‘African Children’ is a song I have loved and returned to regularly for over 30 years. Recorded in 1981, musically the song is a glorious dub groove, for me evoking teenage summer memories of attending GLC-sponsored concerts in Battersea Park. It documents the conditions of immigrants living in ‘high rise concrete’ tower blocks in Aswad’s native West London, largely ignored by the council.
All of the nation are living in these tenements,
Crying and applying to their council for assistance
Structural repairs assessed and never done..
Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor
And when they work don’t you know it smell
Decades later, the lyrics take on an even darker resonance as we struggle to come to terms with the Grenfell Tower tragedy. As politicians talk about learning lessons and the need for action, this song stands as yet another piece of evidence that Grenfell was not a tragic random accident: the warning signs have been there for decades, of an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach that led to tragedy.
Over to Roy:
Its 1970, the Sixties are over and you’re an angry mixed-race, British-based R&B combo; a decade before angry young mixed race British R&B combos would energise 80’s youth. Your stomping soul rock anti-Vietnam, pro racial unity anthem crosses over to the mainstream, reaching the UK Top 10 and is then duly forgotten – until in the 80’s your ex-lead singer has a solo chart success. You are the Equals, your lead singer is Eddy Grant.
So, I’m moving on from one grumpy protest singer to another. I must confess that Robert Zimmerman has never really done it for me, but anyone that’s sold 100 million records must have something to say. Perhaps I was a bit young when he was having his major impact, but there’s no question that he has many devoted followers, and particularly in the 60’s they had plenty of reason to whinge and whine. Of course, one could have chosen a plethora of Dylan songs, but I’ve gone for a song that became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. So, take it away, Mr Nobel Prize winner…
I confess – I’m using ringers. But the results are worth it! The Staple Singers wrote “Freedom Highway” in response to Emmitt Till’s murder (14 year old boy from Chicago visits MS and 3 days later he gets lynched for, allegedly, whistling at a white woman).
On a more upbeat note, I highly recommend the documentary Mavis! on HBO. I saw her in Boston last year, on tour with Dylan. She was wonderful (but at 78 she’s slowing it down). Bobby was a complete kook — he sounded like a busker in a French bistro, complete with the beret.
“From Little Things Big Things Grow” by Paul Kelly/Kev Carmody
The treatment and history of Australia’s Aboriginal population has proven to be fertile ground for Ausstralian protest songs. The second song for me is the Paul Kelly/Kev Carmody composition “From little things big things grow”. . Paul Kelly is as close to Australia’s Poet Laureate as you can get, with a canon of work that demonstrates superb lyricism blended with acute social observation. This song, which was co-written with indigenous singer Carmody, documents how the strike by 200 aboriginal stockmen in Northern Territory in the 1960s eventually led to legislation and recognition of Aboriginal land rights in 1976. Kelly openly admits the musical influence in this tune of other folk and protest singers like Woody Guthrie and Dylan.
This is one from an unexpected source: a beautiful song first recorded for a 1969 album (Spiral Staircase) but was not released as a single in the UK until 1974. It was originally going to be called Streets of Paris and is based on the singer / songwriter’s experiences of busking and hitchhiking around Europe.