Agit Disco 5 by Peter Haining
BACKGROUND NOTES by Peter Haining
Evidently Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie stood shoulder to shoulder in their fight against Fascism and their relentless pursuit of social and racial equality but many of their clarion calls for freedom from oppression have been turned around and misappropriated over time. A prime example of this is Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land which, to my mind, epitomises his naive idealism through the words of a battle hymn for everyman’s right to a piece of land upon which to express his independent spirit and freedom from tyranny. Woody’s notions of self-determination have been contorted cynically to support the agenda of rightwing nationalists who perceive the same song as a jingoistic anthem promoting capitalism, imperialism and American hegemony. Guthrie, in particular, perpetuated the theme of worksongs, railing against unjust employers and overly enthusiastic oligarchs. This is a rich seam of protest, one that surely runs as far back as the origins of slavery, serfdom and the disenfranchisement of the working class. So the central protest themes of war and toil are easily illustrated musically and lyrically but what of other forms of protest – voices against apartheid for example? One would have to be a polyglot to fully comprehend the sentiments behind songs from other nations such as Africa and those of South America to grasp whether they espouse dissent or not but those English lyrics in support of the struggle against oppression do warrant a place here.
My personal selection is taken solely from The Attic Archive, a collection of artworks, correspondence, ephemera and the data of my life. This contains some examples of Gaelic music, both traditional and contemporary, but I could find nothing overtly politicised and anti-establishment within it. Perhaps there is a fundamental core reason for this, one that lies in the fact that the Gaeltacht is predominantly Catholic whereas the notion of protest is quintessentially Protestant, linguistically and characteristically. Given all that has befallen the Gaelic people, from forced evictions to extreme poverty and marginalisation, one would expect to find within their songs and music a rich seam of dissent and smouldering resentment but I am unaware of it, however, I hope that through this cd someone with a deeper knowledge of Gaelic song might think to enlighten me. I almost included a Capercaillie number entitled Beautiful Wasteland, which addresses environmental concerns, but I found it so anodyne as to be an affront to the principles of protest. For similar reasons I omitted other Scottish protest songs within my collection but well I recall many extremely potent rallying cries from the late 1960s that urged the populace to resist nuclear proliferation and the siting of Polaris on the Clyde – regrettably I did not collect them. Somehow making mention of them, along with the many similarly strident demands for independence, gives them a presence and urges anyone interested enough to do a Google-ised piece of research.
I am grateful to Stefan Szczelkun for inviting me to compile this brief – I could have made it a double cd – selection for it has brought about a reappraisal of my music collection as well as a reassessment of the meaning, and origins, of protest through song along with a contemplation on the peddlers of protest – those who mediate between people with a legitimate claim to scream out against injustice and an audience of those who, in all conscience, should do something to ease suffering and end oppression.
AGIT DISCO 5 Playlist
Track 1 – Where Have All The Flowers Gone? – Pete Seeger – taken from an audio cassette which, as far as I can remember, was pirated from a commercial cassette of a live concert or a series of live concerts. Seeger, like many of his contemporaries is at his most powerful when taking his message directly to the people. His anthems of dissent when sung communally become hymns for the oppressed, disenfranchised and impoverished.
Track 2 – The Flooers o’ the Forest – Davey Robertson - from a cassette entitled Lowland Souch which I pirated in the 1990s. Robertson is a little-known folklorist and songwriter whose defence of the tradition is somewhat obvious from his delivery of this song written by Jean Elliot in 1756. It is a reworking of an older lament for the death of 10,000 Scotsmen who fell at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and is set to an air that was first recorded in the John Skene of Halyards manuscript of 1615-’25.
Track 3 – The Big Muddy – Dick Gaughan – this spirited live performance was given during Celtic Connections and recorded by Radio Scotland in the late 1990s. The explosive seditious quality of Gaughan’s delivery rarely, if ever, comes across in his, or any similar, studio recordings which, despite the performer’s integrity and commitment, sanitise and make banal even the hardest anti-establishment pro-revolutionary lyrics.
Track 4 – The Great Conspiracy – Ewan MacColl - from an album entitled, Items of News, released on Blackthorne Records (BR 1067) 1986. MacColl was arguably one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the British folksong revival whose credentials are impeccable and discography impressive. He married Pete Seeger’s half sister, Peggy, who features on vocals. MacColl has this to say in the album’s cover notes – ‘ So we are propagandist. We propagandise against racism, apartheid, war, nuclear proliferation, the destruction of the environment and the appropriation of our country’s wealth by a privileged minority.’ Sentiments which surely define vocal protest in general and the tenor of this personal selection in particular.
