Some stories and themes remain immutable whatever happens

(October 28, 2011)

And yet another outing for the lyric (Part 2. of an occasional series)

When any song makes the tenuous and sometimes perilous journey from the writer’s head into hundreds of others and remains, it’s generally because there’s an infectious hook or a captivating melody but often it’s because the lyric either tells a story or makes a point. That statement can apply equally to music from three hundred years ago or to music written yesterday. Some stories and themes remain immutable whatever happens in the world.

Although ‘the point’ of a traditional song often transcends the paths of time to remain relevant in the modern world that doesn’t mean that writers must remain there. They don’t have to restrict themselves to the past – there are just as many tough social, political and economic themes today. And if there was ever a time when songwriters could find a wealth of material to work with then ‘today’ is certainly right up there with the best.

Countless songs in ‘the tradition’ record injustice, oppression, destitution, violent death and foreign wars. However, folk lyrics could just as easily decry today’s issues: the reckless financial abandon of bankers, the deadly spectre of nation-crippling strikes, futile foreign wars, the unfairness of public sector cuts, student loans or home repossessions. Take your pick there’s surely enough to choose from.

Working with today or yesterday?

Currently, these more topical issues have yet to yield a huge crop of folk songs but steadily a few are emerging. I feel that many more are gestating ‘in the head’ of a folk artist awaiting their chance to communicate. Notable concept-orientated albums such as Show of Hand’s ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed’ and Battlefield Band’s ‘Zama Zama, Try Your Luck’  have tackled the subject of financial mismanagement and personal ruin head on and produced some fine work in the process. However, I cannot help but feel that it’s only a matter of time before the flood gates open and we are treated to more lyrics reflecting the state of our nation (and that of many others).

I doubt that we’re in line for the resurgence of the protest song but I hope we are in for another equally powerful offering. The sense of fruitless, pointless effort and relentless injustice felt by young people riding the wave of 60’s ‘protest folk’ cannot be far away. If you can’t get a job, can’t afford university and feel let down by every aspect of government and establishment then you’re going to latch on to anyone that can put your thoughts into song. Clearly the ‘pop’ world will not do it because the essence of popular music in its current incarnation is anything but protest. It’s solidly sold out to marketing, making money and remains more than happy to exist on a sugary-sweet ‘isn’t it all lovely’ footing. Everything in ‘pop’ is primary colours, flashing images, celebrity slavery and surfacing scratching superficiality.

Never underestimate the power of songs that rage against oppression, despair and waste. They do hit home. Although they may not make their mark the second the writer puts pen to paper there’s permanence to such material. There only needs a few folk to identify with the sentiments and try as it might the establishment cannot suppress them. If nothing else history teaches us that at least.

We need songwriters with perception, depth, and understanding

Once we find ourselves with song writers creating lyrics that point out what most of us already know are we achieving anything? Actually, yes we are. The art of the lyric that’s powerful enough is to put into words that which most people cannot. And when that song, along with its powerful hook and memorable melody, hits the airwaves the numbers involved and aware could increase exponentially. That’s why all those traditional ‘hard times’ songs still exist. That’s why the ‘protest’ songs talked about equally ‘hard times’ just from a different perspective. That’s why there’s a huge vacant hole waiting to be filled by those songs (folk or otherwise) that are so desperately needed.

Perhaps when those writers begin their output they will find no acceptance in today’s world – that would be sad. Perhaps they will write for three hundred years hence, when their output becomes the tradition. Perhaps there will be groups in whatever community or country that still recall the desperation of today’s social, economic and financial problems. Will they sing the songs about the reckless financial abandon of bankers, the deadly spectre of nation-crippling strikes, futile foreign wars, the unfairness of public sector cuts, student loans or home repossessions.

I’ve always said if I could travel in time I’d go back three hundred years and see what really happened. Perhaps I should change my wish. Perhaps I should go forward to sit in on some acoustic gig and listen to traditional songs about 2011. And as I sit there in 2311 with my £16.20 pint I’ll raise a glass to those song writers that wrote about the fallout from collapse of the European Union.

Click here to return to the Comment page