Protest has a complicated relationship with mainstream politics. Governments and political parties are frequently the targets of social movements and demonstrations, such as the recent Anti-government protests after the 2015 General Election. Political parties and politicians often appear as the subject of protests stickers. In London, the frequency of these kind of stickers increased in the weeks before the recent General Election. Generally, the streets of London did not agree with Britain’s voters.
This weekend, I went to the Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time. I had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, but it also got me thinking. Due to my chronic inability to stop relating absolutely everything I do and see to the topic of my PhD, I started thinking about the role of music in protest and contentious politics. Obviously folk music has a long history, and is a time-honoured way of expressing the whole range of human emotion, including anger, resentment and discontent.
Modern folk musicians play a key role in preserving traditional folk songs. Many bands and artists at the festival performed songs that have been around for a long time, and commemorated some of the more contentious periods in history. For example the Welsh band Calan performed a song about a fierce battle between the red dragon of Wales and the white dragon of England. The white dragon was soundly beaten, the song being a remnant of times when the relationship between the two countries was not quite as cordial.
Performers also used music to commemorate important figures in the history of protest. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African choir, sung a song about the achievements of Nelson Mandela. Music and song has been used for centuries to memorialise great people, acts, and events, and the tradition continues to this day.
However the festival was not entirely focused on the past. Musicians used original songs to voice critique about the current state of society. For example Pokey LaFarge, an American singer, performed a song decrying the state of the American healthcare system. Before performing the song, he said that it was important to him that his opinions on the issue were ‘on record’, and perhaps in several hundred years the song will still be remembered and performed by other musicians like him. This also brings to mind more popular artists like Bruce Springsteen and Morrissey, whose politics permeate their music.
The aural is a factor which is frequently overlooked in human geography, although there are some who are trying to address that imbalance (see for example the work of Anja Kanngieser (http://anjakanngieser.com/). I think the archives are particularly vulnerable to a silent perspective on life, as our ability to capture sound is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the hushed atmosphere of the archive, it is easy to forget the sounds and noises that would have accompanied the events you are reading about. It is important to bear in mind that protest, and life in general, does not take place in silence, far from it in fact. Music and sound play a key role in protest, be it in the form of chants, political song lyrics, or simply just loud, upbeat music to lift spirits and get a protest noticed. The Cambridge Folk Festival reminded me that life is loud and music is powerful, and that is a lesson I will try to hang on to.