A Musical Celebration of Subversion

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In 2009 the British National Party took to promoting English folk music on its website. One particularly favoured song was Steve Knightley’s Roots:

When the Indians, Asians, Afro-Celts
It’s in their blood, below their belt
They’re playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we’ve got wrong?
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
They’re never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
They need roots…

Although Knightley was dismayed by this “betrayal” and “violation” of his “invention”, he should have realised that such imagery is in perfect harmony with the discourse of fascism. In 1934 the Nazi musicologist Fritz Stein maintained that “as long as it remained undiluted and true to its German roots, folk music was an essential means of gaining respect abroad.” Furthermore, the juxtaposition of “they” and “we” in Knightley’s verse, although purportedly privileging the “Indians, Asians, Afro-Celts [sic]”, is in fact a careless gesture of exclusion.

One consequence of the BNP’s opportunistic advocacy of English folk music was the foundation of Folk Against Fascism (FAF). Describing itself as “neither left-of-centre nor right-of-centre”, this organisation (which appears to be moribund at present) claimed to be “simply a coalition of people who care passionately about British folk culture and don’t want to see it turned into something it’s not: a marketing tool for extremist politics.”

Both of these well-meaning responses leave something to be desired, and that something has now been provided by the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow , “a collective of singers and songwriters: Frankie Armstrong, Roy Bailey, Robb Johnson, Reem Kelani, Sandra Kerr, Grace Petrie, Leon Rosselson, Janet Russell, Peggy Seeger, Jim Woodland plus one socialist magician, Ian Saville.” With no feeble nod to being “neither right nor left”, this collective claims to be “part of the resistance to a capitalism that functions only on behalf of the wealthy, that aims to shrink the public sphere and privatise public services,… and that is destructive to the planet.”

Many of the 30 tracks of the collective’s new double album, Celebrating Subversion, deal forcefully with such specifically British issues as Thatcherism, Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s views on “the benefits lifestyle”, the dismantling of the National Health Service, the occupation of St Paul’s, the sinking of the Titanic (as metaphor for “the practical outcomes of capitalism”), looting during the 2011 London riots, British arms exports, the Peterloo Massacre, and the suffragette Emily Davison, martyred just a century ago.

However, Celebrating Subversion is not thereby celebrating another form of national navel-gazing, but places these issues in a firmly internationalist context. Robb Johnson’s Be Reasonable adapts the May ’68 slogan (itself adapted from Che Guevara) “Soyons réalistes – exigeons l’impossible!” (“Let’s be realistic – demand the impossible!”). Frankie Armstrong’s Encouragement translates a song by the former East German dissident (or former dissident) Wolf Biermann (“Don’t let your strength die. / Don’t let them make you bitter in these bitter times…”). Armstrong also sings My Personal Revenge by Nicaraguan songwriter Luis Godoy, based on words by the Sandanista leader Tomás Borge (“My personal revenge will be to show you / The kindness in the eyes of my people / Who have always fought relentlessly in battle / And been generous and firm in victory.”). Leon Rosselson’s classic Song of the Olive tree, sung here by the incomparable Manchester-born Palestinian Reem Kelani and introduced by a passionate buzuq solo from Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, pays homage to the living symbol of Palestinian sumud (steadfastness and resistance). Kelani sings in Arabic on the rousing Babour zammar (The Ship Sounded its Horn), a Tunisian “migration anthem” from the 1970s, here dedicated to the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation instigated the Tunisian revolution and hence the so-called Arab Spring. Bread and Roses, a song by Dubliner Martin Whelan inspired by a 1911 poem by American James Oppenheim, is sung by Roy Bailey who also gives us They all sang Bread and Roses by the contemporary American  civil rights, labour and community organiser Si Kahn. The collection ends with Proletarian Lullaby by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler: “And you, my son, and I and all our people / Must stand together to unite the human race / That unequal classes no more / Will divide the human race.”

Rosselson was born in 1934, and both Roy Bailey and Peggy Seeger in 1935. The latter, daughter of the classical composer Ruth Crawford-Seeger, moved to Britain in 1956 to escape anti-communist hysteria in the USA, eventually marrying the socialist singer-songwriter Ewan McColl. Her contributions to this album are hard acts to follow; Doggone, Occupation is On is an adaptation (partly by Dave Lippman) of the dustbowl classic Doggone, the Panic is on by Hesekiah Jenkins, Progress Train (Seeger) is as fast and furious as the vehicle it evokes (“The human brain’s an intelligent fool / Build you a hospital, build you a school / You wake up the very next day / The progress train took it all away.”), while the unaccompanied Peacock Street, composed by “pistol-packin’ momma” Aunt Molly Jackson, exudes a mixture of pathos, anger and droll humour (p)reminiscent of Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz (“I was cold, I was hungry, it was late in the fall / I knocked down some old big shot, took his money, clothes and all.”).

At the other end of the generational scale, feisty Leicester-born Grace Petrie found her voice in 2010 with the election of the Tory/Liberal coalition government. Her Protest Singer Blues asks “How many deaths will it take ’til we know / Too many people have died?”, decides that “There’s no answer blowin’ in the wind”, and concludes: “How many times can a man turn his head / And pretend he just doesn’t see? / ‘Cause I’m ashamed, the times they have a-changed / And a better world was not to be.”

The parody of Dylan is cheeky, but surely to the point: “neither right-of-centre nor left-of-centre”, his early songs modified his mentor Woody Guthrie’s robust anti-fascism into a vague, undifferentiated protest that became the hallmark of a generation unwilling to translate that stance into overt political action. Petrie and the rest of her Anti-Capitalism Roadshow colleagues reach back to earlier traditions of activism, and reach across national and sectarian boundaries in a spirit of generous solidarity. The result would make an ideal Christmas or New Year’s present for anyone willing to be provoked and inspired as well as entertained.

Celebrating Subversion costs Stg £15 (plus postage) can be ordered by emailing info@capitalistroadshow.co.uk, where you can pay by paypal. You can also buy it from their website.

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