Songs sung true

MMF session Steve Swayne
Maleny Music Festival folk session Photo by Steve Swayne

There’s a tradition in the folk music scene at folk festivals and in selected pubs where singers and musicians gather and play, surrounded by those who sit on the fringes, tapping their toes in time to the music.
The folk session (photo by Steve Swayne) is wedded to repetitive tunes, played by whoever turns up with whatever instrument they have, and interspersed with songs which tell of the plight of the urban proletariat. The former are usually Irish or Scottish tunes which commonly have an A part (played twice) and a B part (played twice). The tune is repeated until whoever is leading the session switches to another tune and another key.
The stridently political song, tending as far to the left as one can possibly go, is another matter. Someone will break into the cycle of diddly diddly tunes when the players are sitting back, supping their pots of Guinness and thinking of what to play next.

Rebel songs

The classic World Turned Upside Down (sometimes called The Diggers) by English songwriter Leon Rosselson often turns up at sessions. It sounds like it was written in the era in which it is set.
“In sixteen forty-nine to Saint George’s Hill
A ragged band they called the Diggers came to show the people’s will
They defied the landlords, they defied the law
They were the dispossessed, reclaiming what was theirs.”
So it goes – they came in peace to dig and sow, to work the land in common and make a “common treasury for all”.
Now that you understand the socialist rhetoric, you will either spend all weekend in the session tent or not go there at all.
The closest I came to this genre was The Almost Armageddon Waltz, written in 1980 when the Russians invaded Afghanistan and the world once again was thrust into anxiety about the possibilities of nuclear war.
I penned a corny but catchy chorus: “Armageddon, Armageddon, Armageddon out of here” which led to a song writing award, a run of T-shirts and requests (still, after all this time). The references to Malcolm Fraser, the Holden Kingswood and hi-fi gear quickly dated. Unhappily, Afghanistan is still a basket case.

Why censoring does not work

Happily, authoritarian attempts to censor politically or morally ‘incorrect’ songs usually backfire and lead to the rebellious authors developing a cult following. The Guardian reported this week that an environmental scientist working for a Canadian government agency has been suspended and will be investigated for recording a protest song about the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
Harperman was written by Tony Turner, who worked at Environment Canada and is, in his spare time, “a mainstay on the Ottawa folk music scene”.
The song contains lyrics like “no respect for environment / Harperman, it’s time for you to go”, and “no more cons, cons, cons / we want you gone, gone gone”.
Crikey, as we say down here, if he (Turner) didn’t write the song in work hours, where’s the problem?

Chewin’ the fat again

Governments over many eras have elected themselves the guardians of people’s morals, if not their freedom to speak out when not entirely pleased with the way things are going. Nazi Germany is an example of how this can be taken to extremes.
In 1960, officials in Adelaide blocked American satirist Tom Lehrer from performing until he agreed to omit “morally corrupting” songs from his repertoire.
Lehrer’s funny and sacrilegious anthem “The Vatican Rag” attracted a lot of complaints when first aired in 1967. An academic paper by Jeremy Mazner says Lehrer was relatively unaffected by the complaints about lines like this:

“There the guy who’s got religion’ll/Tell you if your sin’s original/If it is try playin’ it safer/Drink the wine and chew the wafer/Two four six eight/Time to transubstantiate”)

“It was kind of fun to see them squirm,” Lehrer remembered.

A teacher in Putnam Valley, New York, was fired after playing The Vatican Rag to his seventh grade class as an example of satire. The teacher was eventually reinstated.
Lehrer the piano-playing Harvard math professor who gave up songwriting and performing in 1965, told Tony Davis of the Sydney Morning Herald in a 2003 interview that there was no place now for his kind of humour.

“I’m not tempted to write a song about George W.Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.”

Lehrer’s granted the SMH a rare interview because he wanted to reflect on his 1960 Australian tour, the “highlight of his life” when he was banned, censored, mentioned in Parliament and threatened with jail.
Brisbane was the problem town.
“The chief of police said I couldn’t sing the Boy Scout song, particularly.”
Be Prepared! includes revised Scout pledges: “Don’t solicit for your sister, that’s not nice/ Unless you get a good percentage of her price.”

I’m not awful, I’m a satirist

Satire often goes over people’s heads, especially those who have a literal sense of humour and don’t grasp irony; the ones who thought Randy Newman was being racist and offensive writing songs like Red Necks and Short People. Eric Bogle copped the same kind of misdirected abuse over “I Hate Wogs” where he adopted the persona of a bigoted Ocker.
It also works in reverse. Lancashire punk band The NotSensibles wrote a satirical song “I’m In love With Margaret Thatcher”, which was inadvertently adopted by some of Thatcher’s supporters.
The Guardian assembled a lengthy list of songs of politics and protest in 2009 including three Beatles tunes, many Dylan songs and things you would expect to find in a list of this nature, like Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and Billy Braggs’ Between the Wars. Eric Bogle is the only Australian on the list for And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.
Maybe what Lehrer said was true – there’s little room now in mainstream music for songs of protest. I found only 17 songs on the list from the last 15 years.
It can be a career-defining/defying moment when a mainstream band decides to take a stand (to wit the Dixie Chicks’ Not Ready to Make Nice), which sharply divided their audiences and led to the musical equivalent of book burning).

There are Aussie rebels too

The Guardian recognised the subjective nature of the list, encouraging people to post their own favourite rebel songs. There is an enduring history of Australian songs of this ilk. Start with Tex Morton’s 1930s story of Sergeant Small harassing swaggies riding the rails, divert through the folk catalogue (e.g. Judy Small, John Dengate) then progress to popular music (Redgum, Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly, Warumpi Band and Kev Carmody), through to rebels of today like Xavier Rudd and John Butler.

It would be comforting to think that a public servant working for a government could write and perform a song like The Lurkers’ Mining Man without fear of reprisal.
But in this political climate, I doubt it.

Postscript: She Who Also Sometimes Writes (SWASW) has penned her own piece about the loveable, eccentric folk scene, which you can find here: