The conference ‘Protest Music in the Twentieth Century’ was held in the Complesso monumentale di San Micheletto in Lucca, Italy, from the 15th to the 17th November 2013. The conference attracted some fifty delegates from countries as far afield as Australia and the United States and offered those attending the opportunity to hear papers that encompassed a multiplicity of topics within the overriding theme. Each session offered two parallel panels of 5-6 papers that were wide-ranging and inspiring in subject matter. The first day started with talks from two distinguished keynote speakers. First we heard a paper from Germán Gan-Quesada from Barcelona, who discussed the work of Luigi Nono and the direct political involvement of a number of avant-garde composers in the late 1960s. The second speaker, Marita Bordolli, focused on resistance music in her home country of Uruguay, both prior to and following the country’s military dictatorship of 1973-1985. She argued within her paper that censorship equates to silence, the absence of voices of people who cannot be heard.

Two especially rich papers by James Garratt (University of Manchester) and Joe Stroud (University of Edinburgh) introduced me to a new area of musical scholarship – the dissemination of right-extremist music. Both talks inspired lively discussion and debate. It was both fascinating and disquieting to discover that, rather than using explicitly racist lyrics and an aggressive musical style, a number of today’s right-extremist composers and musicians take a much subtler approach in order to attract and recruit supporters to their cause. For example, Swedish singer Saga’s music is nearer to that of Dido than of Screwdriver, while other performers promote their message via pop music’s sub-genres of folk or country. Another powerful paper was that of Henrik Marstal (Rhythmic Music Conservatory, Copenhagen), who considered the track ‘Take the Power Back’ by Rage Against the Machine, debating whether the song in fact becomes open to interpretations different from those originally intended by the composers, due to the group’s weak definition of the meaning of ‘power’.

Other speakers considered protest in jazz, blues and musicals. For example, Kara Stewart (University of Memphis) examined the topic of jazz as ‘degenerate’ music in Nazi-occupied Europe. She explained that Ashkenazi Jews often combined their own traditional music with that of American jazz to symbolise rebellion. Maya Gibson (University of Missouri) reconsidered one of Billie Holiday’s well-known songs, ‘Strange Fruit’, suggesting that it can be viewed as anticipating the modern African American protest movement via Holiday’s performance. Although the song is not written in the anthemic style one might hear as typical of this category, the seriousness of the subject matter illustrates its status as protest song. James O’Leary (Oberlin College and Conservatory, USA) focused on political discourse in Hollywood musicals, centring on the 1947 Broadway show Finian’s Rainbow, and arguing that musicals’ alleged status as ‘low art’ often concealed the political ideology inherent within them. He explained that Finian Rainbow’s narrative was reviewed at the time of its opening as apolitical, but it is seen as the opposite today.

by SMA member Marie Bennett
From left to right: Kara Stewart, Giti Sorayyapour, myself, Roger Savage, Stephen Millar and David Thurmaier

Many interesting issues were raised in the panel that considered protest music in Great Britain and Ireland. Giti Sorayyapour (Royal Holloway, University of London) focused on the ways in which the Global War on Terror has influenced hip-hop, with particular reference to the artist known as Lowkey (Kareem Dennis). She explained that Lowkey focuses on Great Britain’s past relationship with the Middle East through this country’s current connection with the area, and uses the genre of hip-hop to impart his political message. To exemplify Lowkey’s approach, Giti showed the video made to accompany the song ‘Terrorist’, which portrays Lowkey as both the man being accused of terrorism and the person who is the accuser. Roger Savage (University of California) and Stephen Millar (Queen’s University, Belfast) both focused on Irish. Roger explained how Irish traditional music was used as a symbol of authentic cultural heritage to promote the status of the Irish Republic’s independence from British rule and promote a sense of community. Irish folk music thereby became the political equivalent of Irish thought. Stephen’s illuminating paper discussed the singing of Irish rebel songs in Scotland and the Scottish parliament’s introduction last year of the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill’ to try and eliminate the provocative chanting often heard at football matches, particularly those between Rangers and Celtic.

As part of the panel that considered protest music in the United States, Lars Helgert (Georgetown University) discussed the music of Jewish immigrant Lukas Foss, who escaped to the US from Germany in 1937. A contemporary of Leonard Bernstein, his music is much less well-known. Lars focused on the work American Cantata (1976) to illustrate the ways in which Foss comments within the work on American society at that time. He explained that the piece includes quotations from folk tunes, popular songs and spirituals, but does so in a way that evokes alienation rather than attachment, thus signifying it as a protest work. David Thurmaier (University of Missouri) discussed the work of John Lennon in the 1970s as political statement. Presenting a paper written in collaboration with John Cox (University of North Carolina), he explained that Lennon used a variety of different styles within such songs, e.g., folk and blues, and that such compositions were a method by which he expressed his political points of view. He illustrated his talk through analysis of some of the songs on the 1972 album Some Time in New York City.

The miscellany of topics presented at this international conference provided thought-provoking and inspiring discussions amongst delegates, many of which continued over coffee breaks and meals and well into the evening. The variety of subject matter showed the breadth of research that is taking place in this area and the many ways in which protest music has its voice heard.

Marie Bennett