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Political, engaged, and inspired

23 August 2013

Simon Jones talks to the protest singer Grace Petrie, and asks what she is protesting against


Grace Petrie performs at Greenbelt last year

Grace Petrie performs at Greenbelt last year

"I DID have a lot of preconceptions overturned," Grace Petrie says of the first time she played the Greenbelt Festival. "I grew up in an Irish Roman Catholic family, and went to a Catholic school. I don't think they knew what to do with me when I came out.

"The Church's attitude to sexuality did - and does still - put me off. But Greenbelt was so warm and welcoming, it almost seems like a home festival for me now. Religious faith isn't a part of my life any more, but I saw something of how it can inspire compassion in people."

Petrie has been making music since childhood piano lessons. The classical approach never really appealed to her, but the acoustic guitar she picked up in her teens fits perfectly with what she describes as an "angsty" adolescence. "It's funny," she says: "right from the beginning, people told me I sounded like Billy Bragg, way before I was doing any political music."

In 1985, The Smiths sang: "I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar Then it meant that you were a protest singer," and there is a sense that she gets put in that bracket because she's "not completely folk, and not completely indie", as she puts it. "But I do feel like I have a message, an argument. I do feel like I want to point out what's happening to our society, how it's being wrecked by people who aren't representative of how most of us live."

BEFORE the 2010 election, though - the point that Petrie marks as the moment when her songs took a specifically political turn - she was already making music that was challenging for some. Her focus on love and relationships came straight out of the late-teenage lexicon. But Petrie's songs were about other women - still relatively rare in popular music. Even in a world where self-expression seems to be the only allowable ideology, the retelling of affairs that happen to be lesbian still becomes political.

It is perhaps this means of insisting that every gay singer become an LGBT flagbearer - the contemporary world of identity politics - that bumped Petrie into the less fashionable world of class and party ideology.

For her, though, the two are not so easily distinguishable. "We're just talking about the difference between the world as we'd like it to be, and the world as it is, aren't we? When I was growing up, I never thought it would be possible for me to marry - some of those battles we're winning - but what joins the two is basic human compassion for other people."

This is loud and clear in the songs, such as "Farewell to Welfare":

It's never too late,
To recapture the benefits of Section 28,
And it's never too wild,To slash benefits for single mums
- the only victim is the child,
And I'll say who's gonna be my Martin Luther King?
And I'll say who's gonna be my Harvey Milk?

THAT song captured the anger that came in an almost immediate response to the new Government - the student-fees decision in particular, but also to an Equalities Minister who had consistently voted against gay and transgendered rights. Protests on these issues, mixed up with the less overtly political looting riots of 2011, gave an echo of the successive waves of protest which, with the poll- tax demonstrations, finally made Margaret Thatcher's political demise inevitable.

Back then, protest music, from The Jam to The Specials, was appearing on TV on Top of the Pops and reaching number one in the charts. But in the age of Occupy, of the Arab Spring, and of anti-capitalist riots across Europe, musicians seem either unwilling or unable to address large audiences in the same way. "We are in a flat period at the moment," Petrie says. "For a while, in 2010, it did look as if something was happening, and some of that has faded."

She played at the University College of London recently, the site of one of several anti-cuts sit-ins, but her face fell at the feeble reaction to her enquiries about the political nature of the audience. She has the performance nous to get the crowd back on side, but it must be a struggle sometimes.

This is partly why she enjoys the Greenbelt audience so much ("It's engaged, compassionate, campaigning . . . it's great"). The festival has been hosting protest music since its early days. As well as its larger stages, which host troubadours such as Billy Bragg or Tom Robinson (who led the crowd in a rousing version of "Sing if you're glad to be gay" in the late 1990s), its smaller venues have connected grass-roots singers and songwriters with audiences thirsty for a creative approach to the social world.

Artists such as Martyn Joseph and Garth Hewitt (see panel, right) have been connecting British audiences with injustice at home and abroad for decades - and will do so again in the festival's 40th year.

"If I have any role, or any musician has any role, in politics or protest, then it goes back to empowering people," Petrie says. "Music has got an incredible power to do that. People are always saying there's no political music around today, and I think that's certainly true of the mainstream; but I want to resist the word 'apathetic', which a lot of people use. I don't think it's about apathy at all, it's about a lack of empowerment.

"It's about how things are broken, and no one can see the difference between politicians any more. They already know about politics. Politics is right and wrong. Politics is the kind of country you want to live in. Everybody knows about that.

"You don't have to know your political history to say it's wrong to take away the education maintenance allowance, to see services being stripped away, and people becoming jobless. You can't help talking about politics. But they think that that means Westminster, which isn't a place they feel they can access."

SHE has her own issues with party politics, and bemoans the shift in the Labour Party from, as she sees it, principled socialism to triangulated vote-winning strategy. You cannot imagine her joining the Red Wedge, a collection of artists who tried to get Neil Kinnock elected in 1987. But "grass roots" does not mean the same now as it did then. The internet changes everything about how artists connect with audiences around the world, without needing to fit into an accepted industry standard.

