The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns

Ballad of Johnny Longstaff Cover

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is the latest album by folk trio The Young’uns. The album tells the story of Johnny, a poor working-class man from Stockton who went to London on a hunger march when he was just 15. He took part in many of the protests and campaigns in the mid-1930s, including the Battle of Cable Street, and at the age of just 17 volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. But The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is much more than just an album. When performed live, it is a powerful combination of songs, oral history, and archival sources such as photos and newspapers. I went to see the performance on the first night of the tour, at Middleton Hall in Hull, East Yorkshire.

Folk fans know The Young’uns for their beautiful harmonies and political lyrics that don’t pull any punches. Some of their songs are hopeful, uplifting stories that restore faith in humanity. Others are angry, tragic, or defiant, but all of them are thoughtful. Like The Young’uns’ previous albums, the Ballad of Johnny Longstaff contains a mix of such songs. ‘The Great Tomorrow’ is a stirring tribute to international solidarity, ‘Paella’ is a comic song about Johnny encountering Spanish food for the first time, and ‘Ay Carmella’ is a poignant account of conditions in Spain during the Civil War. Interspersed with the songs are clips of Johnny himself talking about his life, and photos, newspaper articles, and other historical sources projected onto the back of the stage.

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The Young’uns performing The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. The performance makes use of a range of historical sources, like this photo of Johnny and his friends before he left London to fight in the Spanish Civil War (Photo: Mike Ainscoe).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Imperial War Museum recorded oral history interviews with many of those who had traveled from the UK to Spain as volunteers for the Spanish Republic. The interviews are all available online for anyone to listen to; I used some of them whilst researching the Battle of Cable Street during my PhD. Johnny Longstaff was one of the men who was interviewed. The Young’uns’ Sean Cooney became captivated by Johnny’s story after his son, Duncan, told them about his father at a gig in 2015. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff was written with the aid of that interview, Johnny’s unpublished memoirs, his annotated collection of Spanish War literature, his personal collection of photos, and the memories and anecdotes of his family. It is an excellent example of the captivating stories that can be uncovered with meticulous archival and historical research, as well as the range of sources that can be used for this kind of biographical research.

As a historical geographer of protest, I already knew quite a bit about the events Johnny took part in, but I often wonder how much ‘ordinary’ people know. Leaving the auditorium, I listened to other audience members talking about the show. I heard several people saying things like “Well I knew about x, but I didn’t know y.” It was great to hear that people got so much out of it. I recently reviewed Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo, about the 1819 Peterloo massacre when soldiers in Manchester killed and injured dozens of peaceful protesters. The film is educational, but it is not very entertaining. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is both. It isn’t just a wonderful performance, it also educates people about the anti-fascist history of the second half of the 1930s. It is a great example of how creative methods can be used to make history accessible. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff will undoubtedly reach more people than my PhD thesis ever will (having said that, I am more than happy to share my 400+ page beast if you would like to read it), and what is the point of doing such research if you can’t find a way to communicate the results with people? As far right groups gain popularity across the world, it seems more important than ever that we don’t forget this crucial period of European history.

To me, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is everything that good art should be. It is engaging, it teaches you something, and it makes you think. I don’t know if The Young’uns have any more performances planned, but I really hope so. It is a show that deserves to be seen.

The American Dream and Global Citizenship: Politics through Music at Wembley Stadium

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Opened in 2007, the current Wembley Stadium is visually impressive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This month, I have been lucky enough to see two concerts at Wembley Stadium in the space of two weeks. On the 5th of June, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and on the 16th, I saw the second of Coldplay’s 4-day run. They are two very different artists, with two very different performance styles.  However, both used the opportunity  of 70,000(ish) strong audiences to promote political viewpoints, although the two viewpoints, and the way they were were presented, were also very different.

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Wembley Stadium has a capacity of 90,000, but this is reduced to about 70000 for concerts. This is the stage set up for Bruce Springsteen’s concert on the 5th June 2016 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Bruce Springsteen has always been known for his vocal political stance. A liberal, he has campaigned against nuclear power and on behalf of Amnesty International, supported labour unions and gay rights and gay marriage, and endorsed two Democrat presidential candidates, John Kerry and Barack Obama. He also uses his music to explore political ideas, particularly class relations and the impact of economic recession on American towns and cities. Songs such as Born in the USA (1984), The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), and Death to my Hometown (2012) are powerful criticisms of some of the biggest faults in American society. Springsteen’s live performances are legendary; he has been known to perform for four hours straight. The staging is simple, he does not use elaborate lighting or pyrotechnics, he allows the music to speak for itself. He is a consummate showman; he performs every song with the energy of a finale, and his skill and passion are obvious.

