BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: In Depth  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
Friday, 19 July, 2002, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Favourite political songs
The BBC World Service World Today programme has asked eminent figures to name their favourite political song, for a series starting on 22 July.

From The Land Song to A Long Way to Freedom, their choices reflect very personal and political memories.

Janis McNair from The Centre for Political Song at Glasgow Caledonian University assesses what makes a good political song.

The breadth of contributors to the programme - US Secretary of State Colin Powell, debt relief campaigner Bob Geldof and former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev among others - reflects the scope of the political song itself.

Protest songs, campaign songs, songs with social comment, songs of the Labour movement and traditional patriotic songs are all included.

From songs written by musicians such as Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, to spontaneous songs sung during demonstrations, they are all included.

Bob Dylan, early 1960s
Bob Dylan started out as a protest singer
An often-found element in political song is humour.

President George Bush's administration and the chief executives of Enron have provided ample material for satirical songs of late.

But we must not forget those seemingly apolitical songs, which become politicised.

Multiple genres

Political song ranges through all genres of music throughout all ages and all cultures - it is used as a tool for campaigns and causes across the whole political spectrum.

Take for example Thomas Wright's collection of Political Songs of England from the Reign of John to that of Edward II, which contains some really hard-hitting political diatribes, such as Song Against the Bishops and Song Against the King's Taxes.

Colin Powell, US Secretary of State
Colin Powell chose one of the most famous political songs
There is much evidence of a long tradition of political song with the common denominator of motivating, provoking, stimulating, nourishing, educating, and sustaining all those coming under its powerful spell.

Political songs may be obvious or esoteric. Colin Powell's choice of We Shall Overcome is a classic example of political song.

From its origins as the gospel song, I'll Overcome Some Day, the simplicity and eloquence of the song ensured its popularity and consequently it was adopted as the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement.

For Colin Powell, the song "captures the struggle, it captures the promise, and captures the hope of, as we used to say, the Negro people".

Rallying cry

However, the popularity of the song does not stop there. Not only is it the rallying cry of the left but it is a useful tool for the underdog, whoever that may be.

Former UK Chancellor Kenneth Clarke
Former chancellor Kenneth Clarke chose an old-fashioned Labour song
Colin Powell's other selection The Star Spangled Banner is an interesting choice.

Although it has been the official US national anthem since 1931, it is the alternative versions that have generated more discussion.

Jimi Hendrix's performance at Woodstock in 1969, for example, has been remembered as one of the most important political rock statements.

Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke selected Paddy Ryan's 1938 song, The Man Who Waters the Workers' Beer:

For a strong and healthy working class,
Is the thing that I most fear.
So I reaches my hand for the watering can
And I waters the workers' beer.

Is this an example of the use of humour in political song writing, or a serious attack on capitalist brewers? Probably both.

Edith Cresson, former French FM
Edith Cresson chose a traditional French song
The songs chosen are a combination of the historical and the contemporary.

Former French Prime Minister, Edith Cresson, chose Le Temps des Cerises (Cherry blossom time) written by Jean-Baptiste Clement.

And Mikhail Gorbachev selected Temnaya Noch, written by V Agatov in 1944. This first appeared in the film Dva Boitsa (Two soldiers).

Cultural crossover

Compare those, for example, with Labi Siffre's Something Inside (So Strong), with its opening refrain: "The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become." Or compare them with Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come.

These songs have been immersed into popular Western culture.

No-one can deny the cultural significance of song or that politics and song are historically inseparable.

In the words of Irish Republican, James Connolly: "No political movement is complete without its popular poetical expression.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet president
Mikhail Gorbachev chose a song from a film
"If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the people, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and the hopes, the loves and the hatreds engendered by their struggles."

As Development Officer for the Centre of Political Song, I am intrigued by the political song selections for the series.

My own choice would have to be James Brown's Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud which strongly reflects the power of song to make a political statement:

We'd rather die on our feet
Than be livin' on our knees...
Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.

To listen to the choices made by the World Today's panel of prominent men and women tune into the BBC World Service throughout the week beginning 22 July.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Colin Powell
US Secretary of State - "We shall overcome"
Mikhail Gorbachev
Former Soviet President - "Dark Night"
Pascoal Mocumbi
PM of Mozambique - "Kanimambo Frelio"
Jose Ramos Horta
Foreign Minister, East Timor - "Ai Timor"
Edith Cresson
Former French PM - "Le Temps des Cerises"
Michael Foot
Former leader British Labour Party - "The Land Song"
Bob Geldof
Musician and debt relief campaigner - "Strange Fruit"
Albert Mazibuko
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South Africa - "A Long Way to Freedom"
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


E-mail this story to a friend

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes