I can vividly remember the first time I heard The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. This song/story of a suburban housewife was electrifying and its feminist message was part of a transformation at university from girl with vague ideas about gender politics to full-fledged feminist and politically engaged adult.
That’s the power of protest songs: Sometimes they cut through the headlines to grab us viscerally.
This week ONE.org launched the global music campaign “agit8” to highlight the power of music in social change. The timing couldn’t be better. We’re in the midst of a period when images of protesters throwing rocks or demonstrating against riot police with tear gas are regular sights. It’s life-affirming to consider how art and music can galvanize us as well.
“Music is a powerful tool in galvanizing people around an issue, said Ed Sheeran, who recorded a new version of Bob Dylan’s classic, “Masters of War” for agit8. “There’s no better way to get your point across than to put it in a beautiful song.”
In addition, the G8 is taking place 17-18 June in Northern Ireland. Times are tough and there’s been a lot of talk about whether the UK should be spending less money on poverty and hunger programmes abroad. On some level, I used to think this too.
Then, when I was Ethiopia, I saw how even small investments reap huge benefits. Kids — hungry to learn — get teachers and schoolbooks and simple science equipment from modest funds. Women and their babies in rural areas learn how to farm healthy crops, raise goats and feed their families nutritious meals. And politically, this helps create stable, healthy countries — not ones wracked with disease, ignorance and poverty.
As he goes into the G8 meetings, we need to let David Cameron know that funds to fight poverty globally are a priority. Also a priority is more transparency with companies who operate in poor countries to ensure the deals they strike bring jobs and wealth, rather than corruption and exploitation.
We can raise money. But with this ONE campaign, we can raise awareness of how even through song we demonstrate we are engaged with what our country and others are doing.
So watch the video on the agit8 site, share them, tweet a message with a link, sign up to be part of ONE.org.
These songs given new voice through different artists.
Here are my favourites from the agit8 site
1. The Ghost of Tom Joad — Elvis Costello and Mumford & Sons sing poverty and the disaffected in this song inspired by ‘Grapes of Wrath’
2. Big Yellow Taxi — an environmental protest song originally by Joni Mitchell
3. This Land Is Your Land — Woody Guthrie’s folk song response to the unrealistic God Bless America
4. For What It’s Worth — Kid Rock gives this mournful song, associated with disillusionment with the Vietnam War
Then there are others that stir up so much emotion in me that every time I hear them tears come to my eyes:
5. Mercy Mercy Me – Among his many powerful political songs, this Marvin Gaye one is so smooth and mellow, for a moment you might think it’s about making sweet love, when in fact it’s a haunting indictment of our treatment of the environment (Find it here on Spotify)
6. Fast Car – Tracy Chapman’s song about the struggle against poverty
7. You Fill Up My Senses – John Denver’s lyrics are about a woman, and the inspiration was exhilaration from a ski trip. In truth, so many of Denver’s songs (Sunshine on My Shoulders, Country Roads) are a celebration of the natural world that feel like a call to arms against its despoilment.
8. Jake leg music – The Jake Leg was a paralysis of legs caused by poison put in 19th century Jamaican ginger patent medicine (“jake). It affected between 30,000 to 50,000 men, women and children but the incident was bypassed by history for the most part. The story was told, however, through folk music.
9. Strange Fruit – A classic, chilling anti-racism song by one of America’s most famous singers. Billie Holiday vividly paints a terrible picture of lynching and first sang and recorded this song in 1939. Lynchings were still happening in the American south in the late ’60s (!).
10. Fight the Power – It’s hard to believe now just how controversial Public Enemy and this song were back in the late ’80s — the sound and the lyrics seemed utterly new. It was the source of endless discussions on my campus as was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which featured the song. It was all part of this new thing called “rap”, back when the genre’s hallmarks were politics and the concerns of African-Americans, rather than getting women, using drugs and brandishing weapons.
More protest music:
A playlist by Karen Walrond, a parent blogger from the US who was on our Ethiopia trip.
She’s highlighted some real gems, including an amazing protest song about prostitutes who made their living near US Air Force bases in Trinidad.