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Radical Music

Four kinds of radical music

Hello. My name is Penny Stone and this is the first of a new radical music column for Peace News.

So you’ll be hearing more from me in coming months. Sometimes I’ll round up bits and bobs that have been happening around the world, sometimes look at a particular radical music theme, and sometimes I’ll feature just one radical music event that has happened in the two months between issues.

About me: I am a radical musician based in Edinburgh. I write and sing topical songs, sung mostly on demonstrations, in the streets and for good causes. I run a monthly radical folk night and am co-songleader with Protest in Harmony Choir, a wonderful street-singing community.

Among other community singing groups, I lead a group of wonderful women who are refugees and asylum seekers, women who are survivors of sexual and domestic violence, and people facing a diversity of mental health issues in their lives. All of this, to me, is radical music; music that seeks to make positive change in people’s lives, both big and small.

I want to use this first column to open up this question ‘why radical music?’. I am a great believer in the power of music to empower people to make change in their own lives and in the communities around them.

Radical music can do many things; it can pass down alternative histories and alternative current events, working both as historian and journalist of the people. We can use music to preserve truths as we see and experience them, and share our stories with others who may not otherwise hear them.

This is radical music for indoors – storytelling in the back room of a pub folk club or at an activist gathering, or on a CD listened to in a living room, or shared through the magical internet.

We can use this form of song to tell our own stories, but also help to give voice to those who find barriers to their stories being heard – whether they are living under an oppressive regime, or because barriers of gender, sexuality or race wherever they live mean their voices are not heard. We can listen to their stories and sing their songs.

A different kind of radical music tells shorter truths and is sung on the streets to anyone who will listen – whether aimed at politicians, corporations, military workers or any human being passing nearby.

This is communicating, educating, sowing seeds of questions in people’s minds – ‘why should we be spending money on bombs when education and healthcare matter’. And music can speak to people who might turn their heads away or try to close their eyes to banners and words.

Sometimes a song can move a person to hear what we have to say; it can break down, nonviolently, the barrier of fear.

Songs to strengthen us. This is a third radical music sung between ourselves to help us feel united in our struggles, to clarify why we are striving for a more peaceful, a more just world. It lifts our hearts, reminds that we are not alone, and supports us in our activism. This too is very important.

A fourth kind of radical music, perhaps not always acknowledged as such, is that which we sing to soothe and recharge our activist batteries.

There is a high level of burnout in activists, we who care so passionately for the world, and it is difficult to stop and take time to care for ourselves when so much so urgently needs to change in the world around us. But music that acknowledges this, music that takes joy in the natural world, that celebrates the things we strive to keep alive and well in this world, can help us to relax as part of our activism.

Radical music as action itself is another hugely important form of radical music, and I’ll expand ideas of this in a future issue.

Enough now to leave you with a quote from Pete Seeger, who said:

‘Participation, that’s what’s gonna save the human race’, and what better tool than music to help find our collective harmony.


If you know of upcoming radical music events, please let me know and I’ll include as many as I can here in each issue. Contact me at singlouderthanguns@gmail.com.

2–4 October: ‘We Shall Overcome’. Musicians all over the UK will be singing in solidarity with and raising money to support those most affected by the cuts agenda. weshallovercomeweekend.com

Topics: Culture