Don Eales, 24 July 2008
In the city’s melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden while the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing’.
I’d like to say the popular song’s potential to create social change first struck me on hearing those wandering hobo minstrels Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan for the first time but no! The truth is far less credible. It was Lonnie Donegan on the telly in 1957, who was introduced by the even less credible (or sincere) Pete Murray, a TV ‘host’ for whom the description oleaginous became almost onomatopoeic!
I was a stunned 8-year-old, hearing verses like;
In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray,
Men have fought the pounding waters and met many a watery grave,
Well, she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream.
This was definitely not Donald Peers, the crooner my parents named me after. A revelation had occurred. I started buying 78s a year or two later to play on my second-hand Dansette, which I was pleased not to have to wind up like my granny’s record player. I bought more of Lonnie (‘My old man’s a dustman’ too – very embarrassing now) as well as Little Richard, Elvis and the Everly Brothers, but old Lonnie had set something ticking and by the time I hit my teens (1963), something much, much bigger was ticking – civil rights, set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the keenly felt threat of my personal nuclear annihilation… These were interesting times, indeed.
My first mentor, Johnny Robinson, the coolest guy in my hometown, Rugby (a place from where people hitch-hiked with signs saying ‘anywhere but here’) introduced me to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, blues, jazz, Chablis, reefer (as it was then called) and folk, particularly in its more strident form à la Pete Seeger. He informed me that Lonnie did not write ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ (I was not surprised) and told me all about Woody and Pete and their ardent quest for justice for all Then he played me ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos’ after which I had definitely got the picture of how music could foster dissent, encourage profound questioning and genuinely effect change. I wept at this verse.
The crops are all in and the peaches are rott’ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They’re flying ‘em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be ‘deportees’.
Something had shifted forever, and my schoolwork suffered as I saw through the subterfuges of control. Johnny told me about Martin Luther King and the terrible apartheid that existed in America, as well as South Africa, and how the folk musicians, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were singing prior to King’s speeches, powerful songs like ‘The times they are a’changing’ and ‘God on our side’. He also played me ‘Blowing in the Wind’, which I had thought the somewhat saccharine Peter, Paul and Mary had written.
Many years later, I heard the story of how the late, great Sam Cooke had heard this song and flipped. He stated that in those dark days, this great song, particularly with its phrase ‘How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?’, could not possibly have been written by a white man. (This was at a time when black men were only ever called ‘boy’). He was finally convinced, and after recording ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and making it a top–ten hit, his riposte was to write (arguably) the greatest soul song ever, ‘A change is gonna’ come’ . By now, Dylan’s lyric had become more complex and metaphoric but definitely not less powerful.
The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden
As well as the now-deceased Woody Guthrie - Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tim Rose and many others, including our own Ralph McTell and Ian Campbell, spearheaded the protest movement around the world, bringing vital issues into a wider social consciousness through song. ‘Masters of War’, ‘Morning Dew’, ‘Streets of London’, ‘I ain’t marching anymore’ are great examples of the form but the song ‘Now that the buffalo’s gone’, written and sung by the Cree Indian, Buffy Sainte Marie, about the terrible treatment of the dispossessed natives of America, is one of the finest. Here are two of the verses:
When a war between nations is lost
The loser, we know, pays the cost
But even when Germany fell to your hands
consider, dear lady, consider, dear man
You left them their pride and you left them their land
And what have you done to these ones
Has a change come about Uncle Sam
Or are you still taking our lands
A treaty forever George Washington signed
He did, dear lady, he did, dear man
And the treaty’s being broken by Kinzua Dam
And what will you do for these ones
So, in our current times, where is the dissent, the protest or the profound questioning in the form of song, or any other form for that matter? Did Maggie’s student loan strategy (to end the dissent of the young through crippling debt) put paid to social revolution once and forever? I do hope not! In my lifetime, I have seen what I considered the impossible, to occur – the end of apartheid in America and South Africa, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, women’s rights, the legalisation of homosexuality and many other, lower profile changes. But I am now witnessing the rise of fundamentalism in all of the atavistic Abrahamic religions, the swift and persistent erosion of human rights throughout the world (more and more laws applied inappropriately and none repealed) along with a terrible disenfranchisement of the young and a bizarre reticence for social development. So where are the voices of challenge and dissent today? Are they enclosed within the rusting Gates of Eden? What will we do for these ones? Pass me the oilcan!
Don Eales is the curator of Vibe Live in London and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He pioneered many of the communication technologies that are now taken for granted, including Videoconferencing, Content Delivery and IPTV. He is currently introducing stereoscopic 3D into live events, particularly sport and music, whilst also creating exciting new applications for Augmented Reality. He has acted as Curator for both The Brickhouse restaurant and the new Vibe Live and Gallery, both on Brick Lane, London. He was recently responsible for facilitating ‘402 – The Death Row Show’, an acclaimed art exhibition which is a powerful polemic against the death penalty in America. Don also acts as an investment advisor for companies and projects (particularly film) seeking friendly funding. First and foremost though, he is a Storyteller of considerable renown, having spun his yarns at major festivals in the UK (and country pubs in Cork on many a rainy night).
"Just when Kant's formulation that 'the public exercise of reason should be free' had begun to seem so remote and exhausted, the Battle should reinforce one's faith in the enduring worth of dissent and of the free traffic in ideas"
Swapan Chakravorty, professor of english, Jadavpur University