The Power Of Music In Political Struggle (Part 3): Education And Imagining The New


This is the third in a four part series by writer Simon Gall published on National Collective on the power of music in political struggle across history.


Untold and Alternative Histories

The folk singer Dick Gaughan often states at his performances that without folk music we would not know the history of ordinary people. He is, of course, referring to the telling of untold histories or the retelling of forgotten histories. In this way music can help educate participants about past injustices and victories and can assist the movement in locating its struggle in history. For example, a piece of music can act as a sort of sonic monument to a particular historical event that the movement deems worthy of remembrance. A piece like ‘The International’ was written about the Paris Commune of 1871 which celebrated the bravery of the working people of Paris in their takeover of the city and their attempts to establish a fair and just society. The song is seen to embody the spirit of rebellion and social justice and is therefore still sung at gatherings of the political left around the world.

Music can also (re)educate movement members about the ideals of their founding members. For example, the ‘untouchable’ castes or Dalits in India keep alive the memory of their martyrs through poetry and song. Historical figures such as Dr Ambedkar, embody the ultimate goals of a movement and their memory is constantly kept alive through ceremonies and rituals in which political music is performed. [9]

It can also reframe previously taken-for-granted truths about events or characters and put forward a completely new narrative. In Leon Rosselson’s song ‘Stand Up for Judas’ for example, he challenges the dominant discourse around Jesus and describes him as a collaborator with Caesar and a betrayer of the poor.

Similarly, music can be used to draw attention to events in the past which bear resemblance to the goals of a campaign. Those campaigning for land rights or agrarian reform for example, could be inspired to learn of others who, throughout history, have faced the same problems. In this sense, music, and in particular I think folk music, can unite struggles scattered through history and can strengthen a sense of historical purpose in the movement. Through the singing of songs like ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ for example; a song which deals with a group of land squatters in England called the Diggers, one could develop a sense of duty; a sense of ‘we are not alone, others have struggled for this too’.

If music can unite individuals and groups through time it can also do so in space. It can alert individuals to the existence of a movement or subgroup and pull them to one place. In 1975 for example, a group of feminist and lesbian artists embarked on a tour of the west coast of the US called ‘Women on Wheels’ which provided, according to Rosenthal and Flacks, “a vivid demonstration to isolated feminists and especially lesbians that there were many others like them” [5] but it also allowed them to “congregate in a place where positive feelings about feminism and/or lesbianism were shared by many others. “Self-identification and commitment to the movement became much easier in such an environment.” [5] One of the performers on that tour later said, “more than one thousand women… filled the hall with a vibrancy I had never felt before… We were welcoming in a new era and it seemed that women’s culture would never be the same again.” [5]

Once experienced, this positive environment can be re-accessed through music when one is no longer physically there and can continue to be a source of support for political stances. Commenting on the way in which she uses Ani DiFranco’s music, one interviewee said:

“I recently moved from San Francisco to a suburb outside of Dallas… As a liberal, anti-mainstream dyke, I have felt very alienated and alone living in this weird little suburb. Ani’s music has made me feel connected to something that is like me when, everywhere I look, there is no one visibly like me. She helps me to keep the courage to be who I am and not be quiet about it. She reminds me of my social responsibility to question others and stand up for what I believe.” [5]

Music in this way could also be said to have a mobilising effect. Here, it is an important factor in influencing how a person might behave.

Case Study: Chile and the Nueva Cancion Movement

The Nueva Cancion (NC) or New Song movement that began in Chile and later spread throughout Latin America is an excellent example of how music has been used as a political tool, especially in terms of education. Jeffery F Taffet has identified three main phases of the NC movement in Chile. The first was one of protest, the second of direct political engagement and the third moved away from direct political engagement to focus on glorifying and documenting the life of working people.

