Robin Surgeoner AKA Angryfish looks for political songwriting. Looking for a definition he asks does it exist within “philosophical laments, agit-pop, punk angst, prosaic provocative folk, indie rock, hard rock, reggae rock, and the list goes on…”
You can be sure that within each and every musical genre you can think of someone has used it to espouse their political standpoint. If we are to ask the same question but add in the specifics of it being related to a disability politics, or Disability Art, is the answer going to be any different? I would hasten to answer not.
If we were to look at the long line of Disabled Artists producing what they would call Disability Art, from Ian Dury, to Ian Curtis, to Ian Stanton… we can see that they are from a wide breadth of musical backgrounds. Perhaps we should ask the question, do you need to be called Ian? May be this is an advantage, but actually not a pre-requisite as artists with other forenames are also available.
What then is it for a song to be both politically provocative and also be described as Disability Art? I would like to propose a working description of Political Disability Art within song writing. For me this has to be primarily lyric-based, and which embraces the life experiences of Disabled People in ways that either celebrate who we are, and, or challenge the status quo by offering alternative ideologies and practices than those contemporaneously foisted upon us by society at large, manipulated and manufactured to fit the undemocratic political dynamics we face everyday of our lives.
The logical and important consequence of this is that you can be an Artist who is a Disabled Person without necessarily practicing Disability Art. This works in both directions in that artists can produce art intended for mainstream consumption when a political label may be seen as a barrier, but also to deliberately re-position themselves within a political framework as the need or inspiration demands.
A prime example of this was with Ian Dury, who wrote 'Spasticus Autisticus' as a direct response to the idea that an International Year of Disabled People would somehow act as a magic sticking plaster for the worldwide wrongs that deny equality for Disabled People. The song was almost instantly banned by an uncomprehending BBC and while I am sure not the first Disability Arts Protest song, the first to come to the attention of the masses, ironically through being banned, however misunderstood.
Having read, concurred with, shackles raised, and inspired to spout by Mik Scarlet’s article, 'Music for the Masses', and having been the lead guitarist in a touring indie band ‘Dan Dare’s Dog’, that were never signed because of the way I looked as a band member, despite being loved by audiences and the music press, I thought I would google search the term, ‘Disability Protest Songs’.
I have to say that even I was surprised by the google report I got back. When considering almost any search term you put in to google comes up with pages of references, however vaguely connected. Google returned less than a whole page, and effectively only cited two songs, the previously mentioned 'Spasticus Autisticus', and ‘Protest Song’ by The Astronauts both released in the early 1980’s or earlier.
I think that one thing is certain, if you are a Disabled Musician/ Songwriter and you have any aspirations to be famous, then don’t right protest songs. Even if you look as iconic a songwriter and musician as Stevie Wonder, the only real protest song that he wrote was with Paul McCartney, ‘Ebony and Ivory’ and most people still think of this as a piece of twee niceness however prophetic the sentiments were meant to be.
However and notwithstanding the vacuum of neither fame nor notoriety, I could name without too much trouble somewhere around two dozen Disability Arts Musicians, both past and present, so this begs the question, if there is almost no commercial reason for becoming a protest song writer, why do people do it?
One of our long standing heroes within the Disability Movement, is Johnny Crescendo, father of The Direct Action Network, and creator of some of the best known Disability Rights protest songs such as ‘Choices and Rights’, ‘Tear Down The Walls’ and ‘Not Dead Yet’.
I asked Johnny why he writes Disability Rights songs, and you will see from his response, that his reasons are both deep seated and fundamental.
"For me protest songs are like the blues are like truthful non fiction, like a good documentary. I like to write what is truly in my heart and head not make believe escapism or a palliative drug of imitation emotions."
"That's why our protest songs are like the blues, yeah things are bad but we share the experience "It hurts me too" and through that shared experience we can help build something outside of the art experience, not only defining the time our songs were written but making the sometimes complex issues more accessible. The trick is to make all this entertaining at the same time and Ian Stanton was the master of this." Johnny Crescendo (21st January 2015)
Whilst Johnny was a forerunner in this art form he was a close compadre of Ian Stanton. A wonderful songwriter, singer and guitarist, and the first Disability Arts Musician I saw playing live. Although I had been writing my own visceral punk potty-mouth polemics since the advent of The Sex Pistols gave me permission to vituperate the hostile world I encountered on a daily basis, it was in seeing Ian Stanton, that I felt legitimized in moving from a bedroom balladeer to a fully-fledged Disability Arts Creator/Performer.
For me the call to write songs about rights was a completely organic process. I didn't wake up one day and think, I know today I will write about the struggle Disabled People face, but rather that I had a tiger in my brain, and the tiger was clawing and scratching and trying to get to my mouth to roar out loud it's anger and confusion at the things it witnessed in the world around, and how I was made to feel. I don't have to contemplate and cogitate on what to write about, my emotions are physically palpable, and I get agitated, and when it is ready, a song no will come out of me. Of course I have to work on the music end of things to create a good song, but why I am writing what I am writing is driven from the soul, from the un-extended mind into the real world.
Of course protest songs don't have to be all bellicose and shouty, some songs, particularly in relation to the mental ravages oppression can manifest as, compounded further if they are within the inescapable confines of a familial setting.
