“EVERY successful movement has a soundtrack,” Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello told reporters at the Occupy Wall Street protest last week.
It’s true that the wistful melody of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind still invokes images of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. That Cui Jian’s Nothing to my Name is still synonymous with the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. And that perhaps in another twenty years, Namewee’s I Love My Country Negarakuku will be the musical signifier of the Malaysian left’s struggle for political transparency and open democracy.
As Morello’s assertion is met with both agreement and cynicism about the role of music in modern political struggles, Melbourne is gearing up for the finale of its premier international arts festival, Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond, which will showcase protest music from throughout the 20th Century.
Mavis Staples, the musical cornerstone of the US Civil Rights Movement, will perform alongside Archie Roach, who has documented in song the struggles of Australia’s Indigenous people. Their musical talents will be complemented by a whole host of their counterparts from a younger generation; from Joss Stone to former Sudanese child-soldier Emmanuel Jal.
Show producer Steven Richardson says the shared quality of the varied cohort of artists is their music’s capacity to touch the empathetic nature in all of us.
“I don’t think that power has changed,” Richardson tells Meld.
“Obviously the politics of any particular time has waxed and waned, but I don’t think that power has changed – the power of music to call us to action and to change our hearts and minds.”
Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond follows on from last year’s Seven Songs to Leave Behind, which brought together artists including Sinead O’Conner, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ricki Lee Jones and The Black Arm Band. Jones and The Black Arm Band (including Archie Roach) are back this year, and alongside Staples, Stone and Jal, they will be joined by Something for Kate’s Paul Dempsey and Redgum’s John Schumann.
The group will perform a mixture of originals and renditions of songs by Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen, Pete Seeger and Green Day, to name just a few.
For Richardson it’s the combination of musical talent and politically resonating lyrics that makes the music of these artists withstand the test of time.
He cites Archie Roach’s Took the Children Away – which describes the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their parents – and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit – which contains the lyrics Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
“The elements of those songs that I think move people are the combination of these beautiful melodies, incredible vocal delivery, but also that’s juxtaposed with some really horrific, haunting imagery. It’s a bizarre combination in a way,” Richardson says.
“I know that all the songs we’ve put together for Saturday are musically quite fabulous as well as striking a call to action. There’s nothing worse than a really worthy protest song that’s, musically, not on the money.
“I don’t think by shouting at people you’ll necessarily change their minds but certainly by putting a message in a song that is musically appropriate and musically sophisticated – that has power.”
Richardson is convinced protest music still has a place in today’s world (“if ever the world needed more empathy, it’s today”) but hopes Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond will be more a celebration of the human spirit than a chance to dwell on problems.
“There’s some difficult material that we’re covering, but I’m hoping the overall effect of this material will be celebratory and inspiring.”
And if ever there was an example of inspiring music stemming from horrific suffering, it is in the lyrics of the orphaned former child-soldier Emmanuel Jal’s Warchild.
I believe I’ve survived for a reason to tell my story to touch lives / All the people struggling down there / Storms only come for a while / Then after a while they’ll be gone / Blessed, blessed.
Thanks to the Melbourne Festival, Meld has five free double passes to Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond for our readers. Simply be one of the first five people to comment on this article’s post on our Facebook page.
Notes from the Hard Road and Beyond will take place at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 8pm on Saturday October 22 (gates open 6:30pm). General Admission tickets cost cost $25 (student) $40 (full), and reserved seating starts at $90.