Baez may not be a great original songwriter but she (still) has a superbly beautiful voice. She sings from the heart and, unlike her onetime lover, Dylan, has never ceased to be a committed and principled fighter for good causes.

When LBJ escalated the Vietnam conflict in 1965, Joan naturally assumed that she and Dylan would jointly mount the barricades. But he was more interested in psychadelia and self.

Victor said...


Thought to be the work of Gerrard Winstanley, who led the 'Diggers' movement, to maintain and reclaim common land in Buckinghamshire in the immediate aftermath of the English Civil War

"You noble Diggers all stand up now, stand up now!
You noble Diggers all stand up now!
The wasteland to maintain, seeing Cavaleers by name,
Your digging does maintain and persons all defame,
Stand up now, stand up now!

Your houses they pull down stand up now, stand up now // (means, repeat line as in verse one)
Your houses they pull down, to fright your men in town,
But the gentrye must come down,
And the poor shall wear the crown,
Stand up now, Diggers all.

With spades and hoes and plowes, stand up now, stand up now //
Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold,
To kill you if they could and rights from you to hold,
Stand up now Diggers all.

Theire self-will is theire law, stand up now, //
Since tyranny came in they count it now no sin
To make a gaol a gin, to starve poor men therein.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The gentrye are all ‘round, stand up now... //
The gentrye are all ‘round, on each side they are found,
Theire wisdom’s profound; to cheat us of our ground,
Stand up now, stand up now.

The lawyers they conjoyne, stand up now... //
To arrest you they advise, such fury they devise,
The devill in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes,
Stand up now, stand up now.

The clergy they come in, stand up now.... //
The clergy they come in and say it is a sin,
That we should now begin our freedom for to win,
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The tithes they yet will have, stand up now.... //
The tithes they yet will have, and lawyers their fees crave,
And this they say is brave, to make the poor their slave.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

‘Gainst lawyers and ‘gainst Priests stand up now... //
For tyrants they are both, even flatt against their oath,
To grant us they are loath, free meat and drink and cloth,
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The club is all their law, stand up now.... //
The club is all their law, to keep all men in awe,
But they no vision saw, to maintain such a law,
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The Cavaleers are foes, stand up now, //
The Cavaleers are foes, themselves they do disclose
By verses not in prose to please the singing boyes.
Stand up now, Diggers all."

Victor said...



(From the Chartist era and possibly from that year of trans-European revolt, 1848)

"We plough and sow—we’re so very, very low
That we delve in the dirty clay,
Till we bless the plain—with the golden grain,
And the vale with the fragrant hay.
Our place we know,—we’re so very low,
’Tis down at the landlord’s feet:
We’re not too low—the bread to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.*

Down, down we go,—we’re so very low,
To the hell of the deep sunk mines,
But we gather the proudest gems that glow,
When the crown of a despot shines.
And whenever he lacks—upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We’re far too low to vote the tax,
But not too low to pay.

We’re low—we’re low—mere rabble, we know,
But, at our plastic power,
The mould at the lordling’s feet will grow
Into palace and church and tower.
Then prostrate fall—in the rich man’s hate,
And cringe at the rich man’s door;
We’re not too low to build the wall,
But too low to tread the floor.

We’re low—we’re low—we’re very very low,
Yet from our fingers glide
The silken flow—and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride.
And what we get—and what we give—
We know, and we know our share;
We’re not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the Cloth to wear!

We’re low—we’re low—we’re very very low,
And yet when the trumpets ring,
The thrust of a poor man’s arm will go
Thro’ the heart of the proudest King.
We’re low—we’re low—our place we know,
We’re only the rank and file,
We’re not too low—to kill the foe,
But too low to touch the spoil."

Anonymous said...

Bearhunter said...

Victor: We may have to agree to disagree about Baez. I've always found her voice brittle and on occasion harsh. And I've never totally forgiven her for her ritual slaughter of the Band's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Her sister Mimi Farina was more to my taste.

As for Dylan opting for psychedelia and self, since His Bobness never nominated himself spokesman for a generation, I think it's a tad harsh to dismiss his post-acoustic-only career as self-indulgence.

Victor said...


I agree about "The Night etc."

I also agree that Dylan never appointed himself to anything and do not begrudge him his self-indulgence.

My comment was made in the context of this thread which is about songs of protest and struggle, which (rather surprisingly for many of his contemporaries) turned out not to be his thing.