The history and politics of the English protest song
Liverpool ballad printer John White gave this song top billing on a broadside dedicated to a controversial miscarriage of justice. Its long, involved narrative wrestles with the difficulty of condemning the authorities for what might have happened, but didn’t. It succeeds by depicting William Habron as an almost Christ-like martyr, and returning to variants on the sentimental hook ‘poor Irish boy’. The song ends by demanding £100 compensation for Habron.
First sung by James Hook at a meeting of the Anacreontic Society, with lyrics by Whig raconteur Captain Morris, this is one of the more ‘establishment’ songs on the list – an interminable shaggy-dog story that lampoons Pitt the Younger and his allies. It is most notable for its choice of tune: speech-like verses allow for witty recitative, while its nonsense chorus is supremely catchy. Perhaps because of this, the tune was used for dozens of protest songs for another hundred years.
Written after the Peterloo massacre of 1819, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Men of England’ was not given musical life until this setting of 1888 in socialist songbooks. Refashioned from six short verses to three long ones with a chorus, the lyrics remained pertinent generations on, combining poetic merit with simplicity and accessibility. In its new form, the first two verses pose provocative questions (‘wherefore plow / For the lords who lay ye low?’) that the third answers in no uncertain terms.
A protest directed at the shooting by police of Jean Charles de Menezes in London, July 2005. The lyric, having affirmed Menezes’ ‘ordinary’ character, reflects on the machismo and incompetence of a police force mobilised by the ‘war on terror’. As a war with only a vaguely discernible enemy, in which everyone was a potential suspect, Menezes’ Brazilian origin was enough to see him targeted as a potential enemy of the state.
This song warns against the dangers of Catholicism and directly petitions the king to ‘side with his subjects … who popery oppose’. It undoubtedly played a part in the huge Pope-burning demonstrations that were held in London in 1680. The tune ‘Young Phaon’ is perhaps a hint that the king’s illegitimate but Protestant son the Duke of Monmouth would be preferable as a successor to the throne than the king’s Catholic brother the Duke of York.
The emergence of ‘party’ politics from 1680 led to hundreds of songs attacking and protesting the existence of the other party. Using the language and music of the civil wars, this popular song accuses Whigs (who wanted to exclude the king’s Catholic brother from the succession), of wanting to bring about a new revolution in religion and laws and to destroy ‘Haughty Monarchy’, Nobles, Gentry and ‘all breeding’ so that ‘The Leathern-Cap shall have the crown’.
In 1603, James VI of Scotland became James I of England. He ordered that anyone with an annual income of £40 (perhaps £50–60,000 today) should present themselves at his coronation to be knighted and pay a fee for the privilege. This unprinted, privately circulated song protests the debasement of the honour and the social disorder it might bring, bitterly complaining: ‘Though thow hast neither good Birth nor Breeding, / If thow hast Money, thow art sure of speeding.’
In 1910, a minimum wage (two and half pence an hour) was introduced for workers in the chain-making industry. Employers refused to pay. The National Federation of Women Workers called a strike. The song castigates the employer (the ‘Sweater’), urges support for the union, and imagines a victory in ‘Beauty, Joy and Art’. After ten weeks of industrial action, all employers had agreed to pay the minimum wage.
The fatal flogging of cavalryman John White, for physically threatening his sergeant while drunk, occasioned numerous broadsides condemning his treatment and advocating reform and petitions. But though the case was topical, it also entered song traditions: this version was taken from the singing of a Mrs Russell, 61 years later. It combines timeless phraseology with both specific details and a call for action in the form of petitioning.
A typically witty Noel Coward ditty that was reputedly not well received by many wireless listeners who missed the heavy irony of the lyrics. Though the tide of the war was turning in Britain’s favour, it was not yet won. Accordingly, Coward applies a full house of slurs as he warns against allowing Germany to rebuild and recover after the war in a repeat of the rearmament of the 1930s.
Evidence from verses found on purportedly older drinking vessels has convinced some scholars that what is now the national anthem began as a Jacobite drinking song, protesting Williamite or Georgian rule and celebrating the king ‘soon to reign over us’. Yet it is likelier that these vessels were themselves crafted in 1744–5 after the song became famous in London, as an immediate Jacobite attempt to appropriate an instantaneously popular song. Even more than ‘Rule, Britannia!’, this tune has been parodied ever since: especially potent versions were sung by supporters of the French Revolution, victims of the Peterloo Massacre (1819), and defenders of Queen Caroline (1820).
The 1831 Reform Bill – abolishing rotten boroughs, redistributing constituencies and extending the franchise – was rejected by the Lords, leading to numerous riots such as that in Nottingham on 10 October. As part of state reprisals, three rioters were publicly hanged; this short, simple broadside, headed by a grisly woodcut of the execution, makes martyrs of the three men, warning that ‘doom’ will befall those who condemned them.
Of the many protest songs produced in support of the 1797 naval mutinies, this was the most damning: the authorities confiscated the manuscript copy from HMS Repulse and produced it in evidence as ‘an insidious song’. And so it is: the narrator protests their humility, loyalty, heroism, and patriotism – and uses this in support of the sailors’ provocative demands for better pay, conditions, and protection from arbitrary punishment – demands the song takes care not to reiterate.
Written for the first Aldermaston march in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, this song tells of the destructive power of the bomb and urges its audience to pressure their leaders to end the arms race, and instead to ‘house the homeless and help the needy’. The composer, John Brunner, went on to have a successful career as a sci-fi author.
Songs protesting conspicuous consumption of luxury goods reflected deep anxieties caused by social and economic change. In 1625, just twenty London hackney coaches plied for hire; by 1636, fleets of them blocked the city streets. However, to the relief of older, displaced trades such as carriers, carmen, and sedan-chairmen, they were (briefly) restrained by order of the city council. The writer calls for the coachmen to find other trades, in hope that the fashion for coaches would fade away.
The song originates from the 18th century and featured in the repertoire of the Copper Family. Its protests at unemployment and poverty were given contemporary relevance by performers such as Roy Bailey, Martin Carthy, and Steeleye Span, who turned the song into an uptempo romp, and more recently by Chumbawamba and Andy Turner.
The title ‘4 degrees’ refers to the devasting impact of that rise in global warning. The song addresses the difficulty of protesting at an unrealised prospect, rather than a present state. Built around the repeated phrase ‘it’s only four degrees’ and a thudding percussion track, Anohni sings – with heavy irony – of wanting to see the animals, the fish and the sky burn.
The Peterloo Massacre prompted literally hundreds of furious protest songs. This is one of the most interesting in its use of Handel’s grandiose melody; the author’s pseudonym ‘Alfred’ – a king closely associated with constitutional reformism; and its rhetoric. Tradition and patriotism are here used to defy native, not foreign tyranny, and foretell the ‘vengeance’ of ‘millions’.
Pitched somewhere in the accessible middle-ground between campfire singalong and Victoria Wood comic ditty, Grace Petrie’s jaunty performance masks a savagely satirical lyric. Backed up with album art deftly parodying a Guardian article, Petrie provides a millennial riposte to the journalistic trope that protest songs went out in the 1980s – a lazy assumption that ‘there’s no such thing as a protest singer’ to which this song itself gives the lie.
As late as the 1930s, singing this was (erroneously) believed by some to carry a ten-year jail term. Such was the notoriety attached to this true account of a disgruntled soldier hanged for shooting dead two of his officers – with a single bullet. Its power comes from adopting the unrepentant criminal’s narrative voice, before ending on a subversive moral: officers beware!
This typically loquacious Tory diatribe against venality is set to a lively Scottish dance tune. Its jingoistic war-time rhetoric contrasts an Elizabethan golden age with present weakness, attacking George II and numerous ministers. Littered with topical insinuations, its anti-Hanoverian critique borders on Jacobitism – and though aimed at voters rather than rebels, it calls for the government to be hanged, envisioning a future ‘British king’ in preference to the incumbent.
Few protest songs have ever been wordier than this dense, involved tirade against the rumoured demolition of a national landmark. Though a cheap broadside, it is teeming with Shakespearean allusions, thereby emphasising the importance of that heritage to popular culture – which, it claims, carries the Shakespearian flame whilst the fickle elite dabbles in Italian opera and ballet. In the event, the house was saved.
Penned by an antiquarian vicar but adapted from older songs, and first published in a regional newspaper, this has become for many the anthem of Cornish independence. Its subject – probably Sir John Trelawny, 1st Baronet, imprisoned by Parliament in the Tower of London in 1628 – is less significant than the stirring rhetorical question posed by its iconic chorus.
The early eighteenth-century tune ‘The Vicar of Bray’ is the perfect vehicle for this anti-vaccination tirade, published in that society’s campaign journal. It adopts the original song’s device of the turn-coat, hypocritical narrator, updated from a vicar to a medical doctor whose every word condemns both him and the idea of compulsory vaccination. The lyricist leverages popular distrust of experts, science, and the new.
Innumerable political songs were set to the stirring tune of ‘Scots Wha Hae’. This London broadside uses it to add eloquence to its support of the Slavery Abolition Act, that would emancipate slaves across much, but by no means all, of the British Empire. It moves from eulogising William Wilberforce to inhabiting the perspective of a slave, and, most importantly, calls on its audience of ‘Britons’ to petition parliament.
This early abolitionist song is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, designed by its activist writers to ‘pass’ as a typical Vauxhall Gardens romantic ballad whilst hitting home with an anti-slave trade moral, and recruiting the genre’s leading composer of hits for the purpose. It succeeded, remaining popular for a generation as one of many maudlin ditties more concerned with changing hearts than minds.
First released in 2010 as an attack on the coalition government’s decision to increase student fees, it was updated in 2017, when it became a Top Ten hit, to attack Prime Minister Theresa May after she broke her promise not to call an election. It was revived in 2019 for Boris Johnson. The song’s message might seem to be that all politicians lie, but each version of the song targets a specific offence by a particular government.
Both a protest and a call to arms, ‘Handsworth Revolution’ transfers reggae from Kingston Jamaica to Birmingham UK. The song details the oppression and prejudice that frames everyday life for people in Handsworth, where the innocent are convicted through police persecution and people are exploited through poor wages and hard labour. The social structures of race and class are challenged and exposed.
In this song Laurence Price, a hugely popular ballad writer and supporter of an unquestionably Protestant Church of England, speaks as a poor, law-abiding man, loyal to the Church. He complains at all religious extremists, such as papists, sectarians and atheists, but especially protests against the ‘mechanicks’ who were calling for the removal of bishops, and the ‘vulgars’ who have pulled down Cheapside Cross, stating that ‘This sport cannot chuse but make Lucifer laugh’.
This was written under the banner of People’s Liberation Music, which was formed in the early 1970s to communicate leftist messages through music. It was composed for a Mayday march in 1977 to protest at the deal (‘the Social Contract’) struck between union leaders and the Labour government to restrict pay demands – and hence to deny workers their fair reward.
Although Ewan MacColl was Scottish by birth, he was a key figure in the revival of the English folk scene. Of his 300+ songs, ‘The Manchester Rambler’ is one of the best known. It celebrates the freedom of the walker and decries those who deny rights of access. The song refers to Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District and the site of a mass trespass in 1932.