For me, one of the things that makes Springsteen’s political songs so powerful is the way that they continue to resonate with current events, sometimes even decades after they were first recorded. Towards the end of the concert, Springsteen performed American Skin (41 Shots). First performed at Madison Square Gardens at the end of a 1999-2000 world tour, the song was written about Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old who was shot dead outside of his apartment block in the Bronx by four New York City police officers. They fired 41 bullets at the unarmed man. In 2012, Springsteen dedicated a performance of the song to Trayvon Martin, who was killed by police in Florida that year. With the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, it is painfully apparent that the song’s lyric “you can get killed just for living in your American skin” is just as true now as it ever was.

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Springsteen does not use elaborate staging at his live concerts, allowing his music and performance do the talking (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Coldplay use elaborate visual effects in their live performances (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

To say Coldplay’s style of performance is not as understated as Springsteen’s is putting it mildly. The show was visually spectacular, including pyrotechnics, videos, and light-up wristbands which are given to every member of the audience creating a beautiful effect throughout the stadium. Their performance may be more dramatic than Springsteen’s but their politics is not as obvious. Their lyrics are not overtly political, and the band members are not as clear about their personal politics as Springsteen.

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Love buttons, which were handed out at Coldplay’s concerts. The band is a supporter of the Love Button Movement (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

You could find politics at Coldplay’s concert however, if you looked closely. As you entered the stadium, you were offered the wristbands and some button badges with the word ‘love’ on them. On closer inspection, the buttons turned out to have 3 web addresses on the rim; www.coldplay.com, www.globalcitizen.org, and www.lovebutton.org. The Coldplay address is fairly self-explanatory, but the other two I had to follow up. Global Citizen is a website that encourages people to take action to fight extreme poverty and inequality; safe, legal, actions like sharing videos, signing petitions and donating money. The Love Button Movement is a kind of ‘pay it forward’ campaign- it encourages participants to give strangers love buttons and overcome the “fears that keep us from seeing what we have in common.” This upbeat attitude fits in with Coldplay’s performance style and the buoyant tone of the band’s last 2 albums. It would be easy to sneer at them for this approach, this kind of politics can be seen as naive and overly optimistic. However, I am inclined to agree with journalist Richard Bradley when he says “We have plenty of bands singing about why George Bush is a crummy president, and that’s fine. Let Coldplay sing about love. Isn’t that political enough?” Let Coldplay promote global citizenship and love, sometimes a little positivity is exactly what I need.

Both Global Citizen and the Love Button Movement take a positive approach to alternative politics which is very different to Springsteen’s scathing critique of the American dream- the campaigns provide small, manageable actions that people can take to make the world a better place, whilst Springsteen’s lyrics can sometimes leave me feeling a little hopeless. I am not going to say I prefer one approach over the other- I think both Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay are fantastic musicians and performers, and I admire the fact that they both use their influential position as incredibly popular acts to try and make a difference. There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the old, if a little distasteful, saying goes.

Sources and Further Reading

Bradley, Richard. “The Politics of Coldplay.” The Huffington Post. Last modified 25th May 2011, accessed 21st June 2016. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bradley/the-politics-of-coldplay_b_2671.html

Kershaw, Tom. “The Religion and Political Views of Bruce Springsteen.” The Hollowverse. Last modified 15th May 2012, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at  http://hollowverse.com/bruce-springsteen/

Kershaw, Tom. “The Religion and Political Views of Chris Martin.” The Hollowverse. Last modified 15th May 2012, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at http://hollowverse.com/chris-martin/ 

Pearlman, Mischa. “The 11 Best Political Songs by Bruce Springsteen.” TeamRock. Last modified 31st August 2015, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at http://teamrock.com/feature/2015-08-31/the-11-best-political-songs-by-bruce-springsteen

 

We are the Angry Mob: the Politics of the Kaiser Chiefs

The Kaiser Chiefs perfoming at the O2 arena in February 2014 (Photo by author).

The Kaiser Chiefs perfoming at the O2 arena in February 2014 (Photo by author).