The first phase generally dealt with the theme of US cultural hegemony. The artists of the NC movement sought to create a new revolutionary Chilean music in order to counter the dominance of US cultural forms in Chile since “during these years [the 1960s] a large proportion of films, popular music, television programming, and popular magazines were either imitations of, or exports from the United States.” [10] According to Victor Jara, one of the major figures of the movement, it was:

Our duty is to give our people weapons to fight against this [the North American commercial monopoly in music]; to give our people its own identity with a folklore which is, after all, the most authentic language a country has, to make out people understand their reality through the protest song, to understand the reality of their friends as well as their enemies, and through music – without labels of ‘classic’ or ‘popular’ – to help our people unmask the world around them, to transform it not with paternalistic prophecies, but together with the people.” [11]

What is particularly interesting about the NC movement is the way in which it opposed US cultural dominance. It was opposed not only through revolutionary and nationalist lyrics but also through the music itself. Some of the most important members of the movement, namely, Victor Jara and Violeta Parra, had travelled around Chile collecting rural folk songs and had begun writing new up to date protest lyrics to these old forms. The NC artists, employing what Eyerman and Jamison later called “mobilisation of tradition,” [12] developed their new sound using non-mainstream musical devices in their compositions such as traditional styles, and their rhythmic patterns, harmonic progressions and scales associated with folkloric music as well as Andean instruments in their arrangements. The songs were thus oppositional in every respect to the new ‘invading’ culture and embodied in sound and content something fresh but at the same time familiar which seemed to appeal to a mass of Chileans.

During the second phase, around 1969-70 NC artists became directly involved in the election of socialist president Salvador Allende. At the time, most of the large radio stations and newspapers were owned by wealthy proprietors vehemently opposed to Allende and were not going give him space to communicate his views so Allende looked to the arts to help him disseminate his message.

The music produced by the NC movement became the soundtrack of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition. In their new ‘Chilean’ style, they composed, performed, recorded and released (on the Communist Party label) campaign songs supporting Allende such as ‘El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido’. They played at rallies and toured the country singing songs that mirrored policies in Popular Unity’s manifesto. For example, the group Inti-Illimani sang songs entitled ‘Song of Agrarian Reform’ and ‘Song of Social and Private Property’. [10] It could be argued that the NC movement had been preparing for this election campaign for 10 years prior since they had been singing to, and about the plight of , the workers and rural poor of Chile. They brought to Allende’s campaign their own cultural capital and gave voice, and thus legitimacy, to previously suppressed way of thinking.

In the early years of the third phase, after Allende’s election win, Taffet notes that the songs “although clearly still identified with support for the UP government, were less directed at support for particular government actions, but rather dealt with more basic themes such as dignity of live.” [10] Jara’s song ‘Manifesto’ is a good example of the music of the third phase.

On 11 September 1973, General Pinochet and his army officers, with the help of the CIA, staged a coup d’etat and took Chile. The Presidential palace was bombed from the air and Allende was killed (it is still not clear whether he took his own life or whether he was murdered). The Pinochet military government began rounding up as many people as it could from the political left and held them prisoner. Victor Jara was among those arrested and was taken to the ‘Estadio de Chile’ in Santiago. He first had his hands smashed, an event commemorated in song (Calexico’s ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’), and was promptly murdered. Jara, as a musician and creator of musical works was a threat to the Pinochet regime and was censored in the most brutal fashion: an important statement about the power of music and the qualities it is seen to embody.

Challenging the Status Quo

We saw from the above case study that the sound, in terms of forms, structures, harmony etc, of a piece of music can be seen to embody certain political traits or ideologies. Some analyists, like Adorno, heard and wrote about ideologies coded in sound. He held, for example, that Wagner’s music was “an anticipation of fascism” and thought that Gustav Mahler’s music expressed pessimism about reality and thus embodied a “social truth”. [13] He also thought that compositions which did not challenge established musical conventions simply affirmed the whole status quo. Similarly, new styles and genres such as atonalism, serialism, avant garde jazz, bebop and rock’n’roll in the 1950s, punk, heavy metal, hip hop etc have all been seen at one point or another as revolutionary and something to be feared by cultural conservatives. When styles call “into question conventional notions of melody or time” it can be “political to the extent that it causes listeners to think again about the world around them they usually take for granted.” [5] Thus, music can be educational in the sense that it can alert listeners to new sonic possibilities which might have the effect of implying that “there are new frontiers to be explored.” [5] A population that senses there might be other ways of thinking, sounding, listening would be dangerous to those seeking to reinforce the maxim of ‘There Is No Alternative!’.