The verses of this demotic slip-song are familiar in both their structure and their complaint: everyone’s out to rob you, and here they are in turn – farmer, factor, miller, baker, shopkeeper, butcher, landlady. But its topical chorus, celebrating John Wilkes’ election as Lord Mayor of London, is unusual in holding out hope for redress: with his help, prices will be lowered and ‘roguery’ punished.
This denunciation of the arms industry, and the system that fuels it, represents the long history of protest songs written, not for commercial recording, but for use at demonstrations and rallies. It is in the repertoire of various political and community choirs, and has a hymn-like form, perhaps a reflection of its author’s Anglican faith.
Often taken as a protest at the Vietnam war, the lyrics do not refer to governments or politicians, but to evil. And the band’s singer, Ozzy Osborne, is quoted as saying he knew nothing about Vietnam; the song is just ‘anti-war’. While heavy metal has been linked to the politics of both left and right, it has rarely produced explicit protest songs.
The song satirises the boss (‘what do I care if it makes them ill … I've a car, a yacht, and an aeroplane’), who poisons the beer because ‘a strong and healthy working class is the thing that I most fear’. It was the first song to be released by Topic, which claims to be the world’s oldest independent label. Topic’s brief was to produce ‘gramophone records of historical and social interest’.
A mix of drinking song, lament, and protest, this dialogue between Dick, an ex-cavalier, and his echo (who, in Greek mythology, only communicates in song) bitterly protests at the presence of Presbyterians and ex-roundheads at court. Meanwhile Royalists, who ‘on their Bodies, bear the Markes’ of fighting for the king, and have ‘suffered Ruine of Estate’ because they were sequestered [heavily fined] by Republican governments for their loyalty, are living in poverty without recompense from the new king.
Long, opaque but unambiguous in its rejection of the rich, white, West’s ‘slot machine … plastic excuse’ for culture, this song evokes memories of recent violence, including the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the street protests of 1968. The refrain ‘Oh I hate the white man / And the man who turned him loose’ challenges the (presumed white) audience, especially in the last verse when it changes to ‘And the man who turned you all loose’.
Commissioned by Frederick Prince of Wales, whilst exiled from court, for the masque Alfred, this was originally a protest against British foreign policy, implicitly arguing instead for a ‘bluewater’, Atlantic-oriented stance, prioritising the Royal Navy and the colonies above intervention in European wars. As early as 1745, the tune was repurposed for other protests, and has been used by Jacobites and Jacobins, radicals and reactionaries, royalists and revolutionaries, ever since.
Flip to the b-side of John Lennon’s utopian ‘Imagine’ and you’ll find a suitably bitter piece of class warfare. The lyrics resent and resist the assimilation and/or suppression of working-class achievement. Evidently based on personal experience, the song captures the brief moment of social mobility afforded in post-war England and the resentments that continued to fester as class boundaries blurred.
Steven Biko, a young anti-apartheid activist, was killed by the South African police in 1977. In evoking Biko’s memory, Peter Gabriel made use of South African musical sounds and sung one line in Xhosa. The song mourns the death, but it also addresses the killers (and the regime they served): ‘You can blow out a candle / But you can't blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch / The wind will blow it higher.’
Set to a famous theatre tune, this is probably the most accessible song by the prolific advocate of land-reform and democracy, Newcastle’s Thomas Spence. It was published in a radical pamphlet that advertised it as having been written whilst in prison – bolstering its credentials – and credited Spence, perhaps apocryphally, with coining the phrase ‘the rights of man’ as early as 1780, eleven years before Thomas Paine’s landmark work of the same name.
A blunt rejection of racism and prejudice, ‘England’s Dreaming’ was released as the British National Party gained support on the back of a recession. As an indie band comprised mainly of British Asians, Cornershop called out the wistful nostalgia for a lost England that infused the period and the genre, alluding to a recent controversy surrounding Morrissey’s waving the Union Flag (a gesture as reactionary as the ex-Smiths singer’s paeans to unrequited love and social isolation had once been liberatory).
Charles Osborne’s song, sold as sheet music for two shillings and written for the music hall, seems far removed from most protests of its day. Nevertheless, appearing as it did in the midst of innumerable bellicose songs of empire, its critical enquiry into the scandalous treatment of veterans (epitomised by its damning chorus line 'That's what he did for England – and England did for him!') was a rare voice of dissent in the crucible of jingoism.
Vegetarian, gay, and hailing from Sheffield, Edward Carpenter was an inspirational socialist whose songbook collection Chants of Labour went through numerous editions. Unusually, he wrote both words and four-part melody to this, his best-known song. Its words are bellicose and bold, each verse featuring a rhetorical question in the minor-key second section before an emphatic closing response, while the tune’s surprisingly sentimental opening phrase provides an indelible hook.
In order to underline its message of pan-British solidarity with striking Glaswegian cotton-spinners, this Newcastle street ballad parodies a Scottish tune with a ‘Caledonia’ refrain. Its lyrics give voice to one of these strikers, who were on trial, under threat of deportation, at the time. It aligns both Whigs and Tories against the working poor of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Of the myriad political parodies of ‘God Save the King’, that of the Sheffield factory-worker Joseph Mather was maybe the bluntest – and the riskiest to perform at a time when radical philosopher Thomas Paine was outlawed, living in Paris, and Britain was newly at war with republican France. Mather puts Paine rhetorically in place of the king, calls for supporters of ‘church and king’ to ‘swing’, and distils his message to ‘Down with aristocracy / Set up democracy’.
One of many songs championing the cause and life story of demagogue and reformer John Wilkes, this celebrates his return from exile in France. It lists his powerful enemies, who are characterised as ‘the scum of the nation’, and urges Londoners to elect Wilkes as an MP. It uses a well-known tune, but the printed copy is headed with two engraved caricatures, suggesting it is aimed at a wealthy, educated audience of voters.
This treasonable song protests that, under William III, sailors were ‘unmercifully’ executed for mutinying over pay ‘when their Families were like to starve.’ It argues that this unjust treatment ‘will English Subjects fright / For our New Government to fight’, not least because some already fought 'gainst their Conscience’. Asking, ‘What times are these! Was't ever known / Twas Death for Men to ask their own?’, it urges Parliament to seize ‘the whole Government’ and ‘us from lawless Rule deliver’.
Numerous 17th-century songs drew attention to sharp-dealing practices. This ballad protests at illegal price-fixing by a cartel of London bakers, forcing food prices up even when corn was plentiful. It focuses on an unnamed ‘wealthy baker near the Strand’ who sold his corn and soul to the Devil and was ‘a punisher of the Poor’. The baker receives his inevitable come-uppance in the ballad but, by highlighting the problem, the song implicitly calls upon the city authorities to take action.
In January 1647, riots were sparked when Parliament raised an excise on ale and beer (regarded as essential foodstuffs). The balladeer supports taxes on strong liquors or wine, which are bought by the rich, but complains that tradesmen, the poor, and hospitality in general will be badly affected by the increased costs. It ends by hoping that the wars – and the need for special taxes – will soon cease.
Addressed to all ‘who dig, or own that Work’ and know ‘What ’tis to be a slave … since the Wars begun’, this song attacks the ‘great men’ – lords, churchmen, and lawyers – who have exploited the poor for their own ends. It complains that although the civil wars (when much was promised) had ended, nothing had changed. The song calls on people to seize their right (taken by the ‘Norman yoke’) to till the land and live for themselves.
Of the myriad songs published in support of demagogue and reformer John Wilkes (who was imprisoned at its time of writing) this is remarkable for the vehemence of its anti-Scottish sentiment at a time when Scottish influence at Westminster was a serious concern for anti-Tory factions. Printed as a cheap slip-song affordable by the poor, its lyrics are appended with a woodcut of a jackboot – code for the unpopular premier, Lord John (‘Jack’) Bute.
In 1649, Charles I was executed, and republican government established. This song protests at the British monarchy’s overthrow by using the analogy of a card game played for the crown between the Irish, Scots, and an English ‘Roundhead’. They cheat by playing ‘without a King or Queen’, while General Cromwell is the ‘Knave of Clubs’. The monarchy was restored in 1660, and a follow-up song in which the pack was refilled, called ‘Win at First, Lose at Last’, became popular.
The blind poet and bookseller Edward Rushton’s early experiences on board a slave-ship converted him to the abolitionist cause, and the imagery of this song against the press-gang (recruiting sailors for the navy by force and kidnap) is clearly influenced by those early days – the song even compares the press-gang directly to ‘slavery’. Rushton’s rhetoric widens across the song, eventually associating ‘oppression’ with the monarchy. His choice of tune, indelibly associated with the rights of seamen, is characteristically astute.
Describing the Glorious Revolution of 1688 from a Jacobite viewpoint, this song accuses the Dutch William III of plotting with rebels to seize the crown. Bemoaning how those to whom James II had ‘greatest Favour shewn / Appear'd to be the very first / Who sought him to Dethrone’, it claims ‘each Freeborn English heart / [has] Become a Belgick [i.e. Dutch] Slave’, ruining the standing and economy of the country. It calls England to ‘bring our injur'd Monarch home’.
This urban street song is a direct parody of a Scottish dance, written after the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act championed by Richard Martin MP. Though the verse is a somewhat comic narrative, the chorus – and moral – stridently rejects the beating of donkeys, suggests a kinder method, and warns of legal retribution for cruel masters.
This London slip song on an old theme pulls off the trick of treating with topical complaints in a timeless, traditional style. It unites rural, urban, and maritime grievances in a ranging, lyrical complaint, that favours gestures and emotion over specific targets and argumentation – a strategy well-suited to its gently unfolding tune, originally used for another song of a dispossessed exile. Its protest inheres in its general sentiment, making it fit for almost any occasion.
Banned by the BBC and ITA (yet reaching No.16 in the charts) this was an immediate response to ‘Bloody Sunday’, the murder of fourteen civilians (and wounding of twelve) by British soldiers in Derry/Londonderry. The British audience is told that their nation’s actions contrast with its otherwise ‘tremendous’ nature, reminded that if stopped on their way home by Irish soldiers they too would retaliate, and informed that it is hypocritical for Britain to proclaim freedom while Ireland remains unfree.
Unusually, the cheap-print version of Hone’s witty, subversive protest song (illustrated by George Cruikshank) provides the tune’s notation ‘to be sung exactly as set’. In eight savage verses, Hone castigates Lord Castlereagh for masterminding the repressive Six Acts, which quashed civil freedoms such as expression and assembly, turning a genuine carol into a bitterly ironic denunciation that could thus be ‘chaunted’ by Hone’s legions of readers.
Published in east Oxford, this remarkable broadside ranges across a host of controversial topics, relying on its dazzling, even surreal imagery to deflect accusations of sedition. Its thrust is class warfare; its targets are political corruption and oppression. Details emerge from the rhetoric: Tory Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington is blamed as a bloodthirsty autocrat; the proposed Reform Bill is denounced for the inadequacies of its reforms; workers are urged to strike.
Set to the same tune as ‘The Harvest of Corruption’ and concerning the same election, this street ballad is notable for its subtitle: ‘By a Lady’. Eschewing the irony and wit of many election songs, its tone is earnest, appealing to voters’ self-regard. Its ostensibly female voice is key to this strategy, challenging its audience to prove themselves as ‘real men’, honest, free, and independent.
