Protest music makes a new stand in 2012 at Celtic Connections

If you thought political protest songs were a thing of the past, Celtic Connections’ tribute to former folk icons will showcase the talent of a new generation of musicians bent on transforming the world

ATTEMPTING to take the pulse of political and protest songs in 2012 produces a fascinating if often bewildering array of readings. On the one hand, the heyday of message-bearing or resistance-oriented music seems long past; this year’s celebrations of Woody Guthrie’s centenary, for instance, appears essentially a commemorative exercise, with contemporary audiences too cynical, politically disengaged and wedded to their headphones and playlists to be rallied as in previous eras.

Weighing against these arguments, two recent in-depth studies of the subject – UK rock critic Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, published last year, and the 2010 US documentary Sounds Like A Revolution, co-directed by Summer Love and Jane Michener – trace an unbroken chain of musical protest from Billie Holiday, with the searing Strange Fruit in 1939, to the likes of Michael Franti and Rage Against the Machine.

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Leading popular music historian Rob Bowman, interviewed in the film, asserts that “we probably have more politicised artists in the 21st century than we did in the 1960s”. That claim is endorsed by numerous commentators on movements from the Arab Spring to the Occupy protests, in which songs and singers are identified as a central energising force.

It was musicians’ role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that primarily prompted Celtic Connections’ artistic director Donald Shaw to make political song a focus of this year’s festival. “Watching coverage of the Arab Spring, I found it incredibly moving to see people gathering in places like Tahrir Square with musical instruments and singing folk songs,” he says. “It really showed their belief in the power of music to overcome adversity, literally in the face of possible death. It’s taken people thousands of miles away to remind us what difference songs can make.”

One of this year’s flagship Celtic Connections shows, The World Turned Upside Down, takes its title from an English Civil War ballad, adapted in the 1970s by satirical singer Leon Rosselson, whose version was memorably covered by Billy Bragg in 1985. The show features one of Bragg’s most subtle yet devastatingly eloquent heirs, the multi-award-winning Chris Wood, along with Scotland’s Karine Polwart and Justin Currie. They’re joined by Arab-Israeli singer and oud player Kamilya Jubran, plus Pura Fé and John Trudell, both veteran musical spokespeople for Native American peoples.

As the line-up reflects, Shaw’s definition of protest song entails plenty of food for thought in itself. Despite what might be expected of an exiled Palestinian, for instance, Jubran’s music is more an artistic manifestation of radicalism and subversion than a manifesto. Pura Fé, meanwhile, has certainly done her fair share of actual campaigning and fundraising, but her activism equally consists of teaching her young Tuscarora Nation compatriots their tribal traditions and language, as a proven method of combating drug and alcohol abuse, and – through her unique blend of Native American and blues styles – reclaiming the multicultural heritage of Southern US roots music.

“The idea that political song is terminally unfashionable or outdated is based on very narrow perceptions,” argues Polwart. “Of course there’s a role for those very direct polemics and anthems that people can join in with, but by their nature those tend to be very quickly written, and have a pretty short shelf life. But for me there’s just as important a place for more reflective, more questioning songs, written for more personal consumption, that have a broader or deeper resonance – it’s all part of the same continuum.”

The Woody Guthrie centenary was another prompt for the festival’s political programming strand. Guthrie’s legacy continues to defy those who would consign the genre to history, as highlighted by the headliners of Celtic Connections’ 100th birthday bash, Woody At 100. Alt-country hipsters Jay Farrar (Son Volt/Uncle Tupelo), Anders Parker (Gob Iron) and Will Johnson (Monsters of Folk), who – together with My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames – will be performing material from New Multitudes, an album of songs matching lyrics from Guthrie’s vast unrecorded archive with newly written tunes, released last week. “More than ever,” Farrar says, “the social and economic injustices which Guthrie wrote about are subjects that need to be revisited.”

“It’s a legacy based on love, hope, and certainty of a better world,” says Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody’s singer-songwriter granddaughter, who also features in the show. “I believe that will always be relevant. There will always be people who will stand up for the right things. Woody helps us to believe it is possible, as do many others that came before and that are out there today.”

