Leftists and Socialists of Classic Rock Part 1: The 60s

Intro: International Workers’ Day History

To commemorate International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, this is a tribute to the leftist voices of classic rock. International Workers’ Day was first observed in the late 19th century to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. For years, workers fought for an eight hour work day and companies were not happy with this reasonable demand, so they used the same tricks they employ today to union bust: blacklisting union members, hiring scabs (strikebreakers), hire spies to break up the unions, and pitting the workers against each other through cynical identity politics. Workers in the industrial city of Chicago went on strike for an eight hour workday with 80,000 workers marching on Michigan Avenue (one of the busiest and most famous streets in Chicago). There was a peaceful rally at Haymarket Square (hence the name of the riot) on 4 May. Fewer people were there, with estimates of 600-3,000. The police (who many working class people rightfully see as class traitors) shot the strikers. Someone threw a dynamite bomb. In the end seven cops died and at least four workers died. Sixty cops were wounded. Afterwards, the companies retaliated, making workers work 10+ hours a day. Cops cracked down on immigrant communities (mostly German) and raided the homes of anarchists.

Fast forward three years and the Marxist International Socialist Congress met in Paris. They chose 1 May to be International Workers’ Day and established the Second International which lasted from 1889-1916. Nowadays 1 May is Labour Day in many countries (most of Europe, Latin America, Africa, and in many Asian countries) and a public holiday.

Intro: Why I wrote this blog post

Some of my most popular blog posts are the ones where I talk politics, such as my political classic rock songs blog posts (you can find parts 1, 2, and 3 here) and my two-post series on socialist classic rock songs (part 1 – covers the 60s and part 2 – covers mostly the 70s). Often before I write a post, I look up the topic and angle of classic rock I’m writing about to see what others have said and when it came to socialism and classic rock, my work was often at the top of search results. So I’m proud of myself for finding a niche to write about and a new way to talk about classic rock, exploring what other classic rock commentators haven’t. I’m definitely not the one who first revealed that these musicians are socialists, but I wanted to put something together for my fellow left wing and socialist classic rock fans and people in general who are interested in reading about the political leanings of classic rock musicians.

I’ve mentioned this rant I wrote about incrementalism and neoliberalism a few times on this blog, but it was really an inspiration for me to write about socialism and classic rock. It really all started with me reading X-Ray – Ray Davies’ “unauthorised autobiography”, reading this one really profound quote on society and the fakeness of the swinging 60s (which will be mentioned in this blog post) and it got me asking this question: Who else in classic rock is a socialist? So I took time to do my research and I put together a really interesting list. As always, the stories of these musicians are diverse with them coming from different parts of the world and having different ideas on what it means to be left wing, but you’ll see some common patterns and some common beliefs.

It’s difficult to find classic rockers, or celebrities for that matter, who have socialist or solid left-wing leanings. Many are just milquetoast liberals and of course, some are conservative. Simply put, a lot of famous people had a leg up in life and were able to make it because they had class privilege their whole lives, and even if they grew up working class, as soon as they got money, they changed and forgot who they were and where they came from. Money changes people, whether or not they’ll admit it. Money brings out the worst in people and you can easily see this in show biz when you watch documentaries like VH1’s Behind the Music. Suddenly when you start making lots of money, you don’t want to be taxed and the wealth redistributed. You climbed up the ladder and you made it through hard work or luck, and you might think “hey I did it, so others can do it too!” so you might kick down the ladder and forget about all the help you had to get to where you are. Even if we look outside show biz, we see these attitudes on university campuses: fake-socialist students will talk all about redistributing the wealth and other hippie progressive stuff and give up on it as soon as they get their first white collar paycheque and then start talking about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I think that’s enough of that tangent.

