Monday, 4 May 2009

Songs, symbols and political movements

Much of the publicity surrounding the success of the Gurkha justice vote in the House of Commons concentrated on Joanna Lumley. One suspects that the losers were attempting to blame their defeat on the presence of a 1970s icon in the opposing camp, rather than on the weakness of their case. Ms Lumley certainly helped focus publicity on the cause, but having an iconic supporter is no guarantee of success. Bryan Ferry, who was also a cult figure in the 1970s, wasn't able to prevent legislation against hunting with hounds entering the statute book and staying there.

This came back to mind when I was listening to the repeat of BBC Radio 4's "Archive" programme on Pete Seeger (just a few days left on "Listen Again"!). Seeger was asked by Vincent Dowd whether music changed anything, and typically did not answer the question directly. It was left to contributor Robin Denselow, a long-time student of folk music and of political protest, to say that what music did was to make people feel good about themselves. He had no doubt that the civil rights movement in the States felt better for having such anthems as "We shall overcome" and "This land is your land". That the latter did not in itself change anything was evidenced by the fact that fellow-patients of its author Woody Guthrie, by then hospitalised by the chorea which was to kill him, loved the song but few shared his political views. Moreover, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used it on their election campaigns.

Incidentally, Seeger was remarkably optimistic for someone who has just entered his tenth decade. As someone who lived through the depression, the paranoid 1950s and the Cuban missile crisis, he is in a good position to judge. He feels that this is the best time, because of the information revolution. I couldn't resist the thought that, if the World Wide Web had existed fifty years earlier, Seeger would have known enough not to be taken in by Stalin's rhetoric. Joining the Communist party was a cause of much trouble for him until comparatively recently, and it seems to be the only decision in his life he feels apologetic about.

He was grateful to his lefty (his word) reputation for one thing, though; while he was most associated with the communists, he was able to live his private life in seclusion. Now that a new generation recognises him as a standard-bearer for environmentalism, he and his wife have to cope with piles of mail, records and invitations. The latter he turns down (Vincent Dowd was obviously lucky, or persistent, in obtaining the interviews he did). If you want to see me, he says, come to the festivals he and his friends run in the Hudson Valley.

The anthems associated with the green movement are no less political for not being tied to a particular party. Perhaps we may see a revival in the songs of Malvina Reynolds, which were eclipsed in the materialist twentieth-century end years. "Little boxes" and "What have they done to the rain" are as relevant today as when they were written.

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