Named after the pétreoleuses (women supporters of the 1871 Paris Commune accused of arson attacks), the band asserts their right to bodily autonomy, making a political argument from first principles (‘My desire, my right to choose or to refuse this encounter … my body and my choice’). Pre-dating the explosion of #MeToo in 2017, the song is part of a wider movement involving the sharing of experiences of sexual assault so as to draw attention to rape culture.
This rallying song calling for the removal of bishops was probably sung during the huge, sometimes violent street demonstrations that took place between December 1641 and January 1642. It attacks bishops as ‘fat belli'd priests that have Livings great store’ and the ‘rude regiment’ who ‘endeavour … To set the proud Prelates on Horse-back againe’. In contrast, the demonstrators are described as ‘troupes of courageous hearts’ that ‘of the Kings Subjects indeed are the best’.
Birmingham songwriter, satirist, and publisher John Collins was a staunch reactionary, making his abolitionist song highly unusual. In a typical historical irony, it has since been mistaken for the work of mixed-race radical preacher and publisher Robert Wedderburn, who re-published the song in 1817. Compared with similar works, Collins’ is disappointing: it makes its Black narrator more victim than accuser, and leans into exoticising and even racist tropes in an attempt to engender sympathy.
Written by prolific Tyneside songwriter-performer Ned Corvan, this ballad situates its familiar complaints of poverty and unemployment in a succession of topical contexts, especially the American Civil War. Corvan makes as many references to other songs as to current affairs, resulting in a rich vernacular protest that moves seamlessly from a raw description of hunger to a critique of royal marriages.
Notable for both its author, the famous children’s novelist, and its tune, a 129-year-old patriotic ode to the Royal Navy, this socialist song is exemplary of those produced by the early Fabians. It uses its rousing establishment tune to exhort ‘the people’ to unite as ‘brothers’ and fight with ‘wits’ and ‘tongues’ against that establishment – the monarchy and an insufficiently democratic parliament – in the name of freedom.
In November 1685, faced with strong opposition to his appointment of Catholics to elevated positions of state and in the army, James II prorogued Parliament and for two years attempted to ensure a compliant house by coercing MPs with threats and promises. This highly seditious ballad attacks the papist and debauchee King and parodies an almanac or calendar to explain month by month why Parliament could not be recalled. It ends by demanding the immediate recall of Parliament.
This song’s first, intensely moving, rendition was by Robert Wyatt, an overtly political musician. It is – formally at least – a protest at the Falklands/Malvinas war, fought by Margaret Thatcher’s government. But it is couched in a sinuously sweet melody, and acknowledges the dilemmas of opposition. War kills, but it brings work and clothes for the kids.
John Morgan was one of the century’s most prolific working-class writers of street ballads. This widespread protest appeals to a broad audience, but directs its accusations of mismanagement at the rich. Contrasting the wretched condition of the British soldiers with that of the ‘well provided’ French, Morgan’s song is archetypal of many Victorian reformers: patriotic, devout, and pro-war, but deeply critical of inhuman working conditions.
Written in implicitly anti-nationalist local dialect to an ironically jaunty tune, radical Carlise poet Robert Anderson’s song narrates the return of soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars. Its protest comes in its unflinching depiction of wounds and loss, lent a keen edge by declaring that both ‘Bonnyprat’ and George III have ‘been much to bleame’, and ending on the impassioned cry ‘Nae mair o’ murderous wars!’
Though written in Ireland and, crucially, before Britain declared war on France, this incendiary pro-Revolutionary song became the centre of controversy in 1794, when Sheffield publisher and radical James Montgomery was tried and imprisoned for printing it. The case turned on the lyrics actively taking France’s side in the ongoing war. In what seems a further provocation, Montgomery paired it with another song from our list, ‘The Tender’s Hold’.
Recording as being sung by Huddersfield cropper John Walker before a gathering that would go on to destroy shearing frames, this Luddite song is designed to raise morale among protestors. It defies soldiers and constables, rather than advancing a set of claims; features a rousing, boastful chorus; and includes an in-joke by referring to their unstoppable leader ‘Great Enoch’ – a hammer!
This song-sheet is topped with a fine woodcut portrait of the king from an engraving after van Dyke. It sees Henry Walker, a radical preacher and influential newsbook editor, directly – but respectfully – petition the captive Charles I to accept Parliament’s peace proposals and make a welcome return to his throne, from whence he could ‘Looke on our army (prostrate at your feete)’ once ‘King and Parliament, and Army eke / Joine hearts in one triangle as they speak’.
Written during a strike at a lemonade factory in London’s Camden Town, this song remonstrates the sacking of Annie Lowin, a trade union activist whose campaigning for workers’ rights upset ‘Master Willie’ Idris. The song tells the tale, rallying support among women workers and asserting their right to union representation. Sung to the tune of ‘Every Nice Girl Loves a Sailor’, it failed to get Lowin reinstated, but it did document class tensions and gender dynamics in early twentieth-century England.
Fittingly, this early song of unionisation took its tune from a four-part American anthem, following earlier Chartist practice in encouraging collective endeavour through musical harmony. Published as a cheap broadside headed with a large image of bucolic prosperity, its lyrics risk didacticism as they seek to convince labourers of the union’s benefits. Still, its platitudes make for good singing by a large body of men – which was the entire point.
Though set to a merry tune, this Royalist ‘caroll’ protests the political, social, and religious divisions brought about by Parliament’s actions and warns that the monarchy is now threatened. The imprint is a mock-up of an official order instructing that it should be sent to all parishes. It was published at least twice: on 11 January 1648, during the second civil war, and on 24 September as the army purged Parliament of Royalist sympathisers in preparation for the king’s trial.
Addressed to those who deny rights and respect to those who are not white, this song offers a defiant riposte. Whatever barriers you put in my way, Labi Siffre suggests, the stronger I become. His tormentor is not given a name or a category. For much of the song, the contest is between ‘you’ and ‘I’, but towards the end Siffre introduces ‘we’ (‘brothers and sisters’). The personal complaint becomes a collective demand.
In the twentieth century, folklorist Albert Lloyd popularised the view that this was the first ever English protest song, dating back to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The story goes that its nursery-rhyme lyrics are a coded encouragement to kill the king, Richard II. Yet it originally appears in a collection of Ancient and Modern Scots Songs from 1776 – making its afterlife and mythical status far more interesting than its actual origins.
Of the many songs associated with the campaign for votes for women, this is perhaps the most famous. It was performed at Women’s Social and Political Union meetings in the Royal Albert Hall and at protests in Holloway Jail. A rallying call for women’s suffrage, rather than a direct criticism of the existing system, the song announces that ‘the dawn is breaking’ and that supporters of the cause must stand together.
Eugène Pottier’s anthem was originally an 1871 reworking of the ‘Marseillaise’, before Pierre De Geyter’s melody gave it a separate identity, to be circulated and translated around the world. The English lyrics sought to balance literal sense with poetic sensibility – and though a century later Billy Bragg dubbed them ‘archaic’, the chorus remains strong: simpler than the verses, carried by a melody that, when sung by many voices, has an emphatic payoff.
So earnest that it repeats its message in (sub)title, epitaph, and an eleven-verse narrative, this broadside ballad aimed squarely at ‘rash young Men’ in fact begins by admonishing the miserly fish-merchants of Billingsgate. By turn ironic, hyperbolic, plaintive, and stoical, the narrative voice enumerates and critiques graphically dire working conditions, and advances a simple solution borrowed from its tune’s original chorus: just don’t go!
As a verbal topography of deindustrialisation, ‘Ghost Town’ mapped the desolation of inner-city Britain in the early period of Thatcherism. It protested that there were no jobs and nowhere to go, leading to ‘people getting angry’. Famously reaching No.1 in the charts as riots spread across the UK, the mix of reggae rhythm and punk critique ensured the song became the soundtrack for a summer of discontent. The multi-racial nature of the band only added to its pertinence.
Released in the wake of the Falklands War, ‘How Does it Feel’ charged the prime minister Margaret Thatcher with cynically escalating a conflict with Argentina to reassert her authority and distract from the problems her policies engendered at home. The lyrics are spat directly at Thatcher, with the dead and injured mourned as collateral damage in a quest to reinstate national pride.
This song urges English Protestants to support their fellow Protestants, the Scots ‘Covenanters’. It calls first for the removal of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, whose Church reforms they considered ‘papist’, for misleading Charles I into making war against the Scots. Secondly it calls for the release of the Puritan-friendly Bishop of Lincoln from the Tower of London. It employs a sustained series of horse-riding metaphors – alluding to a ‘Scotch sermon that compared the Kirk to a horse’.
William J. Fox, a minister, journalist, and future MP, had a secret weapon in his ward and amanuensis, composer Eliza Flower, who set numerous political songs to music including this: Fox’s exhortation to support the Reform Bill, drawing on Magna Carta for historical inspiration. The song was both published in his newspaper, and sold – with its music – for the subsidised price of one penny.
Dubbed the ‘Corn Law Rhymer’ and ‘Poet of the People’, Ebenezer Elliott penned this hymn in his late sixties, shortly before his death. Its rhetorical questions and pleas for divine aid may read as defeatist, but speak of the profound religious faith shared by so many activists. Written for communal, even devotional performance, it contrasts ‘the people’ with ‘thrones and crowns’, deeming the latter undeserving of divine protection.
While animal rights politics was on the rise, linked with wider opposition to the exploitation of nature, this song brought an existing slogan (associated with the Animal Liberation Front) into wider public consciousness, where it has since stayed. Opposition to meat eating is communicated through the sounds of distressed animals and lyrics seeking to effect a rhetorical ‘redescription’, changing the meaning of meat from something harmless (‘the flesh that you so fancifully fry’) to ‘murder’.
Released during the 1984–5 Miners’ Strike, this song presents a history of ‘industrial relations’ and social democracy. The EP included two pro-union songs; profits went into the strike-fund. Lyrically it is subtle, the titular wars evoking both World Wars, perhaps a Third still to come, or the class war. There is ambivalence about war-work (see also ‘Shipbuilding’). The musical style references a canon of labour/political songs, resonating with the theme of commemoration. The first-person pronoun constructs a shifting relationship between singer, song, subject, and audience.
William Morris’ Chants for Socialists were widely published, including in a dedicated pamphlet of seven songs, priced just one penny in order to reach its targets. This march is exemplary, making use of a ubiquitous American tune, trading in epic and Romanticist imagery – but perhaps tries to achieve too much at once and pitches its tone too high (‘weave thy raiment’; ‘the blended sound of battle and deliv’rance’), a common shortcoming of elite attempts at demagoguery.
Vastly popular and still well-known, this Northumbrian song is uncompromising in its attack on would-be strike-breakers. Its message is simple: miners should join the union and back strikes, or they will be scorned, ostracised, bullied, and even killed by one of several graphic means! Though born from one specific strike, the coalminers’ lockout of 1844, its colourful narrative and catchy refrain have lent themselves to reuse ever since.
This Wilkite slip-song makes the most of its agricultural metaphor, in which corrupt Tory authorities ‘glean’ votes – a fit analogy, given that the enclosure of the town moor was at stake. Though witty, its argument is perhaps over-involved, and did not convince enough of its audience of voters. Indeed, its ironic ‘support’ for ‘Watty’, the Tory candidate, may even have been taken at face value.
