Early 2020, and The Specials had decided to regroup following the success of their “comeback” album, Encore, and plan their next steps. But a global pandemic put paid to those plans, and in the ensuing months – partly to retain their sanity – they started to compile a list of protest songs. Swapping ideas, the band eventually narrowed the vast list of songs down, and in April 2021 finally managed to get back in the studio and record a dozen of them. The list isn’t intended to be a definitive history of protest songs over the last 100 years, but rather a collection of songs that chimed with the band, and which – in many cases – had an unfortunate resonance for our times.
Whilst this isn’t a well-known record (at the time of writing it’s only been out for two weeks!) one thing that has struck me about the record and the songs is both their universality, and their simplicity and sing-ability. I guess that’s not a surprise given that many of these songs were either designed for, or have risen to prominence because of, their ability to be sung together, in groups, and for the ability of these songs to unite and bring together. These songs really are folk songs (The Specials have definitely broadened away from their original ska sound – something that has provoked mixed reactions amongst their fan base) – they are songs of and for the people – and so it felt like this was a good collection to pull together and make available for ukulele.
For the most part I’ve used The Specials arrangements of these songs, and stuck with the keys that they’ve used.
Written by “Pops” Staples, patriarch and band leader of the mighty Staple Singers, the song was written for the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. Led by Martin Luther King, thousands of non-violent demonstrators marched for 5 days to the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, where local African Americans, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been campaigning for voting rights. The song reflects not only on the actions of the activists but the suffering they had endured to get there.
Everybody Knows was written by Leonard Cohen and collaborator Sharon Robinson for Cohen’s 1988 album, I’m Your Man. Described as “bitterly pessimistic, yet funny”, the song starts with a wide and cynical view of the state of the world, before becoming increasingly personal (but no less cynical). It’s not a pretty story, but it’s difficult to argue against its truth and continued relevance.
The first of two songs in this collection by Malvina Reynolds, better known as the author of “Little Boxes” and “What Have They Done To The Rain”, both anti-nuclear songs, I Don’t Mind Failing… is a song that recognises our human weaknesses, and quietly dismantles the gospel of perfection and success that puts so much pressure on individuals. Not saying you can’t succeed, but acknowledging that it’s fine not to, the song gives space and permission to just be, and not to constantly compete and measure ourselves against others.
Big Bill Broonzy, the writer of this song, was a big influence on the blues boom of the 1960s. First recorded in 1947, the song offers a pointed reflection on discrimination against black Americans at the time, and has been used globally in education about racism, although it’s adoption by neo-fascist organisations in Britain as a straight recommendation of how Britain should be is a timely reminder that the issues behind the song are still real ones.
The first recording of this old spiritual was made by the Dixie Jubilee Singers in 1924, although it’s likely that the song significantly pre-dates that. As with a number of other gospel-based songs, this was co-opted by the civil rights movement in America in the 1950s and 60s as an anthem for the movement, often sung on the many marches that were necessary to further their cause.
Better known as the writer of Wild Thing and Angel Of The Morning, Chip Taylor wrote this song in 2012 with prison inmates in mind after visiting a prison in Norway. In this collection it’s a kind of companion piece to Malvina Reynolds’ I Don’t Mind Failing In This World, an anthem for those who aren’t perfect, and known it only too well.
Originally a “jump blues” (a precursor to rhythm and blues and rock and roll) song written by Jerry McCain and recorded with his band The Upstarts in 1957, this song was found on an American Library of Congress compilation called “Songs Of Complaint and Protest”. Turning away for a moment from the big issues, it is a song of complaint and protest aimed at that neighbour who won’t give you your vacuum cleaner back.
Sparked by the arrest of a young black man for drunken driving, the events lit a tinderbox of racial tension that had been bubbling under with years of seething resentment and dissatisfaction about living conditions and opportunities, as well as long-standing tension between police and residents in the black community of Los Angeles. The ensuring Watts Riots ran for 6 days and nights in Los Angeles in 1965, resulting in many fatalities and injuries, and massive destruction. Frank Zappa wrote Trouble Every Day during and about those events, and it is “a timeless rant against racial discrimination and the mindless commodification of news by American TV”. The song isn’t a simplistic view of the events of August 1965 (the background, response and events were complex) and clearly empathises with the innocent victims of the rioting as much as those who were doing it.
Originally a track from the classic Talking Heads album, Remain in Light, the song tells the story of an isolated African terrorist who is acting against an imperialist western world that is taking over his country. Obviously that’s not a simple situation either, but the song presents an alternative perspective on a situation that is as relevant now as it was when it was originally written in 1980.
The second song by Malvina Reynolds in this collection, this one has a childlike quality (you can imagine it being sung in a school assembly), but it’s message – that we all contribute to the world in which we live, that we are dependent on each other, and we need to look after this place – is one that young and old need to be constantly reminded of.
Rod McKuen was an American poet and singer-songwriter, a contemporary of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and credited with discovering Jacques Brel. Soliders… was originally released by The Gateway Trio in 1963, but was re-recorded and released in 1971, when it struck a particular chord at the height of the American involvement in Vietnam. Unfortunately its relevance remains as it talks about how the idealism and promise of youth can be destroyed by war.
Written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, this song was written after The Wailers had toured Haiti, where they experienced the poverty that people were going through first-hand, alongside the regime the people were forced to live under. Marley was deeply moved by what he experienced, and “Get Up, Stand Up” was the result. Unfortunately the message behind the song is as relevant as ever, but the song acts as a unifying call to stand up to the injustice and oppression that still exists.