Is it hypocritical for wealthy people to be socialist? I don’t think so. I’ve written about this before. If you look at the history of socialism, some of the earliest proponents were rich people, often famous in the arts and creative fields, who came from money themselves. They had the time to write theory and think about how to make the world a better place. In the old days they didn’t have the labour protections we have now, and even then we have a long ways to go with worker’s rights. Because there was less technology 100-150 years ago, manual labour was even more taxing so poor people were even more exhausted. Food quality was also not the same. Workers worked long days and there were no social safety nets. Education was only for the wealthy. Socialist theory was written in a way that it was hard for an average person to understand. Poor people didn’t have the time to read theory or think about how to make the world a better place. They were only focused on the here and now, living hand to mouth, paycheque to paycheque. Survival was the only thing on their mind. How can you think of living when your day to day is about survival? Nowadays we have technology and information is so much easier to access and with discourse being more democratised we have more voices from more diverse parts of society. You don’t have to be in the establishment or adjacent to it to have a voice online.

I don’t think you have to live ascetically to be a socialist or eschew luxuries. Many socialists want luxuries for all. They want homeownership for all. They want good wages for all. They want to uplift the poor, not just kick down the rich. And sometimes self-made people still remember where they came from and are generous people.

That’s enough pondering on socialism generally, let’s talk about it in a more fun way!

Left Wing Musicians of the 60s:

In each of these sections, we will talk about the musician’s politics and a little bit about their backgrounds and where they came from. When possible, I’ll share quotes from interviews about their political views and quotes from their more political songs. Keep in mind, I am not endorsing or agreeing with all their views. Everyone has their own opinions and that is okay.

Nina Simone:

Nina Simone’s discography is very diverse: R&B, jazz, blues, folk, soul, classical, gospel – she could do it all! Incredibly gifted, she started singing and playing piano from a young age and receiving scholarships. Her politics have been discussed in pieces in Tribune Mag, Socialist Worker, and Jacobin.

It’s no surprise that she was a proud, outspoken socialist and civil rights activist. She was born in a poor family of eight children in North Carolina. Early on in her career she experienced racial prejudice with her family attended one of her performances and were forced to leave their front row seats and move to the back because they were black and white people wanted those front row seats. She refused to play until her parents got their front row seats back. She was just 12 years old when that happened. When she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she suspected she was rejected because she was black. One of her most famous songs was “Mississippi Goddam”, which she called her first civil rights song, which is about the murder of Medgar Evers. Some standout lyrics: “They try to say it’s a communist plot. All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people, and me” – conservatives (and even neoliberals) will call anything they don’t like “communism” – open a dictionary!

Her other famous civil rights songs are “Four Women” – which tells the story of four different black women: one who was enslaved, a mixed woman who struggles with her identity, a sex worker, and a woman who deals with generational trauma and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” – famously covered by Aretha Franklin and introduced to the world through the Summer of Soul festival in Harlem and a tribute to her friend Lorraine Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer at just 34 years old. She also sang songs that she found meaningful such as “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, “Aint Got No, I Got Life” from Hair, “Brown Baby” by Oscar Brown, “Backlash Blues” – an anti-war poem written by Langston Hughes, “Zungo” by Babatunde Olatunji (also the writer of “Jingo”, as popularised by Santana), “I Wish It Knew How It Would Be Free” by Billy Taylor, and “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” – a song she performed moments after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. She was always unapologetic about being a black woman and she never gave into white-assimilating beauty standards, always wearing her hair natural, no time for respectability politics.

No doubt, the US is a country with racism problems and Nina left for different countries, eventually settling down in France, where she died.

Now it’s time to share what Nina Simone had to say:

My favourite Nina Simone quote because a woman’s place is in the revolution:

“We never talked about men or clothes. It was always Marx, Lenin, and revolution – real girls’ talk.’ “

– Nina Simone

And here’s a quote from her about the music industry and the greed and capitalism in it:

“I had to find out what kind of revolutionary I was… I was rich and famous but I wasn’t free. Most of the decisions I made were taken in consultation with my manager, accountant, lawyer and record company. I couldn’t do what I wanted.”

– Nina Simone

When it came to civil rights and which approach to take: violent vs non violent, here’s what she had to say:

“I was never non-violent. I just followed Dr Martin Luther King because he was the popular one. But my sympathies were with Malcolm X. I believed in taking gun for gun and totin’ and totin’! If I hadn’t been a musician, I probably would be dead by now.”

