In October we announced Shake the Chains, a new touring commission scheduled for February 2017 of new and classic protest songs featuring Nancy Kerr, Findlay Napier, Hannah Martin, Greg Russell & Tim Yates with special guests Peggy Seeger, Chris Wood, Steve Knightley, Martin Simpson and Boff Whalley.
Here for the first time is Greg, Nancy, Hannah and Tim performing Pete Seeger’s If I had a Hammer which you can download for free here.
It was a dissertation on the role of protest song by Greg Russell that was the spark for the project so decided to catch up with Greg to delve a little deeper into the project and his inspiration…
As a politics graduate, did you consider a career path in this field?
Most definitely. And still have ideas of the sort. I have volunteered, shadowed and done some ‘work experience’ in constituency and Westminster offices in little pockets of time when I’ve not been touring. I’m in good touch with loads of people from Uni who have gone on to work for MPs, NGOs, work in research, etc. and who enjoy it immensely and who seem to be having a very interesting time of life! Although, I currently have no urge to change career! I’m having too much fun, and music is going very well. But at some point, perhaps and I think volunteering will continue alongside music for the foreseeable.
The seed for this project was sown in your original dissertation on the role of protest song. When was that? Can you tell us about some of your research and discoveries, were you surprised by any of your findings?
My final year of university, 2014/15. I argued that music can be and has been fundamental to successful social movements. To paraphrase academic John Street (whom everyone should read); music’s association with various social and political movements should not be regarded just as window dressing, but rather that music can actually be integral to those movements. Integral, not a nice added extra. Some people read my dissertation and said; “absolute bollocks”. I think that means it was good, quite frankly. I argued that music is an incredibly powerful medium, and I still think that.
Can you tell us how your dissertation evolved from paper to this tour? What was the initial trigger for doing more?
I love the academic side of my work. Reading. Researching. Thinking. But I also wanted to find more songs and spend more time on it when I’d finished the actual assignment. I also wanted to sing the songs I was reading about and respond, artistically, to songs that I’d found. So I essentially wanted to further my academic work in an artistic way. I didn’t want to put an incredibly ‘academic’ show together, however. Instead, something that was artistically very strong, but didn’t lose its political message.
I had what I felt was a really good concept, but I saw so many hurdles in the way of putting it on the road. I had a meeting with the wonderful Neil Pearson about something completely unrelated in February. Just as we shut our notebooks, I mentioned my idea, and we sat down for another 30 minutes…. I managed to interest him enough to get him involved. Neil’s been vital in turning the concept into a touring show. Neil was key to the project management of ventures such as Sweet Liberties and The Elizabethan Session. It’s been nice to have those skills on board.
Tell us about how you went about selecting artists for the project; some are no strangers to writing with a social conscience, did you have these people in mind from an early stage? What strengths do they bring?
Without sounding horrendously hyperbolic, I think Nancy, Fin and Hannah are three of the best songwriters in the country. And their songwriting and musical output is really quite different from each other I think. So, I basically chose people I wanted to work with. I love what the three of them do in their musical lives, so they were natural choices for me. Tim, I’ve worked with in Nancy’s band and again I think he’s musically brilliant. He really adds value to music I think. As you say, they are no strangers to writing with a social conscience which was a bonus for this project.
The same went for the gig specific guests. I’m so delighted we have Martin Simpson, Peggy Seeger, Chris Wood, Boff Whalley and Steve Knightly with us. How did we go about selecting them? Why wouldn’t you want these people involved!! Not only do I think they are all special performers, they all quite definitely, write, perform and conduct themselves with a strong social conscience. I was delighted that they said yes.
How did you go about writing new material and selecting classic protest songs from around the world?
No final decisions yet. The five of us are in constant dialogue regarding material ideas. People are starting to write and look for songs. There’s some brilliant stuff already. We have a four day residential, all of us in a house in Hertfordshire when we’ll nail final material. That said, people have been really getting into it, which is great. There have been some brilliant ideas going round, touching on a massive variety of both past and present issues and social movements. We’re going to have too much! Cutting material for the final show will be the hardest bit.
Are there any events today that have particularly shaped that outcome?
