"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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."