– Nina Simone

The year after The Beatles released “Revolution”, Nina Simone came out with her own response song:

“Singin about a revolution
Because were talkin’ about a change
Its more than just evolution
Well you know, you got to clean your brain
The only way that we can stand in fact
Is when you get your foot off our back”

– “Revolution Parts 1 & 2” by Nina Simone

Tuli Kupferberg:

Poet, singer, cartoonist, and co-founder of The Fugs, an experimental/proto-punk/satirical band formed in 1964 in New York. He was born Naphtali Kupferberg to an immigrant Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in New York. Growing up in the Great Depression, he understandably gravitated towards socialism and embraced pro-union and anti-war ideas. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1944. You can read more about him and his politics in this article on Please Kill Me.

He was very anti war and famously wrote a pamphlet with Robert Bashlow called 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft, inspired by one of his previous works 1001 Ways to Live Without Working. You can read a digital copy here. He also lectured at educational social enterprise the Free University of New York, a haven for professors who were dismissed from their jobs for being anti-war or socialist. Beside that, he was in a few movies: playing a machine gun-toting soldier in W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism and an anti-war skit of his appeared in Richard Pryor’s film Dynamite Chicken, an underground film partly funded by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Other musicians appeared in that movie like Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Muddy Waters, and Sha Na Na.

Here’s a quote from a Fugs song he wrote: “CIA Man”

“Who can kill a general in his bed?
Overthrow dictators if they’re Red?
Fucking A-man!
CIA man!

Who can buy a government so cheap?
Change a cabinet without a squeak?
Fucking A-man!
CIA man!”

– “CIA Man” by The Fugs (written by Tuli Kupferberg)

Phil Ochs:

One of the best known socialists in folk rock, you can find articles about him in The Guardian and Socialist Action.

Folk rock legend, basically the easiest way to sum him up for a new listener is he was the socialist Bob Dylan. He described himself as a singing journalist, who based his songs off of stories he’d read in Newsweek. He called his songs topical songs, rather than protest songs. He was born in El Paso, Texas to a Jewish American father and a Scottish mother. His younger brother, Michael Ochs, is a famous photographer who took pictures of many classic rock musicians. As a teenager, he grew up playing classical music, being a talented clarinetist, but being a teenager in the 1950s, rock and roll captivated his attention: Elvis and Buddy Holly were game changers. As well, he got into country music like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. And he was a movie buff, big fan of John Wayne, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. Phil Ochs studied journalism at Ohio State University and during that time, he got interested in politics because of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and started reading Marx and Engels. He started writing for the school paper, but when the editors of the school paper found his writing too radical, he started his own underground newspaper called The Word. Musically, he expanded his horizons to folk rock and got into Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He also learnt to play guitar. He nearly graduated from university, but dropped out in his last semester to become a professional folk singer. Interestingly enough, when it came to his politics, he admired President Kennedy, but disagreed with things about his foreign policy such as The Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. When Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, Phil Ochs cried and was distraught, saying he felt like he was going to die. It was the only time his wife, Alice, saw him cry.

In the early 60s, he started his music career. He opened for the Smothers Brothers in the early 60s and met Bob Gibson, a major figure in the folk music revival in America, one of his biggest influences. He moved to New York City in 1962 and became part of the Greenwich Village folk scene and contributed to the folk rock publication, Broadside. He and Bob Dylan were friendly rivals. In the early and mid-60s he was prolific, with Bob Dylan once saying that he wasn’t sure if he could keep up with Phil Ochs’ pace of songwriting. However, one thing Bob Dylan was able to do was crossover into mainstream popularity. Phil Ochs couldn’t do that because as great as his music was, it was too “radical” for the normies and challenged the establishment. In the late 60s, his brother became his manager, he moved to LA, and took his music in a baroque folk direction with a lot more complicated layering and production, but it didn’t land. A couple of his songs from this time found some success and radio airplay like “Outside a Small Circle of Friends” reaching #119 on Billboard’s Hot Prospect charts and Joan Baez getting a top 10 hit with a cover of his song “There but for Fortune”. His original reached #50 on the Billboard charts, his highest charting single.