Last week I saw the Kaiser Chiefs live at the O2. It was a fantastic concert, and nostalgic for me, because I last saw them live back in 2007 when I was a teenager in Brighton. But it also brought home to me the political nature of many of the Kaiser Chief lyrics.

The Kaiser Chiefs have been making music for over a decade now (Photo: Danny North)

The Kaiser Chiefs have been making music for over a decade now (Photo: Danny North)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, the Kaiser Chiefs are an indie rock band from Leeds that formed in 2003. They are named after a South African football club, the first club of an ex-Leeds United Captain. The band consists of Ricky Wilson, Andrew White, Nick Baines, Simon Rix, and Vijay Mistry, who replaced the previous drummer in 2012. The band has had a successful decade, releasing 5 studio albums, 2 of which reached number 1 in the UK. They have also done several memorable live performances, including opening the Live-8 festival in Philadelphia in 2005, and performing at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. They have also been one of my favourite bands since I was 13.

We are the angry mob

We read the papers every day

We like who we like

We hate who we hate

But we’re all so easily swayed

The Angry Mob, 2007

The Kaiser Chiefs have always had critical lyrics in their songs, and they haven’t been very subtle about it. With songs such as I Predict a Riot from the 2005 album Employment and The Angry Mob and Everything is Average Nowadays from 2007’s Yours Truly, Angry Mob, a sense a resentment is obvious. It doesn’t seem obvious to me exactly who, or what, this anger is directed at though, except perhaps modern society in general.

They tell you day after day

To make your way through the factory gates

‘Til they can’t break your will anymore

You are contractually tied to death’s door

The Factory Gates, 2014

The Kaiser Chief's most recent album, 'Education, Education, Education and War.'

The Kaiser Chief’s most recent album, ‘Education, Education, Education and War.’

More recently however, their critique has become more directed. The title of their most recent album Education, Education, Education and War (2014) is a clear critique of Tony Blair, British Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007. It is well known that Blair’s priorities for his time in office were “education, education, education,” and he is blamed by many for the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. The album also includes the poem The Occupation, written by Ricky Wilson and narrated by Bill Nighy. It is a modern anti-war poem inspired by the centenary of the first world war. It tells the story of an assault by a superpower on Hell, but could be applied to almost any recent conflict, and the result is a damning critique of war and imperial attitudes.

The Occupation

The occupation of Damnation Eternal

Decreed by Commander in Chief

Won by the infantry, led by the Colonel

Came at costs that would beggar belief

As they marched upon the inferno

And the infidels dropped to their knees

Millions of civilians crammed in pavilions

Came to watch it on big screen TVs

The population of Damnation Eternal

Went from millions to thousands to one

The survivor then wrote in his journal

“Why on Earth did it take them so long?”

Within weeks we constructed a pipeline

Within years we’ll have run the place dry

It’ll just about last us our lifetime

So it’s hip hip hoorays and high fives

On the factory floor there’s a whisper

We built cannons before it began

But the engines still pumping its piston

And the turbine still whirring its fan

The assembly line spits out the surplus

Into purpose built lead lined white vans

Rockets stockpile as ministry workers

Fill their pockets with all that they can

Secret meetings are held in the senate

What to do with this excess supply

There’s a plan to abandon the planet

One V.I.P at a time

So we get up each day and have breakfast

Read the news and the weather forecast

As we sit and we open our letters

And we pray that it won’t be our last.

Words by Ricky Wilson, narrated by Bill Nighy, 2014.

This is not the first time that I have written about the ability of music to make a political statement. Music, songs and chants have always been an important part of protest, and the popularity of modern musicians means they have quite a lot of power to publicise their point of view and influence people. The Kaiser Chiefs’ music has evolved over the last 10 years, but they have never been afraid to use it to express their opinions, which I think only adds to their appeal.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Adam Sherwin. ‘Kaiser Chiefs and Bill Nighy write modern day anti-war poem for the World War One centenary’ The Independent. Last modified 6th march 2014, accessed 16th February 2015.  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/kaiser-chiefs-and-bill-nighy-write-modern-day-antiwar-poem-for-the-world-war-one-centenary-9174405.html

Protest Songs at the Cambridge Folk Festival

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The Cambridge Folk Festival 2014 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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Pokey LaFarge at the Cambridge Folk Festival 2014 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.