If you were on the big demonstration outside the Tory conference in Manchester last October, as you marched along Peter Street you’ll probably have heard a large choir singing about saving public services, union solidarity, scrapping Trident, fracking and, of course, getting rid of the government. The New Statesman’s political editor George Eaton reported on his encounter with the choir thus: ‘A choir of middle-aged women stands along one side of the road singing an adapted hymn about the bedroom tax. It is haunting and powerful.’
Thanks, George, but it wasn’t only middle-aged women. The bass section, not to mention tenors, altos and sopranos of wide-ranging ages and genders, would like to have a not-so-harmonious word in your ear about that!
It wasn’t just one choir either: it was assembled singers from street choirs from all over Britain – Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leicester, Birmingham, Aberystwyth, Cardiff . . . Bringing them all together was down to the Campaign Choirs initiative, launched at the annual Street Choirs Festival in Aberystwyth in 2013.
Street choirs spring from various strands of progressive politics and protest singing. Many have their roots way back in the socialist and labour movements. The names of Birmingham Clarion Singers and Nottingham Clarion Choir, for instance, are tributes to the movement associated with the Clarion socialist newspaper founded in late 19th-century Manchester. Birmingham Clarion Singers was established in 1940. The Red Leicester choir was born out of a Workers’ Educational Association evening class, ‘Songs of struggle and celebration from around the world’, in 1996. Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir also formed in 1996 in south-east London, naming itself after a design by the Victorian socialist William Morris. Côr Gobaith from Aberystwyth was born of the social forum movement in 2006.
There is also a tremendous legacy of song in the peace movement, not least the heritage of Greenham Common, where the song ‘You can’t kill the spirit’ became iconic. A quarter of a century on, the solidarity of the Greenham women’s peace camp at least partly explains why a good number of women are bringing their energy and demands for a better future into many street choirs.
These days, street choirs include anarchist, green, women’s and an increasing number of LGBTQ choirs. There are choirs of asylum seekers, choirs singing to raise awareness of human rights and choirs simply forging joyful solidarity in communities assailed by austerity. Often they busk to raise money for campaigns and causes, while some have journeyed to sing in areas of conflict to support oppressed peoples. The Côr Cochion (Cardiff’s Red Choir), the choir of the late lamented activist Ray Davies, were shot at in Gaza and had the windows of their bus smashed in Ireland when singing for Troops Out. Today, the street choirs network numbers more than 50 choirs across Britain.
New compositions from members of street choirs are quickly taken up through Campaign Choirs to become part of a shared repertoire of protest. One such is ‘We will rise’ (Paula Bolton and Dr Vole): ‘We will rise / We will rise / We will not accept those politicians’ lies / So come on get out and fight / Unite against the right . . .’
‘There is no force greater than music,’ says Mike Fincken, captain of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, who sings with Côr Gobaith. ‘It can build and it can break. In nonviolent direct action, street choirs draw a line with their voices. They stop one side and uplift the other. They turn the tide with song.’
Originating in Sheffield in 1983 as the ‘National Street Band Festival’, the breakaway Street Choirs Festival brought together singers who took part in the signature marches and protests of a turbulent period defined by Thatcherism, the Falklands/Malvinas war and the Miners’ Strike. The intention of the festival was to put music into protest to make it more creative, joyful and thought-provoking.
The festival is staged in a different town each year, and the Red Leicester choir has volunteered to host the next one in July 2016. Their intention is to use the festival to enhance the city’s multicultural and welcoming reputation. Red Leicester’s Charlotte Knight recalls how her choir responded when the English Defence League marched in their city in 2012: ‘The police had put a big steel barrier across the street. We were on a bandstand on one side and the EDL supporters were on the other. They were throwing stones over the top and we were singing, and it felt very powerful. It was a bit scary, but it felt a good way of resisting their ignorance and bigotry.’
The Campaign Choirs initiative aims to foster mutual aid among street choirs who define themselves as political and progressive. Along with a love of music, such choirs are dedicated to working in the streets to support popular protests and demands. Campaign Choirs facilitates sharing songs, information and ideas. It also helps co-ordinate joint projects, such as the members of different choirs who joined together to sing on the Manchester demonstration. The organisation now has more than 90 members and represents over 40 choirs.
Back in 2012, ‘Rise Up Singing’ brought together many voices for an anti-cuts march in London and then against nuclear weapons at the Faslane Trident base in Scotland. Inspired by this, Campaign Choirs actions have included Liverpool Socialist Singers inviting other choirs to sing at a demonstration against fascism, the Natural Voice Practitioners’ network issuing a call to ‘Belt it out at Balcombe’ against fracking, ‘Sing Trident Out’ in Basingstoke, an anti-drones protest at MoD Aberporth, and a No NATO rally in Newport.
Cynthia Cockburn is a veteran in Raised Voices choir, which along with other London choirs has coordinated a ‘Big Choir’ to sing on national anti-austerity demonstrations organised by the People’s Assembly: ‘It’s quite a responsibility, agreeing a shared song-sheet, finding the right bit of pavement on which to position ourselves for maximum effect, ensuring that as we sing one song after another the baton passes cooperatively from one leader to the next – and not least mapping public toilets in the vicinity! But hearing the power of our massed voices is a wonderful reward.’
Individual and composite choirs have also taken part in flashmobs and similar actions – for instance, against the Shell oil company’s climate change and human rights record in an unsolicited performance at London’s South Bank Centre. Earlier this year, a choir even assembled to perform an anti Trident oratorio in the Houses of Parliament. As security considered ejecting the choir, a grizzled police sergeant was overhead to say: ‘It’s the cradle of democracy, let them sing.’
Many choirs lend their long-term support to local campaigns and causes. For instance, though they only started in 2010, Liverpool Socialist Singers are already part of the radical fabric of their city. They’ve been extremely supportive of the campaign against replacing the Royal Liverpool Hospital with a PFI building, as choir member Dee Coombes relates:
‘On the days when there have been national strikes, because they have pickets on all the doors, we’ve gone round the whole building singing to them, especially the ones at a back door who feel nobody’s seeing them and are they really making any difference? And then a big pile of us go round there and sing – usually in the rain, usually in the cold. They really love it.’
Campaign Choirs is a voluntary initiative with no paid staff and no funding. The network bases its activities on decisions taken in an open meeting at the annual Street Choirs Festival. Valuing diversity alongside social justice, environmental sustainability, nonviolence and minority rights, it strives to be inclusive, always reaching out through music. Ultimately, the aim is to develop the individual and collective potentials of choirs in ways that take into account the everyday realities, hopes and dreams of their members. At the 2014 Street Choirs Festival in Hebden Bridge, Campaign Choirs conceived the project of researching and publishing the life-histories of street choir members, ‘Singing For Our Lives’ – a work-in-progress.
If you have a progressive campaign or cause that needs support, or you’re interested in joining a choir yourself, check the Campaign Choirs website. There will probably be a street choir near you. They won’t expect you to audition or be able to read music, and will be pleased to hear from you whatever your experience or ability.
The Natural Voice Practitioners’ network believes that singing is everybody’s birthright: ‘People sing to express joy, celebration and grief, to aid healing, to accompany work, devotion and the rituals of life – without worrying about having a “good” voice or “getting it right”.’