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Indeed, looking through Celtic Connections’ broader programme, it’s positively littered with artists whose work involves some kind of political slant. There are potently gifted musical orators like US renegade Tom Russell, Australian cult hero Paul Kelly and Ireland’s mighty Damien Dempsey; there’s the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, whose songs address such issues as women’s oppression, female genital mutilation and the plight of illegal immigrants, and there’s the brilliantly biting observations and uplifting exhortations of Edinburgh hip-hop crew Stanley Odd. There are tributes to the late lamented Ray Fisher and Alistair Hulett, left-leaning folkies of the old school and of enduring influence, and the powerful underlying message of Far, Far From Ypres, featuring Scottish soldiers’ songs and peace anthems from the First World War. And in a seemingly different vein again, there’s The Captain’s Collection, the story of how a British army officers saved a treasure-trove of Gaelic music from post-Jacobite extinction, which Shaw describes as “arguably the most politically relevant show in the whole programme.”

Even ex-Cream vocalist and bassist Jack Bruce, whose own gig teams him with a diverse array of Scottish special guests, has a direct link to the third of Celtic Connections’ major politically themed shows, the United Clyde Shipbuilders 40th Anniversary Celebrations, marking an ultimately victorious work-in – for which the Glasgow-born Bruce played two benefit gigs back in 1971. He was one of numerous rock and folk musicians that rallied to the cause – John and Yoko Ono gave a £1,000 donation – as the campaign, famously led by shop steward Jimmy Reid, garnered supporters across the UK and beyond. Another fundraising stalwart was legendary local song trio The Laggan, comprising Arthur Johnstone, Jimmie Macgregor and Alistair MacDonald, who will be reuniting for this year’s occasion.

“Whether it was putting on concerts or making benefit records, it was the best way both to raise money and raise the action’s profile,” recalls Johnstone. “Singing’s a great way of unifying people, too – and as we said in the title of one of the albums we recorded on: unity creates strength.”

And while the Scottish folk scene at large, which back then was so closely associated with trade unionism, the anti-nuclear movement and other left-wing causes, might seem a far less overtly political place nowadays, the words of leading Middle Eastern journalist Faisal Al Yafai, describing the role of music in the Arab Spring, chime potently in the context of Scotland’s resurgent indigenous and vernacular culture. “The power of the songs is also amplified by being sung in Arabic and set to the musical styles of the individual Arab countries,” he says. “Like the protests themselves, they are organic and unique to the countries, with the music coming out of the traditions of each Arab nation. It reminds its audience that the protesters are of the people, that they are fighting for their own heritage, that the heritage of their past is what they are calling for in the present.”

Protest songs down the years

Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land

Guthrie’s 1940 song, a barbed response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, was revived in the 1960s by Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, and, more recently, by Bruce Springsteen, who sang it during concerts supporting Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign.

Tom Robinson Band: Glad To Be Gay

Released in 1976, Robinson’s defiant song became an anthem for the gay rights movement. Robinson has updated it numerous times since, adding verses about Aids and tabloid homophobia.

The Special AKA: Free Nelson Mandela

An upbeat song of solidarity by Jerry Dammers, who went on to form Artists Against Apartheid in 1985, the year after its release, and was a key player in the organisation of the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert at Wembley in 1988.

Public Enemy: Fight The Power

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One of the most iconic tracks by the Black Panthers of hip-hop, debuted in Spike Lee’s incendiary 1989 movie Do The Right Thing.

PJ Harvey: The Words That Maketh Murder

The first single from Harvey’s widely acclaimed Let England Shake, this set out the 2011 album’s stall with lyrics graphically describing the horrors of war.

• Woody at 100, Celtic Connections’ Woody Guthrie tribute, is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday. World Turned Upside Down is at the same venue, 1 February. The UCS 40th Anniversary Celebrations is at the Old Fruitmarket, 5 February.