Songs of oppression and injustice ...

(May 04, 2012)

Themes that endure in folk music are sometimes those born out of adversity, struggle and more frequently those born out of oppression. The inspiration for such songs does not belong to any fixed time or place and their themes return time and again. The ‘oppression’ may manifest itself as tyranny or suppression of one culture over another, subjugation  of one country by another or domination of one class by another. The result is often the same, people with the overwhelming desire to record the state of life that drives them down and robs them of their home, land or security. This yearning frequently resorts to song to make the point, especially when they see some around them that seem to thrive in spite of others misfortunes. There is the burgeoning need to tell a story through a narrative song to expose the lies, share the misfortune or ‘set the record straight’.

Ask many people where such folk songs originate and you’ll get similar answers “... they’re mostly from iands where people were driven out of their homes by clearance or famine.” Well yes and then again no. Often the answers include references to the clearance of the ‘poor people’ from their homes deliberately or otherwise by oppression. That oppression could be from absentee landlords, military force or government legislation. Whatever its origin, it’s mostly placed anywhere than England, and somewhere in history rather than last week. Are we really sure?

Echoes of yesterday or shouting today?

If you ask further about oppression and injustice in England it’s the England of Robin Hood and Prince John not the England of David Cameron and Price Charles. Apart from the obvious fact that David Cameron doesn’t actively rob the rich to give to the poor (far more likely the other way around – and covertly). Also, Prince Charles is not governing the country while his mother is off on a Crusade (then again neither is David Cameron governing the country) Never mind the politics - oppression and injustice remain. And they not only remain, they’re on the increase, only nowadays the not-so-subtle violence of absentee landlord and land-clearing lords are replaced by financial treachery, profligacy and ignorance.

That in itself begs the question where are today’s folk songs about oppression and injustice? For a start Steve Knightley writes a pretty fair assessment of injustice and treachery with ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed’ – the bankers and all their blood-sucking cronies did nothing more than rape the country. In this case the ‘poor and oppressed’ were not simply the tenant farmers and crofters. The people on the receiving end of rape and treachery was everyone – those with no savings and those with ‘nest eggs’; all were unceremoniously betrayed. No wonder Mr. Knightley finds the level of grievance required to write an angry song – and thankfully he writes for all of us. Then there are the views of Battlefield Band, with their album ‘Zama Zama …try your luck’ they explored greed and disaster comparing the robber barons from the past to the exploitation and avarice of today – and they’re not wrong. There are others I’m sure but not the rash of expression one might expect. Are our songwriters focused on other issues or is the oppression and injustice of financial disaster for some simply not a big enough disaster – yet?

It may take a while and it may need things to get a lot worse before they get even a little better. Even so, I’m willing to be that there are songs gestating in heads this very moment that will, in the not too distant future, catalogue oppression and injustice in the 21st century.

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