We’re looking at numerous instances of social movement, resistance and response to social change, throughout history and the modern day. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Suffragette movement, Miner’s Strike, the Industrial Revolution, so on and so on and so on. Looking to more contemporary issues, well, where to start. There’s plenty to write about and inspire. A specific example? Hannah has written a song about the Set Her Free campaign and Yarls Wood Detention Centre.
What can audiences expect?
A great gig! I hope. It’s a gig of political songs. Some with a slightly bigger P than others. Chatting with Chris Wood regarding material, for instance, I think he’ll take a more community, social commentary, ‘what’s happening in society around us’ stance in the songs he’ll sing. In contrast, if a song about CND makes it into the show, that’s a fairly big-P political issue.
I don’t want us to shove politics down people’s throats. We can’t be arrogant about our politics or our views on things. On that note, at times I think political music needs to get over itself. What we can do, however, is highlight issues, both historical and contemporary and raise awareness for things that we, as politically active people, care about. We can’t shy away from big issues. Of course, we all have strong opinions on a lot of things, but we have to be careful about how we present them.
There has been no shortage of articles questioning the role of protest songs in society today. In an article in The Guardian this year, it was suggested that “Protest songs are no longer seen as an effective form of communication,”
Malcolm Taylor said “There’s so much ammunition for them, and if you wrote one that happened to catch on, you could potentially reach millions. But whereas Billy Bragg and his generation would have strapped on their guitars and headed for a street corner to make their point, today’s discontents prefer Facebook and other social media.”
What is your view on this? Do you feel we have an uphill struggle with changing modern mindsets? And do you think there is a lack of protest songs?
I don’t think there’s a lack of protest songs. I don’t think there has ever been a lack of protest songs either. Even a cursory look at people performing under the broad banner of folk music today will show there are loads of people, of all ages, playing and singing songs of resistance and protest. And there always has been. There’s a danger of becoming too insular as well. We may see the protest singer as one person and a guitar, three chords and the bloody truth. But again, even a cursory look at Rock music, hip hop, rap, spoken word performances, etc., shows that people have always been writing, and singing about stuff that’s happening in their lives, and society more broadly. Always have and always will. What’s more, the politics of music can lie in the performance of it; there is loads of music of resistance and protest which doesn’t have an explicit ideological bent to its lyrics. I’d argue.
Why isn’t it more popular? Well. I don’t know. Who knows? There are many possible answers. You can find a lot of literature which basically has the thrust of Major Labels pandering to free market economics and mass tastes has left popular music fairly sanitised. What sells mass amounts of CDs? ‘Boy meets girl and break-up’ songs with a really catchy chorus, or music with a nuanced or downright angry message? That’s not to say ‘protest music’ isn’t ‘good’ music or can’t be catchy of course.
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the likes swing things the other way a bit. Also, even in liberal democracies, there’s perhaps a slight fear to speak out, if you want to make it ‘big’. Take the States for instance, (and let’s not get into tit for tat about its current politics and scrutiny of political systems here), The Dixie Chicks had a seriously, seriously hard time of it in the press and with album sales after a gig at Wembley, not even in America, when they had a go at George Bush.
Am I talking rubbish again? Probably. I don’t want to come across as someone who thinks they’re particularly learned in this field. I’m not. And I wouldn’t pretend to be. I have opinions, like everyone else. Just because I studied it and have read things about it for a fair while doesn’t make my ideas final. I just want to put a project together, which raises and tackles issues that my peers and I feel strongly about. Life is pretty shit for a lot of people, and unfortunately, this theme has always, and seems will always exist. Music is an incredibly powerful tool. It gives people a voice, and hope, and it can make a real change to people’s lives. This project is a celebration of music-making, or at least trying to make people’s lives better.
Shake the Chains is a commission from Folk by The Oak with support from Arts Council England, Help Musicians UK and Folk Alliance International.
St George’s Hall, Bristol – Thursday 23 February. Special guest – Steve Knightley.
Firth Hall, Sheffield – Friday 24 February. Special guest – Martin Simpson.
Snape Maltings, Suffolk – Saturday 25 February. Special guest – Chris Wood
Guildhall, Derby – Sunday 26 February. Special guest – Boff Whalley
St John on Bethnal Green, London – Monday 27 February. Special guests – Peggy Seeger
Find out more here: www.shakethechains.com
Photo Credit: James Fagan