Sing of the justice you desire
Assist us now! These frackers are wrong
We now remember: We’re the choir!
(Tune: ‘Jerusalem’ Parry. Words: Simon Welsh, Balcombe 2013)
If you were on the TUC and People’s Assembly demonstration at the Tory Conference in Manchester in October (and if not, why not?!), as you marched along Peter Street you’ll probably have heard and seen a large choir singing about fracking, saving our public services, scrapping Trident, union solidarity and, of course, getting rid of this brutal austerity government: ‘Oh Tories are pollution! / We’ve got a cool solution! / Bring on the revolution.’ Writing in New Statesman, its political editor George Eaton reported on his encounter with the choir in Manchester:
‘A choir of middle-aged women stands along one side of the road singing an adapted hymn about the bedroom tax. It is haunting and powerful.’
Actually, George, it wasn’t only middle-aged women. The bass section, not to mention tenors, altos and sopranos of wide-ranging ages and a gender spectrum, would like to have a not-so-harmonious word in your ear about that! ‘Haunting and powerful’ might just let you off the hook, though. In fact, it wasn’t just one choir that George heard either, it was assembled singers from street choirs across Britain, from Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leicester, Birmingham, Aberystwyth, Cardiff… Bringing all these street choirs together was down to the Campaign Choirs initiative. Campaign Choirs was launched at the annual Street Choirs Festival held in Aberystwyth in 2013 as a way to bring choirs together for mutual aid and collective actions.
Street choirs spring from various strands of progressive politics and protest singing. Many have their roots way back in socialism and the labour movement. The names of Birmingham Clarion Singers and Nottingham Clarion Choir, for instance, are tribute to the movement associated with the Clarion socialist newspaper founded in late nineteenth-century Manchester. Birmingham Clarion Singers was established as far back as 1940. Meanwhile, the sharply named Red Leicester was born out of a Workers’ Educational Association evening class, ‘Songs of Struggle and Celebration from Around the World’, and only became an independent choir in 1996. Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir also formed in 1996 in south-east London, naming themselves after a design by the Victorian writer and revolutionary activist William Morris. Relative newcomers, Aberystwyth’s Côr Gobaith was born out of the social forum movement in 2006. There is also a tremendous legacy of song in the peace movement, not least the heritage of Greenham Common where the song ‘You can’t kill the spirit’ became iconic. A quarter century on, the solidarity of Greenham at least partly explains why a good number of middle-aged women are bringing their tremendous energy and demands for a better future into many street choirs.
These days, street choirs include anarchist, green, women’s and an increasing number of LGBTQ choirs. There are choirs of asylum seekers, choirs singing to raise awareness of human rights and choirs simply forging joyful solidarity in communities assailed by austerity. Often street choirs busk to raise money for campaigns and causes, while some have journeyed to sing in areas of conflict to support oppressed peoples. The near legendary Côr Cochion (Cardiff’s Red Choir), the choir of the late lamented activist Ray Davies, were shot at in Gaza and had the windows of their bus smashed in Ireland when singing for Troops Out. Today, the street choirs network numbers more than fifty choirs across Britain and fosters long traditions of protest singing and taking to the streets.
New compositions from members of street choirs are quickly taken up through Campaign Choirs to become a shared repertoire of protest in an era of failing free-market economics and imposed austerity. One such is ‘We will rise’ (Paula Bolton and Dr Vole): We will rise / We will rise / We will not accept those politicians' lies / So come on get out and fight / Unite against the right… Along with some stirring lyrics, music itself has the power to touch and engage and can be a force to be reckoned with. This is expressed by Mike Fincken, Captain of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, who sings with Côr Gobaith:
‘There is no force greater than music, it can build and it can break. In non violent direct action, street choirs draw a line with their voices. They stop one side and uplift the other. They turn the tide with song.’
Street Choirs Festival
Originating in Sheffield in 1983 as the ‘National Street Band Festival’, the breakaway Street Choirs Festival brought together singers who took part in the signature marches and protests of a turbulent decade defined by Thatcherism, the Falklands/Malvinas war and the miners' strike. The intention of the Festival was to put the music into protest to make it more creative, joyful and thought-provoking. Through practices of music and song, the ambition remains to promote a world free of oppression, exploitation, exclusion and violence. With its roots in the north of England, the Festival has blossomed across Britain, being staged every year in a different town or city. As its anthem, the Festival has adopted Billy Bragg’s rousing version of the Internationale. A sister festival, Raise Your Banners, which had its home in Bradford, is not currently running. Hopefully, this situation will change as RYB was a highlight of the street singing and political calendar and is sorely missed.
Red Leicester has volunteered to host the Street Choirs Festival in July 2016. Excitement is already mounting among choirs looking forward to gathering in a city that people are fighting to make synonymous with multiculturalism and 'welcome'. Red Leicester’s Charlotte Knight recalls how her choir responded when the English Defence League marched in their city in 2012:
‘The Police had put a big steel barrier across the street and we were on a bandstand on one side and the EDL supporters were on the other. And they were throwing stones over the top and we were singing and it felt very powerful. It was a bit scary, but it felt a good way of resisting their ignorance and bigotry.’