Track 5 – More Than A Paycheck – Sweet Honey in the Rock – from Breaths…The Best Of – Cooking Vinyl (Cook 008). This song sums up the workers’ dilemma – to work for a subsistence wage in appalling unhealthy conditions or starve – and underscores the employers’ tyranny and oppression which is exercised through coercion – wittingly and despicably blackmailing the workers into accepting conditions that he would not expect his own kith and kin to work under. This theme is perpetuated in various forms and guises throughout this cd.
Track 6 – Taken from an audio cassette copy of an LP that was released in the early 1980s celebrating the rich heritage of Dundee songs. This and the following worksong comment on the poor conditions experienced in the jute industry, one of the city’s key sources of wealth and trade.
Track 7 – The Jute Mill Song was penned by Mary Brooksbank, a Dundee jute mill worker, and was first recorded by Ewan MacColl.
Track 8 – Rhynie – Jock Duncan – from Duncan’s first cd – Ye Shine Whaur Ye Stan! – Springthyme Records (SPRCD 1039) recorded in 1996 when the singer was 70 years of age. This song laments the bad working conditions on a farm called Rhynie in the north east of Scotland, an area which proudly boasts a vast heritage of bothy ballads – songs made up by the men who laboured for pitiful wages on farms and were accommodated in impoverished bothies on the premises. Mostly these ballads are anonymous in character and were transmitted orally from farm to farm long before anyone thought to collect and publish them.
Track 9 – Do Re Mi – Woody Guthrie – this has been sourced from Dust Bowl Ballads – Rounder Records (1040) 1988 – but it is included in most Guthrie anthologies and compilations.
Track 10 – Only a Pawn in Their Game – Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Columbia Records (8905). It is virtually impossible to find fault with this album, which stands as a milestone in Dylan’s journey as wordsmith/troubadour and one could easily include six of the tracks from it in this subjective collection. Not only is it entirely appropriate to follow Woody with Dylan but it is also apt to do so with a song from the album that marks the zenith of his, and western culture’s, protest period.
Track 11 – What Did You Learn In School Today? – Tom Paxton – Ramblin’ Boy – Elektra Records 1965. Paxton very clearly belongs to the lineage of Seeger/Guthrie and carries in his demeanour and lyrics the mythology of itinerancy gained through serving a hobo’s apprenticeship, however, his autobiographical reality charts college and military service at the start of his career path. I have chosen this song because of its ironic use of satire, which the singer excels in. To witness Paxton live is to participate in an evangelical performance of community singing, which may only be bested by Pete Seeger’s concert style.
Track 12 – And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda – The Pogues – taken from a pirated audio cassette copy of Rum Sodomy & The Lash (1985). This song, one of the definitive anti-war anthems, by Eric Bogle, a Scots singer/songwriter now resident in Australia, has been covered by nearly every folkie-type singer keen to exhibit their credentials as a politicised anti-establishment leftie but, for me, this version is the most effective and emotional of them all. Whether it is Shane MacGowan’s Irishness or the simmering venom tainting his voice that carries the sentiment, I don’t know – only that it works.
Track 13 – No Man’s Land – June Tabor – anthology – Music Club (MCCD 126). Another fine highly-charged emotional anti-war song from the pen of Eric Bogle. Written in 1976 it is also known as The Green Fields of France and/or Willie McBride. Tabor’s female pathos gives the sentiment a more meaningful resonance as she drives the lyric home like a nail through the heart.
Track 14 – The Land o’ the Leal – from the same Celtic Connections recording as the previous track. Gaughan epitomises the quintessential voice of protest – dramatic and full of passion – and for that reason, coupled with the emotive strength of the lyrics, I have indulged myself by including another song from Scotland’s most forceful vocal sledge-hammer.
Track 15 – This Land Is Your Land – Woody Guthrie – from Bound For Glory – Folkways FA2481 – with narration by Will Geer.
Track 16 – We Shall Overcome – Pete Seeger – taken from the same source as the previous Seeger track. It provides an overwhelming note of eternal optimism and hope upon which to end.