In August 1640, Charles I’s war against the Protestant Scots Covenanters was going badly. Martin Parker, a well-known ballad-writer, was part of a Royalist circle of cheap-print authors. His song (perhaps sponsored by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud) attempts to persuade the nation to support the king’s cause, in person or with money. It admonishes ‘all English men’ to ‘abandon the fond opinion (which too many doe conceave) of the Scots good meaning to England’.
This song appeared at the end of the first civil war during peace negotiations. Charles I was held captive by the parliamentarian army, but neither king nor cavaliers accepted defeat. The ballad offers a Royalist take on the causes and events of the civil war (including a virulent attack on Parliament’s religious and tax reforms) and calls for the king to be restored to power.
In 1992, the completion of the London–Southampton M3 motorway cut through Twyford Down, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Local protestors, national conservation groups and eco-protestors engaged in a long stand-off which ended brutally. Including sounds from the protest and describing the Down as the ‘legendary resting-place of King Arthur’, this song mourns a loss to Englishness, and urges action against the ‘market forces burning through the hills’.
This is the second of two songs taken from The Charnwood Opera, a play organised by a local rural community in protest at enclosure. This four-verse protest makes expert use of its tune ‘The Vicar of Bray’ to evoke the twisting tricks over time of enclosers, and it combines a familiar nostalgia for better days with bellicose defiance, threatening violence against the despotic local landowners it ridicules as ‘little Squires’.
Of this paean to a Jacobite martyr executed in 1697 by order of Parliament, and sung by the Tory elite of the Borders region, only the tune remains. But on 22 August 1701, this tune alone led to a duel in Newcastle between the performer, John Fenwick of Rock, and Ferdinando Forster: the latter was killed and the former executed for his murder!
This ballad subversively protests the impoverished and peace-loving King James I’s policy of non-intervention in Europe’s religious wars, and hopes to prompt a change of mind. Published in response to the disastrous Battle of the White Mountain (1620) between imperial Catholic forces and the Protestant Kingdom of Bohemia, which drove James I’s hugely popular daughter Elizabeth of Bohemia and her family into exile, the song calls for volunteers to support Frederick of Bohemia’s attempts to recover his kingdom.
The effects of slavery, in Macka B’s telling, are both personal and political. It is him in the pictures of lynchings; it is the legacy of slavery that is lived now. Slavery is described as the ‘black holocaust’ (see also ‘Maangamizi’), and listeners are urged to recognise this history – and to put their faith in Rastafari.
A protest at the stultifying and distorted teaching of history in schools. The song satirizes a history of great men and their heroism, contrasting this with the harsh realities of war (‘Green the gas as it gutters the trenches/Black the smell of the smoke from a gun’). It was once sung by the Labour MP Tony Benn and Roy Bailey at the Cambridge Folk Festival.
The Angelic Upstarts specialised in anti-police protest. This, their debut single, accused the local Chester-le-Street constabulary of murdering a 39-year-old electrician and boxing coach, kicking him to death following his arrest for being drunk and disorderly in 1976. The song starts slowly before hurtling forwards in a punk thrash asking ‘why did he die’? ‘Murder’ is the conclusion, repeated in another quiet segue before a boisterous end.
David Morgan, a Welsh lawyer and Jacobite commander executed in 1746, wrote two songs with this title while fighting in England. The song celebrates the birthday of James Stuart. Morgan uses a Welsh hymn tune to set six verses that turn from celebration, to dismay, to arguing the Pretender’s cause before what is apparently an undecided audience. As is typical, it lays claims to the persuasive language of patriotism, economic interest, and custom.
One of those songs – like ‘We Shall Overcome’ – that gives protesters a chant as well as a message. No other protest song has attracted the same level of attention. It was recorded in a Canadian hotel bedroom, with various late-’60s luminaries, and starring pop’s most famous couple, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Few remember the lists that constitute its verses, but almost everyone knows the chorus. Its power perhaps lies in its simplicity
Unusually, this anonymous street ballad addresses its appeal to (fellow?) women, arguing that ‘If Eve’s daughters but will it—the battle was won’. It is a compelling articulation of the power of female appeal to effect legislative change. Written in an educated tone, it makes a provocative connection between military brutality, class inequality, venality, and poverty, packing in references to Robert Burns, an unknown dead serviceman, patriotism, and the Mutiny Act.
Riffing on the earlier ‘If I Had A Donkey Wot Wouldn’t Go’, also on our list, this Cockney-style slip song extends arguments against animal cruelty to apply to women and children, exploiting the hypocrisy of greater legal protection from violence for donkeys than for a man’s own family. It also inveighs against malnourishment of both donkeys and dependents, but its chief target is a judicial policy of non-interference in cases of domestic violence.
Published in Robert Thomson’s astonishing revolutionary pamphlet A Tribute to Liberty, this song is the first of a pair. It impersonates the reactionary politician Edmund Burke, newly infamous for his description of the British masses as a ‘swinish multitude’, and uses this voice to construct a deliberately preposterous, self-defeating argument against democracy; the second song is the far more convincing ‘The “Swinish Multitude’s” Reply’. Both use the same tune, by then perhaps the standard setting for political songs.
The first of a series on the same urgent topic, this song protests that rich, wholesale brewers are unjustly increasing beer prices because of wartime excise taxes. The balladeer points out ‘parliament they, was pleased to lay / the Tax upon those that are able to pay’, but that the brewers are passing the cost on to retailers, who are in turn forced to serve ‘small’ [weak] beer and short measures to the poor.
Britain’s referendum campaign on membership of the EU in 2016 did not generate many songs, but this hip-hop offering from 4NBoyz humorously plays with stereotypes of Eastern Europeans in the UK – taking jobs and making money (‘Squatting on a Lambo’). It mocks the outrage of the Daily Mail and laughs at immigration policy (‘Fuck Brexit! We’re here to stay!’), while making a serious point about the importance of immigrants and the reality of globalisation.
This is one of two songs taken from The Charnwood Opera, a play organised by a local rural community in protest at enclosure. Employing a ubiquitous, infectious tune, the song launches an explicit, excoriating attack on both specific targets and enclosers, excisemen, and politicians in general – but it also weaves in sexual innuendo via the homophone coney/cunny. It is a rare, exhilarating example of bottom-up invective.
One of several punk songs that responded to the rise of the National Front (NF) and its racist politics. The Desperate Bicycles combined musical experimentation (two minutes of insistent organ riff) with punk’s DIY practices (‘cut it, press it, distribute it’, as this song says). Its main focus may be on the NF, but its argument is that it is ‘capital [not immigration, that] takes your jobs’.
This song, which was performed all over the country, protests at the tyranny, corruption, and failure of the Long Parliament’s ‘Commonwealth’ government and celebrates its sudden dissolution by Cromwell’s New Model Army in April 1653. Though full of praise for Cromwell, the ejected MPs were called ‘Rooks’ whose ‘lustful desires’ led them to ‘gull and cozen all true-hearted People’. It was so shocking that the publisher was imprisoned, and people were still talking about it thirty years later.
Vylan recounts experiences of racial abuse and stereotyping, punctuated by the refrain ‘We didn’t appear out of thin air / We live here’, intensified by distorted guitar, assertive vocals and well-placed profanity. Released during a summer of Black Lives Matter protest, the song also recalls the 1993 racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. Its video represents archetypal London-Englishness: fish and chips, pubs, playing pool, corner-shops and council estates. Vylan wears a T-shirt referencing anarcho-punks Crass, and communicates a particular English experience.
In 1641, parliamentary pressure and huge street demonstrations forced Charles I to consent to the execution of his chief minister, Sir Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, for advising the king to pursue popish policies. This song complains that several other government ministers and clergy had fled the country to avoid similar punishment. It hopes that ‘England and Scotland / Might joyne hand in hand’ and calls for ‘all false Traytors’ to be ‘banisht our Land’.
Though desertion had been a capital offence since the first Mutiny Act of 1689, this broadside disingenuously presents the punishment as a new decree by the unpopular Duke of Marlborough. The song is actually Jacobite propaganda, using the issue of soldiers’ rights in a play for hearts and minds, leveraging soldiers’ loyalty to the Duke of Ormonde, who had led the army for the past three years before losing everything and fleeing to France following the death of Queen Anne.
Written in protest at ‘The International Year of Disabled Persons’, Ian Dury, who himself contracted polio, dubbed it an ‘anti-charity’ song. The lyrics display his variant of cockney slang: ‘I wibble when I piddle / Cos my middle is a riddle’, and its chorus parodies Spartacus’s defiant cry. It was banned by the BBC and other broadcasters, yet it was part of the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics in London in 2012.
This song denigrates supporters of William of Orange’s invasion by ventriloquising the voice of a turncoat in William’s entourage (Ford Grey, Earl of Tankerville was perhaps intended). Asserting no good lies behind the ‘Glorious Revolution’, the turncoat concludes: ‘Religion I ne’re had none, / Except to disturb the Throne: / With Orange now … I venture both Life and Limb. / And if the Great Turk, / Wou’d set me at work, / I would do as much for him.’
The promotional video makes brutally clear the song’s message. A priest – the Sky Pilot – is seen blessing soldiers destined for Vietnam, and then turns to bless two Nazi soldiers. The song’s cheery chorus sugar coats the condemnation of the Church’s hypocrisy (‘he’s a good holy man’) in condoning the war in Vietnam
Imprisoned in 1962, anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela became an internationally recognisable political prisoner. Many Western leaders including the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher considered Mandela a terrorist, but a global campaign to free him made him a figure-head for the anti-apartheid movement as a whole. The lyrics describe Mandela’s captivity and torture, before repeating the title’s demand for his liberation. Notably, the song is upbeat, danceable, and a joyful celebration rather than being dour or aggressively demanding.
‘Maangamizi’ is a Swahili word for the genocidal consequences of slavery (see also ‘Effects of Slavery’). The song itself was prompted by the campaign for reparations for the slave trade. Akala, an activist and educator as well as musician and author, construes Maangamizi as the ‘African hellacaust’, in a song that documents the history of slavery and colonialism from Ancient Greece to the present (and the role of the World Bank and the IMF).
Riffing on the age-old theme of inversion, John Bruce Glasier’s socialist lyric uses the simple tune of an old sea-song, lending connotations of jollity and optimism to its promise of a coming revolution. Whilst its chorus makes the collective claim, the verses dwell on the irony and hypocrisy of the rich, turning the screw of social inequality in support of its final proposal: ‘to overturn the whole vile lot’.
Taking his melody from a work by Lord Byron and Sir Henry Bishop, Alfred Fennell maintains a high tone in this republican anthem. A generation before the more famous song of the same name, he conjures up heroic martial imagery to inspire radical audiences, decrying both atrocities across Europe and ‘the cant “moderation”’ at home. Few songs of the era are as outspoken against the monarchy.
On 26 May 1714, ‘a vast Multitude of Shoemakers’ presented a petition outside Parliament, pleading their cause and asking for relief. Parliament responded by calling them ‘riotous’ and passing an ‘Order against tumultuous Assemblies’. This broadside frames the trade heroically, redirects the petition to the Queen, and disingenuously presents the affair as successful, promising redress – perhaps to placate protesters; perhaps to legitimise their ongoing cause. Its intentions are therefore ambiguous; nevertheless, the protest itself is immortalised.