Phil Ochs remained involved in activism in the late 60s, performing at anti-war rallies, and he was a Yippie, helping plan the Youth International Party’s Festival of Life at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He performed at Lincoln Park, Grant Park, and at the Chicago Coliseum and saw the violence that unfolded. He was even among those arrested when he, Jerry Rubin, and others paraded around their candidate, Pigasus, an actual pig. 1968 being a turbulent year with the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the Chicago police riot, and the Vietnam War going on, Phil Ochs grew more and more depressed and released Rehearsals For Retirement the following year with the cover being a mock tombstone showing that he died at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. He testified for the defence at the trial of the Chicago Seven. As he left the courthouse, he sang “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”. He wrote “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed” about it.

The Seventies: New decade, new Phil Ochs. He reinvented himself as a cross between Elvis and Che Guevara. He titled his new album Greatest Hits, an ironic title because it was all new songs. On the cover, he wore a retro looking gold lamé suit, designed by Nudie Cohn, who also designed clothes for Gram Parsons and Jimmy Page. He found the public were alienated by Yippie tactics and instead decided to look towards nostalgia, playing the songs that boomers listened to as kids and enough time had passed, that those songs were cool in a retro way. His fans though didn’t really like this new Phil Ochs and in a way this was his “Judas!” moment. But his 1970 Carnegie Hall concert was well received. During this time he fell deep into drugs and alcohol and didn’t record any more albums, but he did release a few more songs.

In the early 70s, Phil Ochs went to Chile. Chile had recently elected Marxist Salvador Allende as president. There, Ochs befriended poet and fellow socialist singer-songwriter Victor Jara. Victor Jara and Salvador Allende died during the 1973 Chilean coup, which the US government under President Nixon had a part in. The US has a history in meddling in Latin American countries and in Chile, the US stopping aid to ruin Chile’s economy, CIA aiding Allende’s opposition by funding far right media to smear Allende and increase tensions in the country. US-installed dictator Augusto Pinochet was in charge of the military and led the coup. The US wasn’t alone in planning the coup and installing a dictator, Australia also had a role in it. When La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, was captured, Allende gave a farewell speech before killing himself with an AK-47. Prominent Allende supporters like Victor Jara were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured at Chile Stadium (which has since been renamed in memory of Victor Jara). Victor Jara was killed at the stadium after singing the protest song “Venceremos”, which translates to “We Will Win”. Jara was only 40. Phil Ochs organised a benefit concert in America called An Evening With Salvador Allende, held on 9 May 1974. Fellow folk musicians Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Dave Van Ronk performed there. Bob Dylan was the reason that it sold out because it was about to be cancelled due to poor ticket sales, but when he announced he would be there, people bought tickets. Phil Ochs wanted to do a tour with Bob Dylan afterwards, but nothing materialised.

Phil Ochs continued his travels in Latin America by visiting Argentina and Uruguay, but he was arrested when he came back to Argentina because of his politics and he was put on a plane bound for Bolivia. Local leftist friends of his let his travel companion David Ifshin know that he could be “disappeared” by being taken to Bolivia, but Ifshin and Ochs lucked out and were next sent to Peru. Phil Ochs feared being arrested so he went back to America days later. John Lennon personally invited him to perform at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, to call to free him. Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years for possession of marijuana, an extremely harsh sentence even the not 420 friendly people criticised. Sinclair was freed not long after the rally.

Phil Ochs did some more travelling in 1972 and 1973, visiting Australia, New Zealand, and going on a big trip around Africa, visiting Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa. While in Kenya, he recorded a world music single called “Bwatue”, which translates to canoe.

In 1975, the Vietnam War officially ended and Phil Ochs planned a War is Over rally in Central Park. 100,000 people attended. He and Joan Baez famously sang a duet of “There but for Fortune”. After that, Phil Ochs’ mental health worsened, with his behaviour growing more and more erratic. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He took his life on 9 April 1976.

