Some protest songs need a hammer taking to them

Pete Seeger's death is a reminder of the best and worst of political pop. Just because you agree with the sentiment doesn't mean you don't want to turn, turn, turn it off

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For some reason the deaths of famous people, particularly those distinguished in some branch of the arts, very often have a merely associative effect. Which is to say that whatever one may feel about the deceased and their achievements is liable to be crowded out by sheer context: a vast historical backdrop, sometimes appearing to take on the dimensions of a medieval frieze, in which the person who has sparked the tableau into being ends up playing only an incidental part, and what began as the vehicle for a solitary starring role finishes as an ensemble piece.

And so, hearing news of the passing of the veteran American protest singer Pete Seeger, at the ripe age of 94, I found myself thinking not only of the man himself, acoustic guitar clasped across his chest while he sang, as it might be, "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" or "Little Boxes", but a whole series of black and white television performances from the early 1960s in which Peter, Paul and Mary belted out "If I Had a Hammer" and Joan Baez assured her listeners that "We Shall Overcome" – two songs whose relevance to this causative chain becomes more marked when you recollect they were both penned by Seeger.

Readers still in their first youth, or indeed those in early middle age, may require a brief biographical sketch of Peter, Paul and Mary. In fact, they were a trio of Greenwich Village folkies with an eye for political and environmental causes, whose debut album sold more than a million copies back in 1962. On stage, they were impossibly wholesome-looking and performed with an impeccably cheerful sincerity. Yet, curiously, as they carolled on about how, if they had a hammer, and they'd hammer in the morning, they'd hammer in the evening, all over this la-hand, the effect was horribly depressing. Having attended to more than a few minutes of this, the serious pop fan yearned for a cynical little number about taking drugs and sponging off the government.

Protest music has, of course, been with us more or less since music first began to be composed. Its modern incarnations include the vaguely left-leaning folk mentioned above, given a much harder edge when the Vietnam war became a major factor in domestic life in the United States (see, for example, Country Joe and the Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die"), a whole batch of "politicised" late 1960s rock music by the likes of Jefferson Airplane and MC5, 1980s anti-Reaganism (the Dead Kennedys, Gil Scott-Heron) and then, moving across the Atlantic, anti-apartheid anthems and a variety of anti-Tory rallying cries by Billy Bragg and his Red Wedge comrades, Chumbawamba, the Redskins, and others too numerous to mention. The distinguishing mark of much of this material, alas, allowing for prominent exceptions, is how negligible most of it seems as music.

At its most basic level, the idea of the "protest song", whether performed by Pete Seeger or Public Enemy, takes us to the heart of that elemental debate about whether a work of art is compromised by whatever ideological affiliations it may have on display, and whether – to put the matter at its starkest – a poem about how the writer loves to carry manure up the mountain for the benefit of the commune can ever escape its political straitjacketing. To maintain that all art is propaganda and that "art for art's sake" is really only a political attitude by default is not, in the end to say very much. All it means is that any piece of writing, music or visual art is likely to reflect, in however indirect a way, some of the social and political assumptions of the person who composed it.

The protest song, defined as one in which the propagandist element rises instantly to the surface, operates by way of a double standard. It wants, effectively, to be judged both by the standards of politics and the standards of art, and to say, as even the most zealous left-winger will generally say when confronted with a piece of agit-prop that fails to stick to the beat, that the artist has failed in one part of the equation while succeeding at the second, has the effect of calling the whole endeavour into question.

Naturally, you can pretend that, in the presence of the right political attitude, questions of artistic mediocrity simply don't apply, yet this is as intellectually dishonest as the stance adopted by certain left-wing literary magazines of the 1930s, who believed that it was impermissible to criticise a writer's poems if he happened to be fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

But it ought to be possible to admit that a protest song, while ticking all the right political boxes, can end up as bad art, if only because protest nearly always gains its impetus by ditching most of the characteristics – subtlety, narrative, ambiguity – on which halfway decent art habitually relies. One can see this in the music of the American rock groups of the Sixties who self-consciously "went political" as the decade unwound. Jefferson Airplane, to take a notorious example, who began their career with a psychedelic version of Alice in Wonderland, were soon yelling about "Volunteers of America" and getting a revolution, and guess which of these numbers has stood the test of time?

Much the same tendency can be found in domestic protest music of the early 1980s, where the material that endures is of the kind that constructs stories around the politics, approaches its subject matter with stealth or dresses it up in elaborate metaphorical conceits. Billy Bragg's "New England" and the Jam's "Town Called Malice" are "protests" about life in Thatcher's Britain, but at no point is Margaret Thatcher so much as mentioned.

Similarly, the most powerful piece of music produced by the Falklands war is the Elvis Costello/Clive Langer composition "Shipbuilding", as sung by Robert Wyatt, with its haunting images of people "diving for dear life" when they could be "diving for pearls", and its uncomfortable awareness – uncomfortable, that is, from the angle of the average pacifist – that opening up the shipyards brings jobs and material satisfaction.

None of this is to disparage the achievements of Pete Seeger, the "big daddy of protest singers", as my much-thumbed copy of the New Musical Express Book of Rock put it as far back as 1975, a man of unusual vigour and persistence, whose response to the Committee on Un-American Activities is an object lesson in how to maintain courage under fire. It is not even to sneer at Peter, Paul and Mary, whose "Puff the Magic Dragon", recorded when they were turning into a straightforward pop act, was a staple of my pre-teen listening.

But if all art is propaganda, then not all propaganda is art. I have a sneaking feeling that 50 years from now "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" will be a historical footnote. On the other hand, it seems a safe bet that people will still be listening to Robert Wyatt.

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