‘Wilkes and Liberty’ was the slogan that defined English radicalism in the 1760s. This song printed for the Scots Scourge is exemplary of many in support of Wilkes, a demagogue and reformer: it celebrates his release from prison, mocks First Minister Lord Bute, and champions liberty in general. Its ancient tune ‘Chevy Chase’ highlights its English versus Scottish tone, while its engraved header image adds extra value.
Originally published in response to the ‘Clarendon Code’ acts, which enforced Anglican Uniformity and rejection of the Covenant on all clergy, this song attacks English Presbyterians. Recalling the civil wars, it prays ‘the king / and his Parliament, / In sacred and secular things may consent’ and calls for ‘One faith, one form, one Church’. It became popular during the turmoil of the 1679–80 ‘Popish Plot’ that raised new fears of popery at court, becoming a much-reprinted high-tory anthem.
This widespread and enduring lament pulls off the trick of taking a topical political controversy, and rendering it timeless, by making its narrator the widow of Richard Parker. Thus Parker, spokesman of the 1797 naval mutineers, executed for treason, becomes variously ‘thou bright genius’ or ‘my brightest angel’, the widow’s or the navy’s ‘pride’ – and he enters a pantheon of Robin Hood-esque folk heroes, aligned against an oppressive state.
Songs protesting conspicuous consumption of luxury goods reflected deep anxieties caused by social and economic change. This one became a standard. It pictures and ventriloquises an old man addressing a richly dressed couple. Complaining that noble and gentry households waste their resources and forge reputations with ’fond fangles and French fashions’ at the expense of the poor, it petitions for the charitable giving and liberal hospitality that the higher echelons of society had traditionally offered to the ‘lower sorts’.
A vernacular follow-up to ‘The Song of the Shirt’, this slip-song (a cheap single sheet sold in the streets) is prefaced with the assertion that many such women are forced into prostitution, lending moral urgency to its narrative. Addressing the ‘gentles of England’, it argues for what amounts to a living wage as a question of not only ‘justice and mercy’, but patriotic duty.
Using ‘Love’ as a metaphor for both Prince Charles and monarchical government, and addressing the British people, this song elucidates ‘What sorrows wee suffer since Love left the Land’. Written in response to renewed political turmoil after the death of Lord Protector Cromwell, it contrasts the hatred and sedition of the last twenty years with the benefits of Love, whose ‘Laws do not border / on strife and disorder, / He scorns to get his wealth by perjury or Murder.’
Of two songs that answered ‘The Whig’s Exaltation’, this was intended for a popular audience. It points out the ‘odious’ Irish catholic origins of the name ‘tory’ and accuses the party of trying to distract public attention with false accusations against Whigs while secretly plotting to reconvert the kingdom to Catholicism. The Tory voice sings: ‘we’ll rout the Good Old Cause / and mount one of our own … Because in Sheeps-Cloathes Satan goes, / Such Tories then are we.’
This song from the Cheap Repository Tracts (a publishing endeavour by moral reformers) is a rare example in our list of top-down propaganda, subsidised for sale among the poor in order to reform their working practices. It counts as ‘protest’ because it takes the part of ‘dumb beasts’ – donkeys, horses, cattle – using the device of a religious dream narrative to argue against cruelty to animals.
James Leigh Joynes was that rarest thing, a socialist Master at Eton. He wrote this song to fit two famous, rousing, radical tunes, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Partant pour la Syrie’, in order to broaden its reach – and he succeeded: it was sung as far afield as New Zealand and Pennsylvania. The lyrics are typical of a muscular, Victorian, Christian masculinity, but are distinguished by their explicit vision for a republican future.
In autumn 1814, 7,000 Tyneside seamen left unemployed by the General Peace protested at Cullercoats for a month, before being dispersed by soldiers. The young cobbler William Mitford immortalises the event in this song published by influential printer and activist John Marshall. He uses bathos to lampoon the soldiers as would-be ‘Cossacks’, every bit as bloodthirsty but far less competent than the famous horsemen, to the melody of an irrepressible stage-Irish comic song.
A flailing – and breakneck – protest against oppressive social structures, ‘White Riot’ makes common cause with black communities resisting police harassment in 1970s Britain. Inspired by the riots that cut through the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, the song recognises the intersection between class and race, speaking truth to power while rallying a punk response.
One of several pieces composed whilst Thomas Cooper was in prison – a common theme among radical songwriters! – this ‘anthem’ constructs a lineage of international freedom fighters to inspire its activist audience: Wat Tyler, John Hampden, William Wallace, and William Tell. Underscored by its staunch tune and self-consciously antiquated style, Cooper’s rhetoric presents Chartism as a cause with a long heritage, but an even longer future.
Latin Quarter, who came to prominence with their hit ‘Radio Africa’, wrote elegant and articulate pop songs. For them, political anger did not require a raucous rock accompaniment. ‘Dominion’ exemplifies this. It documents man’s brutal destruction of wildlife (‘reptile, feline, amphibian’). It urges a radically new relationship between the planet and its inhabitants.
Clause 28 of the Local Government Act (1988) prohibited ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Resistance to it formed part of wider consolidation of support for gay rights. The song includes an impersonation of Margaret Thatcher (addressed directly as ‘Iron Lady’). A rap by MC L-Dog makes connections to AIDS, NHS underfunding, the indistinguishability of political parties and the clamping of cars. Section 28 was repealed in England in 2003; wheel clamping on private land was banned in 2012; the NHS remains underfunded.
Few songs have been covered as often as ‘Streets of London’, a staple of folk clubs throughout England, but also a chart hit. Its familiarity and elegant melody may have distracted some from its protest, but there’s no doubting Ralph McTell’s message in his portraits of the city’s homeless. The song challenges the listener’s self-pity: ‘So how can you tell me you’re lonely / And say for you that the sun don’t shine?’
This song was circulating in London on Easter Day 1646. It combines traditional concerns of a ‘world turned upside down’ and complaints at the loss of charitable hospitality, with a new tune that became a royalist anthem. Protesting at Parliament’s abolition of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, the line ‘Christmas was kil'd at Nasbie fight’ refers to Parliament’s decisive victory at the Battle of Naseby on 14 June 1645. Collective action against the Christmas ban took place in 1646.
This xenophobic song, set to a military tune, protests that French Protestants (Huguenots), who had recently escaped from persecution by Louis XIV, were undercutting prices in the London and Norwich clothing trades, leading to unemployment for English apprentices: ‘Have we not cause for to complain, / To serve seven years and all in vain / … I wish they were in France again.’ The writer calls for English workers to hope for better times and keep up their work rates.
Released and supported by a collective of artists, activists, and charities as a single to ‘raise awareness’, ‘Freedom for Palestine’ condemns the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinian people. The lyrics, set to an anthemic dance arrangement, lend solidarity (‘We’ll break down the wall’) and ‘demand justice for all’, though its reception was, predictably, mixed – Desmond Tutu, a prominent supporter, was praised in the UK parliament, but Coldplay’s endorsement led to anger from some fans.
This song thinly disguises a Royalist protestation against the Republican government by using a pastoral allegory. Jack laments ‘his master’ (the exiled Prince Charles, heir to the throne) who has ‘forsaken the plough and the cart’ and calls for his return. Addressing an audience of landowners – ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Yeomandry’ – it bitterly critiques the government’s policy of sequestration [heavy fines] of Royalists, arguing that ‘Rich Jack with poor Gill may walk to the Spittal’ [the poor house].
Birmingham publican John Freeth was perhaps England’s most skilful writer of political and protest songs during the second half of the eighteenth century. This song chastises the new king, George III, by imagining him confronted by his predecessor. Its lyrics cross the line from conventional rebuke (that the king is listening to bad advice) to outright accusation of the monarch, even raising the spectre of Charles I’s execution; a very bold case to make in print!
Linton Kwesi Johnson indicts police brutality and the hated sus (suspected person) laws that allowed people to be arrested under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. Over a reggae backing track, we hear Sonny writing from prison to his Mama about how he and his brother Jim were stopped and violently abused. Fighting back, Sonny kills an officer. The matter-of-fact delivery emphasises the daily reality of racism
Laurel Aitken was not the only artist to challenge the anti-immigrant MP Enoch Powell. Millie Small, famous for the hit ‘My Boy Lollipop’, also took aim with ‘Enoch Power’. Aitken’s attack is, though, the sharper condemnation, targeting Britain’s imperial legacy (‘You been ruling three hundred years’) and demanding equality (‘No matter what you say or do … we are human too’).
Defeated by the Protestant Scots Covenanters, the king was forced to sign a treaty that included heavy reparations, and to negotiate for funds with the new Parliament that met in November 1640. Numerous pro-Covenanter ballads set to ‘Blue Cap’ appeared, all claiming that a Popish plot to convert England and Scotland to Catholicism had been averted. This song also calls on Parliament to purge the country of religious and economic villains ‘so that all good subjects shall see better times’.
This is a raucous song expressing a general demand for liberation from patriarchal capitalist consumer culture. From the opening statement (‘Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard … but I say oh bondage, up yours!’) discordant vocalist Polly Styrene disrupts and contests established codes of behaviour for young women. The lyrics make a conceptual connection between gender/sexual exploitation and consumerism while suggesting that sometimes we desire our own domination and must learn to free ourselves.
Originally written in support of a miners’ strike in Kentucky and set to the tune of a Baptist hymn, this song has become a standard for protest all over the world. Billy Bragg released a version to coincide with the UK miners’ strike of 1984–5. The question posed by its title and chorus is intended to strengthen the resolve of those committed to the cause and to trouble the conscience of those tempted to cross the picket line.
Although there are many instances of classical music that engages with politics, this is one of two oratorios on the list (see also ‘What Passing Bells’). While its general theme is a pacifist one, it was inspired by the rise of Nazism, particularly the Kristallnacht attacks on the Jewish population. Michael Tippett, who had strong left-wing sympathies, drew on African-American spirituals. Originally, he asked T.S. Eliot to write the libretto, but the final version was Tippett’s alone.
Self-styled ‘weaver boy’ activist Samuel Bamford wrote scores of protest songs, of which this, subtitled ‘For Public Meetings’, is his most ambitious in both musical arrangement and practical intent: a pious ‘shout’ of liberty expertly set to a four-part dissenting hymn tune. Though other radical leaders scotched his plans to make this part of meetings, he went on to sing it with fellow prisoners whilst incarcerated, claiming that it even moved – and impressed – their warders.
Thomas Hood’s iconic, explosive lyric began life as a poem – despite its title – but was immediately set to music. Spawning numerous ‘Song of the ...’ sequels, it set a benchmark for critiques of working conditions. The lyrics, at once sentimental and stark, name no specific targets. But its context was pertinent: dedicated to an impoverished seamstress, Mrs Biddell, published in satirical magazine Punch, and swiftly linked to numerous campaigns for reform.
From 1679, laws restricting game hunting by anyone with less than a 40s freehold (owning land earning at least £2 in rents a year – c.£1–2,000 today) were harshly enforced by newly appointed Tory magistrates using bailiffs and dogs. This song, written in the voice of ‘the Land’, presents ‘to the view of all People’ the ‘Knavery and … Debauch’d Actions’ of the bailiffs and calls for a new parliament to right these ‘Villanous Outrages to Poor Men’.
A fire in Grenfell Tower in London in 2017 killed 72 residents. Singer-songwriter Lowkey witnessed the fire and wrote this song in the immediate aftermath. One verse is sung by Mai Khalil in Arabic, reflecting the diverse community who lived and died in the building. Blame is directed at the local council, but hope is found in the power of the people (‘Like a Phoenix we will rise’).