The music of Arnold Schoenberg for example, was seen by some as an attack “on the pseudo-sophistication of bourgeois aestheticism” and ultimately a “critique of society” since he rejected established conventions and (most importantly for Adorno) the “prevailing form of bourgeois music – tonality.” [13]

The Socio-Political History of Genres

Musicians and music fans often make efforts to learn about the origins of their preferred artist or genres, and since there are very few, if any, unhybridised genres in existence today it becomes necessary to understand the complex socio-political history from which each genre sprung. It is therefore possible to speak of the ability of music (or the history thereof) to teach about changes in things like demography, technology and political systems.

For example, one of the most important societal upheavals in history, in the development of Western popular music, was imperialism and its concomitant part: slavery. Millions of Africans (and other ethnicities), bringing with them their traditional music and dance, were forcibly transported by imperial European powers to their colonies around the globe. Over the centuries, the music brought by African slaves mixed with other musics and new forms were developed: blues, rock’n’roll, ska, Motown and bebop, to name but a few.

An interesting case study is Cuba where much of its music today is a melting pot of African rhythms and European harmony (brought initially by the Spanish church), tinged, on occasions, with elements from the US such as jazz and French musical styles ( the ‘Danzon’ style is descended from the french Contredanse that came from nearby French-controlled Haiti). So to fully understand the sounds of a region, genre etc, it is important to consider the historical geopolitical events that created them. In celebrating the history of Ska, for example, RAR added an important non-verbal dimension to the campaign.

Imagining the New

Antonio Gramsci held that one of the institutions which maintains the status quo, that is, the domination of some groups over others, is culture. He maintained that dominant groups enjoyed a cultural hegemony over subordinate groups and thus, were able to in some way impose their values, ideas and morals on lower groups. It is this hegemony that creates uniformity, stability and a high degree of consensus between, what he saw as, antagonistic group interests. However, he did not see this hegemony as static or absolute. He thought that it had to be constantly reaffirmed and could be gradually transformed by challenges from below. Music is only one component of the overall culture of a society but may still have a role to play.

For example, by giving voice to, and making popular a Utopian message or by “sing(ing) as if you live in the early days of a better nation” [16] musicians are strengthening the case for alternatives. This message must then be channeled into acceptable or ideologically safe harbours in order to maintain the hegemony but if it cannot accommodate the accepted viewpoint then ultimately the hegemony, which must survive if the current order is to survive, will have to change in some way. In this sense, then, imagining the New need not be about specifics but could simply be about offering a different vision of the world. It could be about saying, “things could be different, they could be better.” And probably the most famous example in the western world of such a song is John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ where we are asked to imagine a world with no possessions, where everything is shared.

Perhaps the New can be imagined by instrumental music too. Hanns Eisler made very clear his intention to create new revolutionary music to aid in the process of proletarian emancipation. His new music “involved putting traditional formal techniques to work for new musical functions, a process which would result in the internal changes in musical language.” [3]

Developing or changing a musical language could have the effect, as mentioned above, of implying that ‘There IS An Alternative’ and could assist in the evolution, for good or for bad of society. In Scotland, for example in the music of Fraser Fifield, Graeme Stephen, Catriona McKay, Chris Stout, Aidan O’Rourke and others, I hear a break with old conventions and a desire to move in new directions. Much of this music charters unexplored sonic territory while still respecting the folk music heritage of the past. Could these artists, whether consciously or unconsciously, be said to be imagining the new in Scotland?

Part four of The Power of Music in Political Struggle by Simon Gall will be published on National Collective next week.


[3] Lydia Goehr – Political Music and the Politics of Music
[9] Film – Jai Bhim Comrade – Anand Patwardhan
[10] Jeffery F. Taffet – “My Guitar is Not for the Rich”: The New Chilean Song Movement and the Politics of Culture
[11] Jane Tumas-Serna – The Cancion Nueva Movement and Its Mass-Mediated Performance Context
[12] Eyerman and Jamison – Music and Social Movement: Mobilising Traditions in the Twentieth Century
[13] Peter J Martin – Sounds and Society: Themes in the Sociology of Music
[16] Alisdair Gray from the Cover of ‘Ballad of Books’

Photograph by The Queens Hall


About Simon Gall

Simon Gall is a musician and music teacher. He plays piano with Salsa Celtica and Son al Son and is a singer-songwriter, arranger and part time promoter. He teaches music in community settings for local authorities, arts charities and community centres. He has a keen interest in music and politics and in particular, the places where the two overlap.