Like a lot of entertainers, the FBI had a file on Phil Ochs. His file was large at over 500 pages long because of his association with counterculture figures and activists.

Now to share what Phil Ochs said about politics and I can only share a few quotes from song lyrics because there’s a lot:

I previously talked about “What Are You Fighting For?” in the Socialist Classic Rock Songs blog post, but to share some of the lyrics:

“Before you pack your rifle, go sail across the sea

Just think upon the southern part of land that you call free

Oh, there’s many kinds of slavery and we’ve found many more

Yes I know you’re set for fighting, but what are you fighting for?

And before you walk out on your job in answer to the call

Just think about the millions who have no job at all

And the men who wait for handouts with their eyes upon the floor

Oh I know you’re set for fighting, but what are you fighting for?”

– “What Are You Fighting For?” by Phil Ochs

I have often referenced “Love Me I’m a Liberal”, one of his best known songs and honestly the whole song is evergreen and one of my favourite political songs ever. I think of the establishment Democrats whenever I hear this song (lyrics here):

As inspired by Eugene V. Debs:

“Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor
Only as free as a padlocked prison door
Only as strong as our love for this land
Only as tall as we stand”

– “Power and Glory” by Phil Ochs

He even sang about automation:

“For the wages were low and the hours were long
And the labour was all I could bear
Now you’ve got new machines for to take my place
And you tell me it’s not mine to share
Though I laid down your factories and laid down your fields
With my feet on the ground and my back to your wheels
And now the smoke is rising, the steel is all a-glow
I’m walking down a jobless road and where am I to go”

– “Automation Song” by Phil Ochs

He called out for-profit medicine:

“We are the nation’s physicians
Yes, we give aid to our lobbies every day
We will fight against disease when the money comes with ease
And when we get together we say
Hooray for the A.M.A. 
And for us doctors gluts of higher pay
If you can’t afford my bill don’t you tell me that you’re ill
‘Cause that’s the free enterprise way”

“AMA Song” by Phil Ochs

“Draft Dodger Rag” is another great anti-war song:

We could go on all day, but I’ll leave it at that!

Dave Van Ronk:

One of Bob Dylan’s friends in Greenwich Village in the 60s. He was known as the Mayor of MacDougal Street. He was also friends with Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Joni Mitchell. He was born into a family of mostly Irish ancestry despite his last name being Dutch. As a teen, he performed in a barbershop quartet. After graduating from secondary school, he was a Merchant Marine. He really liked jazz, blues, and folk music and he originally wanted to play trad jazz music, but the times had changed and blues was more popular so he got into blues music. Besides music, he was smart and had many other hobbies: cooking, sci-fi, history, and politics – particularly left libertarian politics. He was part of the Libertarian League and the Trotskyist American Committee for the Fourth International, which was renamed the Workers League. He was at the Stonewall Riots – credited as the start of the gay liberation movement, and was one of the 13 people arrested and he was beaten up, handcuffed to a radiator, and charged with assault. For pretty much all his adult life, he was a dues paying member of Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. Like Phil Ochs, the FBI had files on Dave Van Ronk. Really makes you think… is America really the land of free speech?

As said earlier, he performed at An Evening With Salvador Allende and after Phil Ochs’ death, he played at a memorial concert for him, performing “He Was a Friend of Mine” in memory of him. Dave Van Ronk died on 10 June 2002, aged 65.

Here are some quotes from Dave Van Ronk:

There’s some truth to this one, but record deals didn’t always equal success. It’s true though that in the 60s labels seemed to take more chances.”

“If there was ever any truth to the trickle-down theory, the only evidence of it I’ve ever seen was in that period of 1960 to 1965. All of sudden they were handing out major label recording contracts like they were coming in Cracker Jack boxes.”

– Dave Van Ronk

Unlike Phil Ochs, his music wasn’t very political and believed that you should separate art and politics, once saying:

“Just because you are a cabinetmaker and a leftist, are you supposed to make left-wing cabinets?”