The Campaign Choirs initiative aims to foster mutual aid among street choirs who define themselves as political and progressive. Along with a love of music, such choirs are dedicated to working in the streets to support popular protests and demands. Campaign Choirs facilitates sharing songs, information and ideas. It also helps co-ordinate joint projects, for example when members of different choirs join together to sing at national events like the Manchester demonstration. Though it only began ‘officially’ in 2013, Campaign Choirs’ has more then ninety members and represents over forty choirs. It has already involved more than twenty choirs in taking collective action. Back in 2012, ‘Rise Up Singing’ brought together many voices for an anti-cuts march in London and then against nuclear weapons at Faslane Trident base in Scotland. Inspired by this, Campaign Choirs actions have included: Liverpool Socialist Singers inviting other choirs to sing together in a national demonstration against fascism organised by the Unite trade union; the Natural Voice Practitioners’ network issuing a call to ‘Belt it out at Balcombe’ against fracking; ‘Sing Trident Out’ in Basingstoke; an anti-drones protest at MoD Aberporth, and a No NATO rally in Newport, Gwent.
For three years in succession Raised Voices and other London choirs have coordinated a 'Big Choir' to sing on national anti-austerity demonstrations organized by the People’s Assembly. Cynthia Cockburn is a veteran in Raised Voices, and, as she puts it, 'a well past middle-aged woman'. She says of the challenge of facilitating such gatherings of many singers coming to London on coaches from distant places:
'It's quite a responsibility, agreeing a shared song-sheet, finding the right bit of pavement on which to position ourselves for maximum effect, ensuring that as we sing one song after another the baton passes cooperatively from one leader to the next, and not least mapping public toilets in the vicinity! But hearing the power of our massed voices is a wonderful reward'.
Individual and composite choirs have also taken part in flash-mob and similar actions, for instance singing against the climate change and human rights record of one oil company with an unsolicited performance in the South Bank Centre (http://shelloutsounds.org/flashmob-choir-return/). Earlier this year, a choir even assembled to perform an anti Trident Oratorio in the Houses of Parliament (http://actionawe.org/commons-lobby-filled-with-singers-objecting-to-trident/). As security considered ejecting the choir, a grizzled police sergeant was overhead to say: ‘It’s the cradle of democracy, let them sing’. Nowhere is off-limits to song. Even as we write, Edinburgh-based Protest in Harmony is singing as part of an anti-fracking demonstration of two-thousand people on the Forth Bridge (11 October 2015).
Many choirs lend their long-term support to local campaigns and causes. For instance, though they’ve only started in 2010, Liverpool Socialist Singers are already part of the radical fabric of their city. They’ve been extremely supportive of the campaign to replace the Royal Liverpool Hospital with a PFI building, as choir member Dee Coombes relates:
‘On the days when there have been national strikes, because they have pickets on all the doors, we’ve gone round the whole building singing to them, especially the ones at a back door who feel nobody’s seeing them and are they really making any difference? And then a big pile of us go round there and sing - usually in the rain, usually in the cold. They really love it.’
Campaign Choirs is a voluntary initiative with no paid staff and no funding. The network bases its activities on decisions taken in an open meeting at the annual Street Choirs Festival. Valuing diversity alongside social justice, environmental sustainability, non-violence and minority rights, Campaign Choirs strives to be inclusive, always reaching out through music. Ultimately, the aim is to develop the individual and collective potentials of choirs in ways that take into account the everyday realities, hopes and dreams of their members. At the 2014 Street Choirs Festival in Hebden Bridge, Campaign Choirs conceived the project of researching and publishing the life-histories of street choir members, ‘Singing For Our Lives’. Although some progress has been made, the modest funding needed to complete this project is still to be realised.
Singing a better future
If you’re interested in adding your voice to the movement, check the Campaign Choirs website and there will probably be a street choir near you. Most of them won’t expect you to read music or to audition, they’ll learn by ear and be very pleased to see you. Street choirs aren’t just about political action and music, however, they are also sources of friendship and care for their members. If there’s not a handy street choir, why not put the word out, get together with others and start one. There’s lots of support out there, not just the Campaign Choirs initiative. The Natural Voice Practitioners’ network, for instance, believe that singing is everybody’s birthright: ‘People sing to express joy, celebration and grief, to aid healing, to accompany work, devotion and the rituals of life — without worrying about having a ‘good’ voice or ‘getting it right’’. In this philosophy, singing is a vital part of life and a way of binding communities.
Meanwhile, if you have a progressive campaign on a local, national or international issue or have a cause that needs support, a street choir in your area may well be up for raising its voice with you. Fighting all the assailed corners of society in the coming years looks set to be tougher than ever for progressive social movements. The Tories will continue their attack on workers’ rights and the most vulnerable, their privatisation assault on the health and education sectors, and seek to destroy any hope of an environmentally sustainable future with their antipathy to renewable energy and complicity with fossil fuel corporations. Globally too, struggles against exploitation, tyranny and injustice look set to intensify. Finding new and joyful ways to take action together where activists flourish rather than burn-out will be essential to all our struggles. Music is surely part of most people’s imagining of life in a better future. Campaign Choirs is determined to also make music an active part of creating that future.
Lotte Reimer and I published a version of this, 'Raised Voices', in Red Pepper last year. Very pleasing that in the current issue there is a letter of appreciation for the article .
Campaign Choirs www.campaignchoirs.org.uk
Singing for Our Lives: Stories from the street choirs www.singing4ourlives.net
Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network www.naturalvoice.net
Street Choirs Festival 2016 www.facebook.com/StreetChoirs2016