‘We’ll turn things upside down!’ Project tracks 420 years of English protest songs 

Published by  News archive

On 20th Sep 2022

Protestors holding placards.
Getty images

Songs objecting to vaccinations, lamenting environmental change and complaining about politicians didn’t originate in the last decade – or even the last century. In fact, according to a research project from the University of East Anglia (UEA), English protest songs have been a vital form of political communication for more than 400 years.

Our Subversive Voice, a project from UEA and the universities of Reading and Warwick showcases English protest music over time. 

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project has catalogued 750 English protest songs from 1600–2020. These feature in a website, www.oursubversivevoice.com, which includes the 250 most distinctive songs along with case studies and interviews with musicians (Billy Bragg, Peggy Seeger, Chumbawamba and more), academics and others. 

Selecting the title of any song on the website leads to its individual page, which includes information such as the lyrics and, where possible, a recording. Case studies look at everything from what motivates writers of protest songs – structurally, socially and personally – to legendary venues and women’s protest song writing.  

The protest song is often said to have been born in the United States in the 1940s–50s, to have flourished in the ’60s and ’70s, and to have faded into obscurity in recent years. This project, however, shows its origins go back more than 400 years to complaints King James was selling honours. 

UEA’s Prof John Street, the project’s lead researcher, said: “When people think of protest songs they probably think first of American music, and then perhaps of the great tradition of Irish or Scottish protest songs. We wanted to find out what things would look like – and sound like – if you focus just on England, especially given the current attention given to ideas of Englishness.”  

Complaints at the behaviour of the political class were as common in 1600s England as they are today. The researchers found lots of songs about religion, war and poverty, as well as a 17th-century environmentalist protest about draining the East Anglian fens. Recent songs include one protesting Amazon’s working conditions. 

Songs opposing vaccination were heard in the 1800s, just as they have been in the last three years (Van Morrison’s No More Lockdown). From 17th century ballads lamenting beer price hikes and excessive spending on ‘starched ruffs’, to passionate contemporary performances decrying the Grenfell fire, Brexit and police brutality, Our Subversive Voice covers the spectrum. 

“One thing we found across the centuries,” said Prof Alan Finlayson, a project co-investigator from UEA, “was people complaining about those in charge: monarchs, military commanders and MPs. For over 400 years people have been singing about their rulers’ self-indulgence, laziness and lack of concern for ‘ordinary’ people.”  

There are surprises in what the list includes – and excludes. In are Rule, Britannia!, God Save the King and Jerusalem, and Edith Nesbit, Noël Coward, Benjamin Britten and Joan Armatrading, keeping company with Sault, Dave and Kae Tempest. Out are some of punk’s songs and singers.   

UEA Senior Research Associate Oskar Cox Jensen said Our Subversive Voice has uncovered “songs that are prejudiced – anti-Semitic, xenophobic, fascist – or politically reactionary. But these are actually astonishingly rare.  

“We found that the real revelation was the rich influence of other traditions – from the Black Atlantic to French communists, and migrants from right across the Commonwealth. Across the centuries, we hear people fighting to give voice to an Englishness that is proudly diverse, progressive and subversive.”  

Co-investigator Dr Angela McShane of the University of Warwick said: “Although the purposes of making protest songs might have been similar over the centuries, the stakes were very different for those that wrote and sang them. In earlier centuries performers and publishers were imprisoned, and one singer-songwriter was executed for sedition, while in later periods, fortunes could be made from protest songs that became popular.” 

With the London event celebrating 420 years of English protest music, Prof Finlayson said: “What could be more appropriate as we head into what is sure to be an economically challenging and politically fraught winter when discontent might turn into protest?”   

For more information on the project, visit: www.oursubversivevoice.com.

To find out about other events, check the project’s Twitter account: @subversivesong 

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