‘Too many protest singers
Not enough protest songs’
And then Glasgow-based artist Ruth Ewan came along with A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World. Twenty seven years on from this perfectly reasonable observation by Dundee-raised Edwyn Collins in his euphoric 1994 smash hit, ‘A Girl Like You’, this latest iteration of Ewan’s rolling programme of socially driven songs shows just how much times have changed.
A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World was first presented in 2004, and since then has been shown in London, New York, Venice, Bordeaux, Liverpool and Denmark. Ewan’s ongoing folkloric excavation, à la Hamish Henderson or Alan Lomax, has developed so it now contains an ever-expanding collection of more than 2,000 works that might be broadly described as protest songs. This provides the perfect set list for the sort of political cabarets that have given voice and inspiration to protest movements for decades.
This time out, the Jukebox is seen and heard in the context of Ewan’s contribution to Dundee’s Cooper Gallery three year long, Free University-styled project, The Ignorant Art School: Sit-ins Towards Creative Emancipation. The event’s intended spirit of optimism is captured in the suitably rabble rousing subtitle of the series, with ‘We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted To Be and It’s Not Too Late to Change’ drawn from the final number of Alan Parker’s 1976 whipped cream friendly teen-gangster musical, Bugsy Malone.
Screened live online this month, this 90-minute compendium of 17 performances sparks fresh life into some of the Jukebox’s greatest hits, as well as introducing new works. This makes for a form of constant learning that both entertains and enlightens. Far from museum pieces, the songs can be viewed as baton passing pieces of living culture invested with the urgency of now.
Big Noise in the Jungle
Beyond the songs themselves, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World is raising funds for Optimistic Sound, a charity set up by the family of Dundee born singer-songwriter Michael Marra. Local hero and musical legend, Marra died in 2012, leaving a canon of work rooted in the common tongue with touches of fantastical flights of fancy. See ‘Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Taybridge Bar’.
Optimistic Sound will channel money raised from A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World to supporting Big Noise Douglas. This Dundee based initiative is the latest Big Noise centre set up by Sistema Scotland to provide free music tuition for children and young people in various communities, helping raise aspirations through music.
Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise centres first appeared in Stirling in 2008, when Big Noise Raploch brought in six musicians to work with 35 children. Since then, the programme has developed into other areas. Collectively, Big Noise Raploch, Big Noise Govanhill in Glasgow, Big Noise Torry in Aberdeen, and most recently, Big Noise Douglas, work with 2,800 children and young people.
If this alone is worth making a song and dance about, the Jukebox Zoom event itself is a joy, echoing a multitude of DIY online concerts that have become home entertainment for so many during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.
With Ewan introducing proceedings, outlining each song’s back-story as half lecturer, half V-J, the artists draw material from various categories, taking in themes of civil rights, anti-war, feminism, class and equality. Most perform to camera from their living room sofas or bedrooms, using minimal instrumental accompaniment. The end result possesses the intimacy of a pub session. This is how we do things now.
Songs of Strength and Heartbreak
Ushered in by the sounds of Glasgow based Zimbabwean brothers Tawona and Ernest Sitholé, the performances kick off appropriately with the Big Noise Douglas String Quartet’s cello and violin version of ‘Respect’, the song originally recorded by Otis Redding but made iconic by Aretha Franklin during the late 1960s civil rights era. Its newly constituted contemporary classical guise sounds no less euphoric.
Visual artist and driving force behind Randan Discotechque, Craig Coulthard, follows with a version of Michael Marra’s Sunset Song inspired anti-war song, ‘Happed in Mist’, accompanied by electric guitar. Cardiff-based sound designer Marie Tueje continues the homages to inspirational songwriters with a version of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The Ballad of Accounting’, originally recorded with his personal and professional collaborator, Peggy Seeger.
A major coup for A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World is the appearance of Seeger herself. After more than 60 years at the front line of song, and long resident in England, there has been no let up in Seeger’s productivity, with the recently released ‘The First Farewell’ her second album since lockdown.
Of the two songs she sings here, her first, ‘Weevily Wheat’, is an American folk song designed to dance to and thought by some to reference Bonnie Prince Charlie. Seeger first recorded the song in 1960, Seeger and now as then accompanies herself on banjo, and lending an intimacy to the song that transcends the years.
Closer to home, Kapil Seshasayee performs a guitar and flute version of ‘The Ballad of Bant Singh’, drawn from his debut album, A Sacred Bore, which is based on the indignities of the Indian caste system that still prevails. The song tells the story of Indian agricultural activist Bantu Singh, who was beaten and left for dead by a gang of men believed to be connected to Indian authority figures.
Musician Ross Downes and remarkable singer Keeley Forsyth, who in 2020 released her debut album, Debris, accompany their version of Scott Walker’s ‘The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)’, with a moody black and white video. The duo’s reimagining of Walker’s high drama laden critique of the overthrow of the 1968 Prague Spring is reconstructed as a multi layered torch ballad chorale. Given Walker’s own late period occupation of similar terrain, he would surely approve.
Ewan’s segue into the next performance is a reminder too that, for all it is besides, her curriculum is also an art event. Moreover, given the Cooper Gallery’s role at Duncan of Jordanstone, it is an art school event.
The provocative energies liberated in this context are best exemplified by the music and video from The Family Baloo. Cavorting around in the video like a Blue Peter sticky-back plastic take on The Residents, their fusion of spoken word and rhythmic repetition in ‘Clap Clap Clapping’ is an of-the-moment broadside showing up the patronising futility of institutionalised applause for key workers without any practical concrete support forthcoming.
