An Evening of Political Song, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, London, 17 June 2010

20. 12. 2010 | Rubriky: Articles,Live reviews

[by Ken Hunt, London] An Evening of Political Song, explained the Southbank literature, “drew upon a rich history of political song” before, sigh, spoiling things slightly by lamely billing this night in Richard Thompson’s Meltdown as “a night of songs in the key of revolution and protest”. Still, mustn’t grumble, ‘political song’, as dictionary definitions go, is about as precise as ‘folk song’ in its handy one-size-fits-all solution to issues that just won’t go away.

The night provided a blast of political song designed to engage and stimulate – or even to provoke to the point of offending – while avoiding any why-oh-why? breast-beating material. This though isn’t a concert review. It focuses on three songs as snapshots of what political song today can embrace

Tom Robinson’s take on Steve Earle’s John Walker’s Blues threw the fat into the fire. It focuses on John Walker Lindh, a US national who joined the Taliban and had the shit-luck to get captured. A paradigm political song, it has attracted outright censure and considered debate. Here Earle is no talking newspaper and, beyond the Talibanery, he gets down to motivation for such a heinous act of betrayal of the American Dream. As Robinson sang the exit lines – “But Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed/Now they’re draggin’ me back with my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel” – he left the audience with much food for thought.

Shock tactics can also work, so long as they are detonated sparingly. Take stand-up comic Denis Leary’s jolly sing-along recording I’m An Asshole with its first-person bead-roll of me-me-me-not-you-me selfishness, like parking in “handicapped spaces”. Nuanced humour is not Leary’s forte, so using ‘handicapped’ was probably accidental irony, but he knows how to play the cringeworthy card. Harry Shearer – the voice of Mr. Burns, Smithers and Ned Flanders in the English-language version of The Simpsons and the, ahem, well-toned body of Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap – delivered confrontation of another kind. Deaf Boys, on which Thompson and Judith Owen did back-up vocals and finger-clicks, lambasts paedophiliac Catholic priests abusing deaf boys entrusted to them. Lines like “Deaf boys can’t hear me coming.” were genuinely shocking. It really hit a raw nerve in me.

The grand finale hit raw nerves of a different kidney. Ewan MacColl’s Moving On Song is a telling plea for equality of treatment. It’s originally from the 1964 Radio Ballad, The Travelling People. A full complement took the stage but my eyes and ears stayed fixed on Norma Waterson as she lived out the song. At the time of the concert I was researching and writing an essay for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography about the Scots Traveller story-teller and sangster Duncan Williamson making the song with its “Go! Move! Shift!” chorus sound all too horribly pertinent.

To see clips of what was going on, visit

Photograph of Harry Shearer, © and courtesy of the Southbank press office.

Ken Hunt’s column RPM about political and socially engaged song appears issue to issue in R2. and

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