First published by the Independent Labour Party, the song is a cautionary tale of an ordinary worker, whose surname his boss cannot bother to remember. William is urged to work ever harder, earning fame as a star employee (appearing in the Daily Mail), only for his firm to be sold. William is the first to be made redundant. The lesson is simple: ‘If you work too hard you will surely be, / Wiser but poorer same as he.’
A journalist recorded this ‘little, political Ditty’ being sung in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to an enthusiastic audience – but spent longer describing the pamphlet’s extravagant woodcut (featuring a dragon-drawn coach) than discussing its twenty verses. These rail against the excise tax, damning it as Papish, Jacobite, un-English, while the chorus raises the spectre of a standing army. Its final verse in praise of King George is a pretty unconvincing afterthought!
This early and anonymous abolitionist song, distributed in cheap print, is one of several that adopts the narrative voice of a slave. It argues primarily by appealing to empathy and fairness, constantly comparing the narrator’s state with that of the free Briton, and challenging the latter to ‘equalize your laws’. Unsparing in its accusations and rhetoric, its espousal of universal human rights anticipates the revolutionary fervour of the 1790s.
Circulated as a street broadside in a turbulent context of massacre, scandal, and clamour for reform, this anonymous London song protests the infamous Six Acts that restricted freedoms including those of speech and publication. Its writer lists villains of increasing wickedness – all to subversive end – concluding that worst of all is the government that ‘would rob a whole People of Freedom’.
Edward Rushton’s song bears the imprint of his harrowing experiences on board a slave ship. Its prefatory verse urges the ‘rulers of the nation’ to ‘destroy’ the trade; what follows is a devastating subversion of a heroic sailor narrative. Its rash anti-hero, Jem, dies of fever off the coast of west Africa, ‘uncheer’d, unnursed, nay unattended’, a grim warning to other would-be slaver-seamen.
Joseph Geoghegan’s music hall parody, a riposte to the US pro-war ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’, has long held the status of a near-mythic folk song. Though originally taken as comic, its narrative of a soldier’s successive, debilitating injuries, as related by his former lover, have seen it repurposed seriously ever since, by everyone from Joan Baez to The Clash. Intriguingly, Geoghegan's version boasts a unique tune; subsequent singers reverted to the more famous melody of the original march.
‘No trace of love in the hunt for the bigger buck / Here in the land where nobody gives a fuck’ are the last two lines of this account of a world in which we wilfully ignore the truth of environmental decay and political corruption. ‘Europe is Lost’ is a bitter complaint at the state of the world in the aftermath of Brexit. It sits precariously between inspiring enlightened resistance and accepting despair and defeat (‘we are lost’).
This short song from John Gay’s phenomenally popular Beggar’s Opera – to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’ – is an eternal protest: the rich and powerful go unpunished for greater crimes than those for which they hang the poor. But it was also a direct attack on the corrupt First Minister, Robert Walpole, who actually had to sit in the audience and listen to it.
There’s a barely suppressed fury beneath this song’s lithe melody. Written as a conversation between the singer and a Jamaican man, it registers protest that, even after 40 years in England, some people are required to submit papers to obtain the right to be an ‘English girl’. It is about immigration and about identity. The song received renewed attention in the aftermath of the Windrush generation scandal in 2018
Like many songs protesting against those who ‘hath church government disturbed’, this one accuses sectarians of immoral behaviour, but uniquely focuses on the sacrilegious outrage of women preachers. Both illustrations feature ‘tub-preachers’: a man in a tavern, and (shockingly) a woman on a stage. It may have been sung in support of a campaign petitioning Parliament to suppress all sectarian preaching, which led to the Act against Blasphemy of August 1650.
It was not until 1840 that the illiterate cotton-spinner John Stafford saw his songs published. By then, he had spent decades singing highly articulate works like this one around Greater Manchester. Besides envoicing an impoverished perspective, this song counsels others not to enlist, as the military is a tool of oppression, calls for wealth redistribution, and supports those Luddite ‘heroes’ who resist the local militia.
Sydney Carter’s song, a foreboding encapsulation of the Cold War mood, was adopted by a number of folk groups. Part nursery rhyme and part horror show, its lyrics point to the inevitability of war and the destruction wrought. The atom bomb is not mentioned, but its shadow is cast.
Soldier, shoemaker, journalist, Chartist: Allen Davenport was a rare and energetic talent, as this song demonstrates. He makes expert use of Robert Burns’ tune – its rousing collective chorus and labouring connotations – to voice a strident protest that links its key complaint, ‘want of bread’, to high political questions of monarchical responsibility, laws, and free trade.
Until personal scandal damaged their friendship, the writer-reformer Harriet Martineau and composer Eliza Flower formed a remarkable songwriting partnership. This, their most successful song, was reportedly sung by 100,000 at a ‘monster meeting’ of working-class reformers in Birmingham, and remained in political repertoires as an anthem of unity and ‘li-ber-ty!’ until the twentieth century. Musically more complex than many marching anthems, its strength is in matching rhetoric to function: by singing the chorus, the crowd brings its words to life.
Released fifteen months into Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (when unemployment was rising sharply, as were racial tensions and the temperature of the Cold War), this song, part of multiracial Midlands Two-Tone ska, does more than call for her resignation: its title advocates for less aggressive policies and ‘standing down’ troops. The line ‘this all white law’ puns on the name of Home Secretary William Whitelaw. Performed on children’s television, it reached No.22 in the charts.
Within months of its composition, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle’s incomparable anthem was translated into English, and sung for a century as the Marseilles March or Hymn, in protests by 1790s revolutionaries, 1810–20s radicals, Chartists, and socialists. Anticipating the scene in Casablanca, it was sometimes sung to drown out ‘God Save the King’, and performances were often accompanied by violence and even arrests.
Sampling Blake, this a capella group re-present the poet’s pastoral idyll as a burning house on a ‘doomed estate’, a ‘homeland for the homeless’, scarred by crime and brutal policing. With the ideal of Jerusalem overcome by greed, dark satanic banking mills threaten to loom for eternity. A hopeful closing note, however – and quotation of Parry’s 1916 tune – proposes bringing back ‘the voice of burning gold’ and collaborating, with ceaseless mental strife, to make Earth, not England, the promised land.
Harriet Martineau and Eliza Flower, a formidable songwriting partnership, tackled international as well as British political questions. This ambitious, even portentous composition took its lyrics from a prose story by Martineau, and was published for a shilling by Alfred Novello. It assumes the voice of a Pole exiled to Siberia, indulging in Romanticist rhetoric of ice and snow, in order to draw attention to Russia’s harsh treatment of its Polish territories.
Born in Hungary, Gustav Spiller spent his adult life in England, and was one of many central European songwriters whose works fuelled English radicalism. A secular hymn, its lyrics replace God with ‘Human love our lord’, as it exhorts activists to keep fighting in their daily lives for ‘justive’, ‘salvation’, and ‘virtue’. In common with a significant number of nineteenth-century protest songs, it was set to music by a female composer.
Originating in 1586, this song was re-issued in response to Charles I’s 1632 proclamation ‘against the nobility and gentry residing constantly in London with their families’. It complains that the rich prefer to live in the city and appear at court, spending excessive amounts of money on luxuries such as coaches and starched ruffs. Consequently, in the country, rents are rising, ‘tillage’ is in decay, and ‘Places where Christmas Revells did keepe, / Is now become habitations for sheepe’.
Better known as the carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, John Francis Wade’s Latin text was not translated for nearly a century. Wade was a fervent Jacobite who fled to France after 1745: in this light, the original becomes a coded rallying call to support Bonny Prince Charlie. Given that prince’s long exile, the tune’s common modern use as the generic protest ‘Why Are We Waiting?’ seems especially appropriate!
Daniel Defoe famously said of this song that it ‘sang James II out of three kingdoms’. It was originally written in 1686 to discredit James’s Deputy in Ireland, the Catholic Earl of Tyrconnell, but in November 1688, following William of Orange’s invasion, it became an anthem for the English army, which deserted the Catholic king in favour of the Protestant William en masse. A ‘second part’ accompanied the riotous destruction of London’s ‘mass houses’ on 11 December.
Though attributed variously to Thomas Cooper and its own subject, Feargus O’Connor, this hagiographic celebration of O’Connor’s liberation from prison was, according to Cooper, written by an anonymous Welsh female Chartist, demonstrating the movement’s broad base. Its anti-tyrannical hyperbole was well suited to its use when sung by crowds in the streets of Leicester and Nottingham, leading to the deployment of armed horsemen and several arrests.
Targeting the fashion industry’s use of animal hides, ‘Skin’ is a visceral attack on culling and couture. The vanity of those wearing the furs and leather is brought to the fore, with facile justifications put to the sword. An item of presumed beauty is rendered ugly and obscene.
Surprisingly few songs have been directed at the power of the media. ‘It Says Here’ was written when the country was divided by the politics of Thatcherism, which was supported by most newspapers. Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg opts for reason, rather than outright anger, in complaining at press bias. Documenting the press’s sexism, its obsession with celebrity trivia and its political prejudices, he concludes: ‘just remember, there are two sides to every story’.
Hundreds of songs welcomed the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9 that forced the Catholic James II from the throne. In contrast, this ballad protests that it was brought about by base treachery and self-seeking opportunism. Both words and tune recall memories of the civil wars and Charles I’s execution in 1649. Pointing out that the change of monarch has achieved nothing, because government is still corrupt and religion remains in danger, it implies that restoring the old king would be better.
The long instrumental introduction, naggingly repetitive riff and world weary voice evoke the oppressive tedium and extreme demands of the Amazon warehouse. Like the songs that protested at the work regimes of earlier eras, this one attacks their online equivalent and the lust for commodities that fuels them. It is told through the perspective of a worker who imagines ‘one day, I’m going to run my own café.’
This song caused a sensation in 1679. Commissioned by one of the losing candidates in a hotly contested borough election, it protested the corrupt practices that had influenced the result. It attacked voters who had succumbed to bribery, corruption, and the creeping advance of ‘Popery’, and pinpointed the Duke of Buckingham (whose change of heart at the last moment had affected the outcome), and his vengeful imprisonment of a poor barber for ‘scandalum magnatum’ (defamation of a peer).
In 2014 the former BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read released ‘UKIP Calypso’. Endorsed by the UK Independence Party’s leader, Nigel Farage, it complained of ‘illegal immigrants in every town’. ‘Copycat Crime’ was a direct response: genuine calypso confronting the imposter. Alexander D Great is not just complaining (wittily) about cultural appropriation, but about Read’s anti-immigration politics.
Birmingham publican John Freeth was perhaps England’s most skilful writer of political and protest songs, right across the second half of the eighteenth century. This song articulates the complaint of a cottager against enclosure, and is distinguished among our 250 by the extreme specificity of its titular target, which Freeth combats on grounds of sentiment and custom as well as of economic necessity.
Few protest songs can boast of so specific and topical a title! Published in Newcastle, this radical broadside moves from condemning unjust sentences, wealth inequality, and transportation, to proposing detailed solutions: the legal regulation of employment and wages, leading to fair dealing, fewer sentences, and less hypocrisy from the bench.