If ‘Clap Clap Clapping’ is the newest song on show, ‘The Cutty Wren’ is one of the oldest. Claimed by anarchist entryists Chumbawamba to date from the English Peasants Revolt of 1381, the earliest known text dates from David Herd’s Scots song anthology almost 400 years later. No matter, as this new, drone-laden version by Burd Ellen’s ‘Debbie Armour’ renders this song of protest and resistance into a timeless thing of beauty.
Frankie Armstrong sings her own song, ‘Out of the Darkness’, which, as she explains, she wrote in the early 1980s, inspired by the women’s movement and anti-nuclear activism. She was further inspired by a speech she heard in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Greek tragedy, Iphigenia.
Armstrong is a long time advocate of the community choir movement, and in the 1960s was part of The Critics Group, set up by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. Armstrong later sang with the Feminist Improvising Group, founded by Maggie Nicols and Henry Cow bassoonist Lindsay Cooper. With a new album, Cats of Coven Lawn, just released, Armstrong here sings unaccompanied, her words becoming an impassioned invocation of the perils of impending apocalypse.
Aidan Moffat similarly fuses ancient and modern in ‘I’m a Working Man’, a contemporary reworking of a Bothy ballad that appeared on his 2016 album, Where You’re Meant to Be. With references to food banks, everyday debt and social division, Moffat shows in striking fashion that the class war is far from over.
The Joyous Choir are based in Maryhill, Glasgow and came together as part of the Maryhill Integration Network. The Choir live up to their name with their rendition of Italian anti-fascist anthem ‘Bella Ciao’ with a joie de vivre that captures the song’s spirit of collective defiance in a way hitherto only matched by 1980s Edinburgh avant-punk band Dog Faced Hermans’ own riotous version. Here, an even stronger spirit of optimism shines through.
From America, Lynn Marie Smith is a singer-songwriter, trade union organiser and activist in Detroit known as the Motown Diva. Her politicised reinvention of Katy Perry’s song, ‘Roar’, as ‘Roar/Vote’, was originally created in the run up to the 2020 US 2020 presidential elections. Nearly six months on, and accompanied by a choir of fellow singers and activists in the video that accompanies the song, it now looks and sounds like a beacon of light pointing its way towards the future.
Dundee’s own Sheena Wellington is up there with Seeger and Armstrong in her championing of traditional music, and has long been recognised as both one of the greatest authorities on and greatest interpreters of traditional song alive today. Here she sings her own song, ‘Women O’ Dundee’ unaccompanied in a vital portrait of the female workforce who gave the city its backbone.
Seeger returns to sing ‘Reclaim the Night’, a song recorded in 1979 for Different Therefore Equal, an album of contemporary women’s songs. As the familiarity of the title suggests from recent events, after 40 years, the song remains as damningly relevant as it ever was. As does Jo Foster’s ‘Sometimes You Get Stronger (Sometimes You Get Lost)’, the Fife singer’s meditation on mental health that sounds made for these times.
Blinking into the light come The Rhubaba Choir, the group formed at the Edinburgh based independent art space at time of writing under threat from developers. Their version of Chic’s 1978 song, ‘At Last I Am Free’, by way of Robert Wyatt’s sublime 1982 cover released as a single before appearing on his Nothing Can Stop Us album, is a quietly transcendent construction. Utilising socially distanced recording, the performance is accompanied by film of a deserted cityscape by night and day. As it takes in land, sea and air, at one point a rainbow peers into view before darkness falls. The power of the choir, it seems, moves in mysterious ways.
The finale—tailor made for every collective display of self-determination and power, Bugsy Malone notwithstanding—comes with an instrumental bagpipe version of Hamish Henderson’s all-embracing song, ‘Freedom Come All Ye’. This is performed by Skye born piper Malin Lewis while poised on a rock in a snowy landscape. Even without such a picturesque setting, Scotland’s real national—no, international—anthem remains an infectiously inspirational call to arms to end on.
While this very special selection from Ewan’s Jukebox can still be viewed online at the Cooper Gallery’s website, it will be interesting to see where she takes it next. Because, despite what Edwyn Collins might have observed in 1994, and as this event proves, in terms of both protest singers and protest songs, there have always been plenty of both. With this in mind, and the logistics of bringing contributors together permitting, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World could become a regular online gig.
Given that Ewan is taking requests for the Jukebox at the link below, if it’s not already in the mix, I’d like to include Sarah Jane Morris sing some of the material she recorded prior to her brief infiltration of the pop charts trading verses with Jimmy Somerville on The Communards’ 1986 smash hit, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’.
Having already sung with the similarly oppositional sounding The Republic, Morris went on to front 22-piece left wing brass band, The Happy End. Over two albums, There’s Nothing Quite Like Money (1985), and Resolution (1987), Morris delivered boisterous renditions from the Brecht/Eisler songbook while the band played arrangements of folk tunes from Chile, South Africa and the very British Miners Strike.
While I’m wishin’ and hopin’, the fruits of this Optimism Class collection alone would make a great Hal Willner styled compilation album that could be used as a substantial fundraiser for any number of causes. And who knows? One day we might also be in the same room to hear them all played live. To coin another Edwyn Collins phrase, the possibilities are endless.
Neil Cooper is a writer based in Edinburgh.
An Optimism Class: A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World can be viewed at www.dundee.ac.uk/coope…
Donations to Optimistic Sound can be made at: www.paypal.com/donate/…
The ongoing story of Ruth Ewan’s A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World can be found on her website: ruthewan.com/projects/a…-