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Songs of Protest

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Songs of Protest was a 1977 BBC Radio 2 series, written and produced by Charles Chilton and presented by Ted Moult. It was broadcast at 10.30 pm on Wednesdays - ironically on Long Wave only while Radio 1 took over the FM transmitters for Peel's show. No recordings of the series seem to have surfaced, and its archive status is unknown.

Peel wrote the following article about the series in the 2-8 July 1977 issue of Radio Times. It is clearly a heartfelt and passionate article, especially in the context of the magazine's generally "Middle England" readership.


It may be hard to conceive of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols as being merely the contemporary manifestation of a tradition stretching back to the Peasants' Revolt, or of their wildly controversial, much proscribed, and widely misinterpreted record 'God Save The Queen' having much in comon with the ancient song which outlined how Adam delved and Eve span. But they are and it does. There are many people who disagree violently with the thoughts of Johnny Rotten, and recently some of them - or so it seems - have elected to express their disapproval in a manner which Wat Tyler and many others who have sung out in anger would recognise only too well. Perhaps Johnny Rotten's assailants would recognise themselves and their historic role, were they to listen to even one of Charles Chilton's instructive 'Songs of Protest' programmes.

In these, the history of a song as a means of bringing about social change is most thoroughly traced. Each song - whether it is little more than an extended and repetitive chant, or a detailed, ironic and bitter attack on socio-industrial injustices - marks a battle in the endless war to improve the lives of working people. Many - particularly those which refer to such contemporary problems as high food prices and unemployment - also serve as an indictment of capitalism. It is important to remember - and Charles Chilton will assist you hereto - that, no matter how trite the words to some of the songs may seem, nor how familiar and hummable the tunes have become, there will have been times when to sing them was to invite violent and unreasoning reaction.

The effective protest song must be a simple song, with words easily remembered, easily taught, easily sung. If such a song becomes overly sophisticated it becomes also unwieldy and inappropriate to its task. Wat Tyler and Johnny Rotten, and many thousands of forgotten men and women in the ages between them, have sung direct and uncompromising songs of protest at the harshness and apparent pointlessness of their lives. In the second half of this century the protest song has generally been the plaything of the fashionable liberal, often making his or her protest from a position of considerable ease and affluence - I shall listen to future programmes in this series with great interest to see what, if anything, Charles Chilton has to say about the perennially shrill Joan Baez.

There is a wealth of interesting detail in these programmes. In the first of the series, for example, we learned of the origins of 'We Shall Overcome', a rather pedestrian song in my view, but one much chanted over the years. You may have believed, as I did, that it is a song of some antiquity. In truth it originated in the 1940s, among the food and tobacco workers of Tennessee.

I understand that Charles Chilton is preparing each Songs of Protest only a few days ahead of broadcast date, and that he is hopeful that the series can be extended beyond its original 13 episodes; so it is not possible to say which periods and which countries will be covered in the next couple of months. However we have already had the opportunity to hear the songs sung by such diverse groups of folk as those herded out of their homes to make way for sheep in East Anglia and those exploited by railroad barons in the Old West, and by men, women and children dehumanised and brutalised during the early days of the Industrial Revolution in the North of England. It has been a chilling catalogue of legitimate grievances against insensitivity and rapacity. We have also learned that the continuing practice of promising everything and delivering nothing but further repression dates back at least as far as the reign of Richard II. Closer to our own times, we have heard some of the songs of disenchantment, here considerably bowdlerised, sung by the common soldiery during the First World War; songs which gave the lie to the notion popular back home, that these clean-cut, brave British boys were thrilled to scramble to their deaths for principles which were pretty obscure even in 1914.

Presenter Ted Moult has told us of Luddites, Chartists and Suffragettes, and of the increasingly vicious measures, both legal and extra-legal, taken to keep them in their places. We have heard the songs which united them and strengthened their collective resolve. By and large, these have been sung to tunes still familiar; with some, such as the classic 'Union Maid', sung to the tune of 'Red Wing', having enjoyed relatively recent popular currency, resurfacing as a staple of the Skiffle movement of the 50s.

Ted Moult seems a happy choice as presenter, his gritty rusticality being entirely appropriate when introducing songs sung in praise of brave poachers or listing the grievances of the Anti-Corn Law League, and only fractionally less so when discussing the outrageous cotton and tobacco barons of the American South.

I am less enthusiastic about the studio performances of the actual songs. Records are used wherever possible and appropriate, with the technically excellent Charles Young Singers being employed to sing the remainder. Their antiseptic readings of songs which were originally sung by angry and frustrated people give the programmes a Black and White Minstrel Show quality which ultimately devalues them. I appreciate the necessity for conveying the words with clarity, but I feel certain that Charles Chilton, a man much respected among folk musicians, could have prevailed upon such notable singers as Martin Carthy, Nic Jones and June Tabor, for example, to give the songs the bite they need and deserve. Having said this, I would urge you to listen to the remaining programmes nevertheless, for their scholarship and for their frequent startling relevance to 1977. If nothing else, they will help you place Johnny Rotten in his proper historical perspective.

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