Whoever first transcribed this Jacobite paean mixed up the lines of the first verse, one of three celebrating the rising of ‘loyal clans’, contrasting virtues of ‘honour’, ‘ancient laws’, and ‘freedom’, with Hanoverian ‘schemes’. Its stirring tune is especially apt in the context of the Scotsmen the (presumably) English author welcomes marching across the border. Special ignominy is reserved for the Hanoverian Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Wade, who is conversely praised in contemporary versions of ‘God Save the King’.
Channelling the soul of Marvin Gaye and other civil rights music activists, this song protests at racist police violence and promises popular resistance (the ‘wildfires’). It speaks to the forces of law and order (‘The bloodshed on your hands’), to the ‘we’ who ‘will never show fear’ and the ‘I’ who ‘will always care’. As a group, Sault have been closely allied with the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Recounting the experiences of a weaver in the Yorkshire mills, the song blames workers’ poverty on mean mill owners (‘Gaffer’s too skinny to pay’). It condemns the lazy cruelty of the industrial system, in which a woman hit by a flying shuttle is left to bleed, unattended. Poverty Knock has been recorded many times and in a variety of versions, by folk artists such as Roy Bailey and by the rock band Chumbawamba.
Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) arrived in England on board the Empire Windrush in 1948, already a fêted star of calypso. The song is an indictment of racism and its insidious effects, attacking both those who would try to deny their ethnicity (‘you use all sorts of Vaseline [on your hair] to make out you are European’) and the racist attitudes that pressure people to act this way.
Still known today, this Luddite anthem raises a new people’s hero to replace Robin Hood, insisting on the here and now of the people’s fight. It combines pugnacious hyperbole with a well-known patriotic melody in what is both rallying call and threat – but asserts that the cause is just and the means proportionate, and that if their grievances are redressed, ‘peace will be quickly restored’.
Eddy Grant’s career (with the Equals and as a solo artist) was evidence that commercial success did not preclude political content. ‘Jo’anna’ is Johannesburg, and Grant’s protest is at the apartheid state, which ‘keeps a brother in subjection’ and which is buoyed up other states and by its gold mines. The song’s darker sentiments are themselves leavened by a chorus that was to give Grant a No.7 hit – and a ban in South Africa.
This early and enthusiastic song in support of the French Revolution was set to the tune of ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’ – better known since as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Decades before Karl Marx, and perhaps influenced by abolitionist rhetoric, its high-minded oratory implicitly exhorts Britons to tear off their chains and follow the French example. Its author, a leading radical figure in the circle of Paine, Godwin, Wollstonecraft and others, sang it on the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille – 14 July 1790.
With the jolly rhythms and lyrics of a nursery rhyme, and Alex Glasgow’s teacherly enunciation, this song is a father’s lesson to his son on the keywords of socialism. The message of the song lies in its final verse. The father begins the song as a staunch unionist and ends it as a Labour MP, and as such has renounced the Socialist ABC.
Widely covered and often regarded as a general anti-war song, this was originally written (by a serving soldier) to draw attention to the neglected suffering of those on the Italian front. It rebukes Lady Astor (alleged to have coined the titular slur) and make fun of political authority. The bittersweet tune (soldiers’ favourite ‘Lili Marlene’) contrasts with the initially jolly words (‘always on the vino, always on the spree’) which give way to darker thoughts.
The lyrics, illustration, and street performance of this song, which ridiculed the king and his ministers, created a political furore. The author performed it directly outside Parliament, which met in Oxford in March 1681 for a showdown between parliamentary Whigs and Charles II over attempts to exclude his brother, the Catholic Duke of York, from succession to the throne. The king won: Parliament was dismissed, the song-sheets destroyed (three survive), the singer/songwriter was executed, and the printer fled to America.
This song voices the dilemma for members of the New Model Army, without whose accord the Restoration would have ended in a bloodbath. It argues that soldiers willingly took the Covenant Oath – to defend Protestant Religion and the king’s person – but complains that they were deceived by their leaders and had never intended to kill Charles II’s father. Though willing to accept ‘the old king’s son’, they now fear being deprived of pay, despite all their victories.
A stalwart folk troubadour, Rosselson’s story of the 1649 Digger commune recovers a moment of English radicalism that sacked the landlords and reclaimed the land. Named after Christopher Hill’s classic history book, the song disavows the power and ownership of property that enforces inequality. It also records the suppression of the Diggers as class power is wielded and ‘the people’ are ‘cut down’.
With each iteration, this protest grew more potent. The lyric published in 1780 came from a theatrical interlude of 1774, when its defiant refrain had no specific object. A radical 1793 reworking inveighed against despots and judges who deserved ‘the people’s vengeance’ – and it was this version that James Ings sung on the scaffold in 1820, before being executed for his role in the Cato Street conspiracy, which had sought to assassinate the British cabinet.
Homosexuality was decriminalised for over-21s in 1967 yet prosecutions continued under ‘gross indecency’, ‘soliciting’ and ‘loitering’ laws, while the WHO classified homosexuality as an illness. Using an ironic voice and light tune, this song records gay people being harassed, beaten, and misrepresented by the press. Seeking to reclassify the gay community as subjects of a civil rights struggle, the chorus ‘Sing, if you’re glad to be gay’ in this live recording is a powerful declaration of pride and self-redescription.
This ‘privately circulated’ anonymous song was written to protest the demolition of Newcastle’s Newgate, a much-loved ancient monument. It belongs to a local tradition of songs directly addressing and critiquing ‘Mr Mayor’. Though it caused enough of a stir to be recorded in local histories, its elaborate and often tongue-in-cheek wordplay may have undermined its intention.
Drawing attention to the burdens placed on women and the rights denied to them, it urges that they stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ so that ‘soon you shall be free!’ The song was written by Theodora Mills, a suffragette activist, and expertly set to the tune of a stirring regimental march.
In trench-warfare barbed wire trapped soldiers, making them easy targets for the gunners. Praised by J. B. Priestley as ‘genuine folk song, for the sardonic front-line troops’, the – easily adaptable – question and answer verses ask the whereabouts of various ranks. The Sergeant, ‘Quarter-Bloke’, and ‘C.O.’ have been seen indulging themselves some distance from the front line, while the ‘old battalion’ are spotted ‘hanging on the old barbed wire’.
Published as a broadside set to an ancient melody at a time when radicals were being prosecuted for sowing sedition among newly-recruited soldiers, this song’s title riffs on Edmund Burke’s infamous derogatory comment (see our song ‘Burke’s Address’). Rather than preach its anti-war sentiment directly and earnestly, the song takes a comic approach, satirising the rhetoric of recruiting sergeants whilst driving home its central message: sixpence a day and danger of death is a bad deal and a fool’s game.
Benjamin Britten used Wilfred Owen’s WWI poems for his version of the requiem mass. ‘What Passing Bells’ features in the opening section. The War Requiem was commissioned for the opening of the new Coventry cathedral. The mass commemorated the dead of both world wars, but also protested that they died ‘as cattle’. Britten himself was a pacifist, and said: ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’
Sheffield factory-worker and radical Joseph Mather was an iconic, irrepressible writer of protest songs, targeting bosses, soldiers, the monarchy, and more. His signature song was this eloquent invective against the factory-owner’s practice of paying his workers for only twelve files (tools used in wood- and metal-work) out of thirteen. It is notable, not only for being sung by generations of Sheffield workers, but for its result: Watkinson appears to have backed down after having this sung at him.
In later years as a political moderate, John Leatherland distanced himself from this song, which he nevertheless remembered fondly. Published in the Chartist Hymn-Book, it is exemplary of its type: a grandiose lyric to stir the radical ‘faithful’. Chartist leader Robert Gammage sang it to himself all night long when imprisoned to sustain his morale.
First published in a late-nineteenth-century collection, this famous Tyneside complaint from the Napoleonic Wars articulates the perspective of women whose menfolk were in danger of being press-ganged (effectively kidnapped by force to serve in the navy). Its rationale is provocative, placing a man’s duty to his family before that to his country, and even advocating that, when the press-gang appears, the ‘canny Geordie’ should ‘hide theesel’ away’.
An unprinted song protesting the impact on local livelihoods and the natural environment caused by drainage and land-reclamation projects in the East Anglian fens. The scheme was held up for at least five years, it was said, by ‘reason of the opposition which diverse perverse-spirited people made thereto’ including demonstrations of around 2,000 locals, bonfires, guns and noise and the ‘making of libellous songs to disparage the work’ of which this may have been one.
During the discontent of the 1820s, when economic recession and rising unemployment coincided with calls to enfranchise the working class, a raft of new editions were printed of a song that had, in some form, existed for centuries. Rather than giving topical names to its targets, this is the archetypal song of complaint: times are worse than once they were. Its focus is the agricultural poor, their wages, treatment, and the enclosure of the commons.
In most respects, this is a typical Edwardian anthem of empire, all blood-and-thunder patriotism and exhortation, echoed in Needham’s striding arrangement with its minor B-section and grandiose pay-off. But the sting is that ‘England’s the loser’ when ‘half of her children’ are disenfranchised. These self-sacrificing, dutiful ‘daughters’ are therefore urged to ‘awake and bestir’ in the cause of universal suffrage.
A rueful reflection on the concretisation of England and the hypocrisy of many who claim to be patriotic. The country is located in the soil and the rock, not in the flag and sanctioned planning developments. England now exists only in the pavement cracks and in those who tend the land and their gardens. Hope, however, resides in the radical tradition of dissenters bound to the common wealth and the common land.
The acclaimed poet William Cowper’s accusatory abolitionist anthem takes the form of a first-person appeal by a Black slave. First published in a middle-class pamphlet aimed at voters and merchants, it soon spread as a street ballad. Given its date and origin it is remarkably free of condescension and racial stereotyping.
Calling attention to abject poverty in general, and specifically that of the ex-servicemen, the song describes ‘happy England’ as a myth. Instead, the rich hoard their money. The song, though, does not call for a political solution; it asks only for charity from those in work (‘so help the poor man, the best way you can’). The lyric sheet was itself sold to raise money.
Few topics can have generated so many protest songs in so short a time as the Queen Caroline affair of 1820, when the king used Parliament to divorce his estranged wife. This song is exemplary: published for a mass audience by a radical north-east printer and set to the perennial protest tune of ‘Scots Wha Hae’, it adapts Burns’ lines into a staunch defence of Caroline of Brunswick as a pan-British heroine, and attacks the ‘villain’ and ‘knave’, George IV.
Blake’s 1804/8 poem celebrates religious, pastoral liberty, criticising industrialisation. In 1916, Poet Laureate Robert Bridges invited Parry to set it to music for the patriotic Fight for Right movement. Parry later gave the song to the suffragettes and after 1918 it became a Women Voters’ hymn. While its radical history is now little-known, its mythical words and rousing music still express desire for, belief in, and commitment to an England redeemed from itself.
Deftly set to an infectious, even playful tune of Charles Dibdin’s, this broadside satire protests Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger’s Two Acts of 1795 – draconian measures against free speech and association. Its complex series of political complaints and references is rendered accessible to a mass audience by the ‘pair of locked jaws’ refrain, an evocative image, easily grasped.
Belonging to the same tune family as ‘Sam Hall’, this enduring song of class warfare restricts its proposals to the refrain ‘stand up now’, focusing its invective on the crimes of gentry, lawyers, and clergy. Published from a manuscript copy by the antiquarian Camden Society in 1894, the song is attributed to Gerrard Winstanley (1609–76), a Leveller leader and Quaker. Its greatest impact, however, appears to have been in the later twentieth, rather than the seventeenth century.