"It's not apathy, but this is the X Factor generation. There are people encouraged by government to look after themselves and not each other. I think all these things combine to mean the mainstream isn't set up at the minute to promote political songs.

"I have friends who want to play me on BBC Radio 1 who have been told they can't because I'm too political. But people understand the holes in those old models. Very few people listen to nothing but the radio. With the internet, I can interact with people in a way that's never been possible before. I'm not number one; I can't claim I have millions of fans; but there are ways of making people listen."

Some say that the difficulty with protest music is not so much that people are distanced from politics as uncomfortable with anything didactic. Arguably, a piece of art cannot be properly creative if it starts with its ideological conclusion.

ONE of the noticeable characteristics of the X Factor generation is that it does not want to have its mind made up for it. This was something that Bob Dylan understood back in the '60s when, despite creating the popular idea of the acoustic protest-singer, he ditched political music in pursuit of something more universally human and poetic. Famously, he once kicked the singer Phil Ochs out of a car, saying: "You're not a folk singer, you're a journalist."

Dylan never wrote a song about the Vietnam War, or attended any of the street protests in opposition to it. Only in "The Hurricane" (which was co-written in any case) did he dip his toes back into the news for material, that time in support of the falsely imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter.

"I didn't know that Phil Ochs story," Petrie says. "It's true that some music can put people off, if it's too dogmatic. But on the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow I've been touring with some people who've been singing this music for years. When you listen to someone like Roy Bailey or Leon Rosselson, you start to see how you're connected to the history of protest in ways that aren't bound to the latest headlines.

"For example, I didn't know about the Diggers until I heard Leon Rosselson sing 'World Turned Upside Down', and it taught me something. Their story is our story. I'm by far the youngest performer on that tour, and I'm learning all the time." 

THE folk-singer Martin Carthy told Third Way magazine recently that you sometimes have to deal with the fact that, for progressive artists, society can regress as well as progress. "I was with the Watersons at this festival down in Telford at the time of the Falklands War," he said. "All the people there were real radicals, and there was a lot of comedy there, and street theatre, and lots and lots of politics.

"And this guy stood up and sang a song called 'Ghost Story' about the Falklands War - the first song I'd heard about it - and a lot of the audience booed him. I can't tell you what a wake-up call that was. The Watersons and I just stood and gaped. We were horrified.

"I realised that if the war had happened 20 years earlier, there would have been 20 or 30 songs written about it, because it was that political then, and I would have been a part of that."

Should musicians ignore their consciences at that point? Accept that the audience does not want "didactic" music and move on? Carthy decided instead to work harder, and wrote "Company Policy":

It was all a case of saving face
When they sent my love to the war
For eighteen hundred landless tenants
Of a South Atlantic company store.

Ultimately, it comes back to faith. For Petrie, her faith is about how - as "Tell Me a Story", her latest record, puts it - "I've still got faith in my fellow man I believe he's doing all he can To rise above this tide of hate I believe it's not too late."

"I believe, in the end, that we will win," she says. "That 'we' is not us against people who are evil or vindictive. It's just us against people we think are wrong. People whose privileges have prevented them from seeing how life works for those without it.

"I'm looking forward to Greenbelt. It'll be a highlight of the summer. I don't share a religious faith - the first time I was asked to play there, I wondered, why me? - but I see now that what we have in common is a desire not just to have compassion, but to see what we can do to get more of it in our politics, in our lives.

"My message will just be to get involved in your local communities. Do what you can there. Be generous. Be compassionate. Fight the good fight."


PROTEST music has been a part of Greenbelt since it began 40 years ago. Garth Hewitt was one of the first to bring songs of injustices around the world to the festival.

This year, he brings a project from longer ago. In 2011, Hewitt saw a photograph in this newspaper of The National Chartist Hymn Book (Feature, 14 January 2011). The hymn book contained lyrics, but the melodies were lost, and Hewitt has spent the past year writing and recording music to fit.

"They are powerful and poetic lyrics," he says, "with a spirituality committed to social justice. And they are rousing and thoughtful songs. I find, as I sing them, I think of all sorts of situations that are relevant today.

"As I was looking at the hymns, it was also the time of the Occupy movement. Having an office close to St Paul's Cathedral, I used to wander among the demo that was based there, and listen to some of the comments. Many reflected what I would call a biblical attitude of justice, often challenging our community - and especially our economic system - to be for the benefit of the 99 per cent, and not just the one per cent.

"The Occupy movements have reminded us all of the need for fairer communities, where the division between rich and poor is not so great. I hope singing them at Greenbelt will . . . inspire us to live out love of our neighbours."

Liberty is Near!, an album of Chartist songs, will be released at Greenbelt. Hewitt will be performing a set at the festival, and will also be discussing the hymn book with Mike Sanders, from the University of Manchester.

"Chartist theology", Sanders says, "might be seen as prefiguring the Liberation Theology of our own era."

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