One song that fits this bill is Sweet Family, by Lindsay Carter. Family politics can be the most destructive of all and when based around the misconceptions of who someone is because they are Disabled Person, then those politics can be devastating. I only met Lindsay once, when I took my mobile studio up to Newcastle to record her songs for a compilation of original Disability Artists songs. Lindsay was really difficult to record as she had the slightest of voices, yet when captured in the frame of a song, her almost whispered melodies delivered an integrity and power of emotion rarely witnessed in recorded Disability Arts.
What this tells us is, that Disability Politics in songs can run from intensely individual experiences, such as from the aforementioned Lindsay Carter, or the unusually successful, 'She's Lost Control, by Ian Curtis with Joy Division through to the grand gestures of Disability Anthems such as ‘Proud Angry and Strong’ Johnny Crescendo, “Rolling Thunder” by Ian Stanton, or even 'Action Dan' by Angryfish (aka Me):
And we have songs that mutilate the medical profession such as 'Bones of a Dog' from Mat Fraser and songs that lampoon the dismissive manner in which our needs hold little currency for instance again by Angryfish ‘Far Queue’ a tail of Festival Fuckanery, and many many more…
Of course there have been protest singers for as long as there have been things to protest about, and of course there were blind blues singers, who sang about compound or is what is often referred to today as intersectional politics and discrimination in the US and looking further back we can find 'The Blind Beggar's Daughter of Bethnal Green' (unknown author sometime between 1736 and 1763) a ballad performed more recently by visually impaired singer and storyteller Liz Porter.
So what is it that makes a great protest song?
In any good Disability politically orientated song, story telling is the fundamental skill, with of course a good tune or rhythm to carry the verse; drawing on as many experiences as possible from the vernacular of the picket line, to the lyrical genius of Ian Dury, from the naked outrage and brilliance of Karen Shreader and The Fugertivs through to the determined sophistication of Clare Lewis aka Dennis Queen, to the Folk of Julie McNamara through to the driving beat box beats and raps of The Krip Hop International Collective, songs about the histories, the pains, the hopes, the battles, the victories, the losses etc…
All of these things are the vital ingredients that go into the creation of memorable political disability rights music. I asked why do we do it? Why do Disabled Artists spend their time writing songs that they have no idea will be heard by anyone else?
Well we do it because it matters. We do it because we feel the pain with our brothers and sisters. We do it because we have hope and empathy, solidarity and optimism.
In putting together this article in addition to Johnny Crescendo, I asked three very different Disabled writers, from three different generations the following question “Why do you write, and how do you use protest music”. Here are there responses
Julie McNamara (London - 22nd January 2015)
"All my writing is a statement on the need to make social change. It's a call to action. The music we create excites or unsettles people, that can motivate them to make a change. That might just be changing minds about a situation in the world. I write more for theatre nowadays because I can reach more people with the work I'm doing. But all of my productions have music at the heart. The music is always set to a backdrop of visuals that give us an uncomfortable truth - stripping back the layers of hypocrisy that we digest daily and collude with as a society."
"It's important for me to include a visual narrative on stage, whether on film or with live action because It gives us another way into the narrative and I often feel Deaf people are distanced from the genre of Music, even Protest Songs."
Clair Lewis AKA Dennis Queen (Manchester - 22nd January 2015)
"I started writing protest music awhile after coming into the Disabled People's movement. I noticed music was being used as a powerful and uplifting media to spread our politics, practice our fight-back words, offer ideas and raise morale amongst our warriors and other Disabled People alike."
"That isn't why I started writing my own, I did it because Leigh Stirling encouraged me and said those of us with these skills need to do our bit using them, like we use our other skills to further Disabled People's emancipation. I am following in the wheel tracks of guitarist singer songwriters before me like Johnny Crescendo, Leigh Sterling, Ian Stanton and Robin Surgeoner - my heroes. Yeah they're all guys and I'm not. Ah well, times change!"
Jim McClean (Belfast 21st January 2015)
"I don't always think directly about my songs as protest songs though I am aware then many of them do fit that category... the most obvious ones that come to mind would be stuff like ‘Platform of Peace’ and ‘Soldier Boy’"
"But funny enough when I played Human Rights Fest just before Christmas it brought home the protest message of songs that I hadn't considered before (The obvious example, ‘Everyone's a hero’, which I used to point out the importance of each person regardless of race, religion, disability etc (so I guess that could class as protest worthy lol)...."
"I think basically I write a protest song when I have heard something (either a current event or issue) that has touched my heart (and/or wounded it) For example the last song I wrote was based on emotional feelings that were brewed up by this legislation about promoting euthanasia in Disabled People. I also write a lot of anti-war type songs or at least incorporate elements of my disgust at war and conflict in my songs... yes I think I'd say "I write a protest song when I am affected/ impacted so powerfully about an issue that I just feel I have to say something about it or I might explode"
The world of the Disabled Protest Songwriter is a world still waiting to explode. If content stifles creativity then austerity is effervescence. There is more to write and sing about than ever before, and more ways to make it heard. Be a part of the revolution and make our revolutionary music the backdrop to our battle cries.