This pro-Covenanter song typically protests at a Popish plot to revert England to Rome (MP John Pym made a speech to this effect on 7 November 1640). Untypically, it parodies a popular song of the moment, features a dialogue between a fleeing ‘Jesuite’ and a Scottish soldier, and complains of the introduction of ‘popish’ rituals and music in English churches. Only half the song survives, but it is unique in using balladry to protest exclusionary church music.
Set to a recent love song’s tune, there is nothing romantic about this fervent Tyneside contribution to the Great Engineers’ Strike of 1871. Written in Geordie dialect, it exhorts its audience of workers to hold firm, holding out the example of successful industrial action on Wearside. Imagining a dialogue with a Sunderland worker, it plays upon ideas of masculinity, justice, solidarity – and envy.
In 1719, a renewed Jacobite rising sought to install the newly-married James Stuart to the throne, in place of George I and his Whig government, led by James Stanhope. This straightforward song in support of the scheme berates the Hanoverian Whig faction who are likened to Roundheads; hails James as the king of honest ‘Britons’; and, most interestingly, warns listeners against ‘Lulibolero that damnable Jig’.
London-based Irishman Jim Connell’s song first appeared in a radical journal, set to the Jacobite tune made famous by Burns as ‘The White Cockade’. More commonly sung to ‘O Tannenbaum’, it has been adopted by the Labour Party, and by conscientious objectors in the First World War, besides being subjected to parodies like ‘The Foreman’s Job’. The verses narrate a story of international resistance; the defiant, collective chorus supplies the goosebumps.
The threat of nuclear war was the inspiration for many protest songs, but it was rare to hear one set to a calypso beat. Its protest is directed, first, at the very idea of war: ‘I would like to know what they are fighting for’; and then at devasting effect of the H bomb: ‘it will wipe the whole world out.’
This lesser-known version of a famous ballad at first seems timeless, with its familiar ‘love-letter’, ‘thousand pounds of beaten gold’, and ‘milk-white steed’. Its similarities to songs like ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ (an ‘ancient’ ballad contrasting a loyal servant with a bad king) reinforce the motif of a good man doomed by a wicked king. This lends its topical protest, against the Jacobite conspirator Lord Derwentwater’s execution for treason, the qualities of legend for supporters of the Stuarts.
The Earl of Shaftesbury led ‘Whig’ attempts to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from the succession and was tried for treason in London, which was a Whig stronghold. This popular song blames papists for cooking up charges against him and calls for him to be freed without a stain on his character. It was perhaps sung during large street demonstrations calling for him to be acquitted. A Whig jury did free him, but he immediately fled the country.
Many versions exist of this well-known lament, whose grievances are uncomfortably in tension with the jaunty hunting tune it employs. Working-class lyricist John Grimshaw accuses the rich of hypocrisy and threatens the ‘tyrants of England’ with retribution, while one famous verse in later variants contrasts empty wartime propaganda against the ‘tyrant’ Napoleon with the real tyranny closer to home.
In January 1660, General Monck removed the military junta that had dissolved Richard Cromwell’s Protectorate and restored the Long Parliament of 1640 in its entirety. Addressing ‘both commons and peers’, this song played a part in renewed street demonstrations demanding free elections (which were called on 16 March). Urging people not to vote for members of ‘that Reprobate “Rump”’ Parliament, who had embattled and executed Charles I, the song expressed the hope that England would now ‘cry up a King’.
Written in July 2016 after the Brexit referendum, rapper Dave’s song describes a nation at breaking point, and demands empathy and moral commitment from the political class. He holds the new PM Theresa May to account, asking about foreign and military policy, low pay, poverty, and the NHS. May’s perceived poor response to the fatal fire at London’s Grenfell Tower is also addressed, while more questions are put to former PM David Cameron and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Flanders and Swann filled theatres with recitals of their humorous songs (‘The Gnu’; ‘The Gasman Cometh’), but they included the occasional political song (about the EEC or about rail closures). ‘Twenty Tons of TNT’, coinciding with the election of Labour who remained committed to nuclear weapons, was unusually dark in its imagining of the threat posed by the bomb.
This song expresses despair for the collapse of trade and growing poverty in the City of London. It castigates ‘the causers / Of this separation / Which bred the civill / Wars’ putting ‘All things so out of order, / the Father kills the Son’. Warning that famine is likely to follow a long war (it did indeed come in 1647), it calls for peace and for the king and court to return to London.
A generation earlier, ‘English, Scotch, and Irishmen’ songs had been used as pro-Union, patriotic propaganda. This Chartist slip song, printed in Preston, inverts that ideology as it calls for the repeal of the 1801 union, seeking to make common cause against oppression, invoking Robert Bruce, William Wallace, and the provocative slogan ‘Erin go bragh’ (Ireland Forever).
Ernest Jones’ song is rightly remembered as iconic. Though set to music by Chartist activist John Lowry, thereby demonstrating the talents of working-class radicalism, it was also intentionally written to fit other, existing melodies, in order to broaden its reach. Its lyric glories ironically in the epithet ‘low’, an early example of ‘reclaiming’ a pejorative term, but makes clear that the ‘we’, though ‘low’, are central to agriculture, industry, taxation, defence, and migration – before ending in stirring forecasts of freedom.
The Slits’ punk-generated protest was embodied as much by their appearance and performance as by their lyrics. Here, though, they eschew all the tropes of being a ‘typical girl’, listing and subverting the constructs of youthful femininity as presented through commerce and the media. The song exposes cliché (‘typical girls get upset too quickly’) and rejects presumption (ironising the Velvet Underground line ‘she’s a femme fatale’) to present the possibility of alternatives.
This is one of the few songs about desertion from the military. It tells of a Liverpool lad, who, when drunk, enlists in the marines. Regretting his decision, he escapes – twice – to claim his freedom and to declare: ‘I can fight as many corporals / As you’ll find in the Marine. / I can fight as many Orangemen / As ever banged a drum’, adding a sectarian dimension to his defiance.
This unprinted song protests at the influx of Scottish court cronies after James I’s accession. Adopting and exploiting a contemporary stereotype of the beggarly Scotsman, it complains at their transformation into finely dressed courtiers, wearing luxurious foreign goods. The song circulated privately among disgruntled English courtiers, helping to build fellow feeling and identify potential allies who could pressure the king to distribute patronage more fairly. One copy came into the hands of the state.
This anti-war broadside ballad laments and opposes the ransacking of ‘New York and other places’ during the American War of Independence. An eloquent and unusually outspoken song, it is highly characteristic of many enduring ballads in presenting its ‘high’ subject of war and diplomacy in ‘low’ and relatable terms: fathers, mothers, sons, brothers, and a ‘house divided’.
This savagely ironic parody of mega-hit ‘Home, Sweet Home’ argues that rural Oxfordshire is now no such thing, by enumerating the daily burdens of the New Poor Law. Blaming farmers and nobles as ‘oppressors’ and the laws’ architects as ‘the spawn of hell’, the song promises retribution ‘in this world, or in the burning lake’.
It has been a long march for this song, from its origins in Chicago to its present status as anthem of the Liberal Democrats. In England, its greatest impact was in the Liberal campaigns of the 1900s, inspired by radical US land reformer Henry George. The song pulls off the deft trick of developing a compelling argument for redistribution in accessible, inspirational language, married to an intensely satisfying, catchy chorus to be sung by demonstrators.
The song recalls a confrontation – ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ – between the police and the miners during the strike of 1984–5. It was a shockingly brutal moment, after which 71 picketers were charged with riot. A subsequent official report found the police guilty of excess violence among other failings. Written 10 years later, ‘Orgreave’ compares the police to an army.
Published at the height of the civil war, and written in a comic West Country dialect, this song bitterly protests at the plundering of farms by both Roundhead and Cavalier armies and calls for peace. The writer articulates complaints often made by the ‘clubmen’ movement, which saw farmers from across the western region, armed only with clubs and flails, resisting the incursion of both Royalist and Parliamentary armies into their areas.
One of the many songs to be written by the women in the peace camp (1981–2000) at RAF Greenham Common to protest at the siting of nuclear-capable weapons there. While the armaments were the focus of the protest, the campaign was for feminism. The song turns verbal abuse into a celebration of the cause: ‘We’re brazen hussies / And we don’t give a damn.’
Fittingly for its satirical tune, then much in vogue, this Jacobite song takes a lighter tone than most, imagining a dialogue between the Devil and his ‘friend’ George II. The pair rejoice at Charles Stuart’s defeat at Culloden, as it prevents ‘Religion and Honesty’ returning to England. Interestingly, the song appeals to English Protestants, arguing along lines of competence, decency, and justice, rather than faith. Indeed George, the Devil’s ‘Tool’, is said to have no religion at all.
Printed first as a broadside, then in the radical Middlesex Journal, this song strongly opposes the war against the American revolutionaries, urging parliamentarians to vote against it, and the government to ‘recall your ships’. Its verses are distinguished by their cogent argument and vivid imagery, while a final verse in a different metre wickedly parodies the jingoistic song ‘Hearts of Oak’, implying that Britain is a tyranny.
The king’s Protestant, but illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, had joined in the attempt to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from succeeding to the throne, and was exiled from the court in punishment. Already a much-loved hero, this popular song was one of several that protested the treatment meted out to him. It praises Monmouth’s loyal service to the crown and calls for his ‘restauration’, clearly an allusion to Charles II’s own return to the throne.
‘Join the professionals’ was the slogan for Army recruiting advertisements. Here it is the chorus of a song that condemns male violence and militarism, represented by an off-duty soldier pinning a woman against a wall. The Raincoats took the view that all life is political, and all songs are political. The group disrupted male musical stereotypes that place the guitar and guitar solos at the centre of attention.
Collected in 1906 from the singing of labourer James Stagg, this song commemorates the Swing riots, protesting the conditions of agricultural labour, in Winchester. It was sung in the local community to foster unity and resistance against oppression. Its narrator is a machine-breaker, boasting of the group’s actions, trial, and incarceration; it argues outright for wage rises, and is implicitly in favour of further law-breaking.
For most of the 17th century, there was no standing army; forces were raised only during war. This song protests the desperate plight soldiers faced when disbanded from the army upon a peace. Listing all his military campaigns, the protagonist differentiates himself from boastful old beggars who ‘rove from place to place: / For to make known my woeful Case’. He demands shillings rather than scraps of food and, in a final passage, threatens to take up highway robbery.
Covering the strike in question for Household Words, Charles Dickens included this song composed by a striker, which was being sold on site by ‘a knot of young girls’ for a penny to raise awareness of the cause. Dickens praises its ‘earnestness and fire’; he may also have been struck by its clarity and specificity of complaint and demands, as it at once exhorts strikers to be brave, and repeats its opposition to a 10% pay cut.
Joan Armatrading, who was to become famous a year later for ‘Love and Affection’, recounts her personal experience of racism: ‘I heard somebody say once I was way too black / And someone answers she's not black enough for me’. The chorus, ‘How cruel to make a young girl cry’, together with the personal sentiments of the verses, might suggest an exercise in self-pity. The music and her voice convey quite the opposite. This is not just about her.