– Dave Van Ronk

You can read an interview with Dave Van Ronk on World Socialist Web Site. There’s also an article about him on Counterpunch.

Westview News described Van Ronk as a folk singer’s folk singer and as someone who…

“personified Greenwich Village, as the ‘local’ who never left for fame and was always trusted”

Dean Reed:

Described as the Red Elvis, Denver-born singer Dean Reed had more success abroad in the Eastern Bloc than in in his birth country of the US. In Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe, he sold millions of records. His father, Cyril, was a teacher and his mother was a homemaker. Cyril grew up on a farm and said most people around him were conservatives. During his childhood, he moved a lot, living in California, Utah, before moving back to Colorado. Socialism didn’t run in the family, as his father held anti-communist views and was a Goldwater supporter. As a kid, Dean Reed went to military school, rode horses, ran track, and performed at various charitable events – getting involved in his community. When Dean Reed offered to pay for a plane ticket so his father could see him in Eastern Europe, he refused and said he wasn’t interested in going to ‘those countries’. His mother, on the other hand, seemed much more supportive.

At 19, he moved to LA to work as an actor, after dropping out of the University of Colorado, where he was studying meteorology. His acting teacher, Paton Price was an influence on him politically and taught him that art should be a way to share and promote your beliefs. Dean credited Price as the guy who helped him keep his integrity and inspired him not to sell out while in Hollywood. He regarded him as a close friend. While in Hollywood, he tried recording some singles, but none of them were major successes and he didn’t like Hollywood because he found it to be fake and exploitative.

In 1962, his record label sent him on a tour of Brazil, Chile, and Peru and this changed his life forever. He fell in love with Latin America, learnt Spanish, and while in Chile, he became even more left wing, speaking out against oppression and classism because he saw how much less the people there had than in the US and there was a huge disparity between the haves and the have nots. He would play for rich audiences at fancy venues, but he’d also play for the masses at football stadiums, and even performing at prisons, like Johnny Cash. He moved to Argentina, gained a following, and lived there for 4 years, until he was deported for his politics following the 1966 military coup.

He first went to Europe in 1965 and played shows in Italy, Spain, and the USSR. He later moved to Rome, where he lived for two years, from 1967-1969. He starred in some spaghetti westerns. He settled down in East Germany in 1973. Many of his singles were Beatles and Elvis covers. He barely spent any time in the US since moving abroad. He didn’t really care about being famous in America. He was happy being popular in the Eastern Bloc and Latin America. But Western media and Westerners against communism thought of him as a traitor. On the other side, there were communists in the Eastern Bloc who thought he was a spy.

Politically, he would defend the USSR. He once wrote a letter to Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, calling him out for “slandering the USSR”. He directed and starred in El Cantor, a biopic about Victor Jara. Some university students in Minnesota invited him to come to their school to show the movie. While in Minnesota, he worked with a left wing group and protested against fossil fuels and got arrested. Even though he was a socialist, he still loved his birth country, never gave up his citizenship, and made sure to pay his taxes (unfortunately, the US is one of the few countries that has citizenship based taxation). He last visited the US in 1985 for the premiere of American Rebel: The Dean Reed Story at the Denver International Film Festival. In June 1986, he was found dead floating in a lake near his home in East Berlin. His friends in Germany believed it was a suicide, but his American family believe he was murdered. He left a suicide note on the back of a screenplay in his car.

On YouTube, you can find a documentary about him called American Rebel: The Dean Reed Story.

Now for some quotes from the documentary:

On moving to South America and how it changed his life:

“South America changed my life because of course there, one can see the great differences of justice and injustice, of poverty and wealth, they are so clear to see for anybody that you must take a stand. Sometimes I like to say well there are three types of people in South America: there are blind people who do want to see the truth, there are capitalists, and there are revolutionaries and I was neither a capitalist, nor was I blind, there I became a revolutionary.”

– Dean Reed

On what it means to be a revolutionary he said:

“I believe that first of all, it means that I’m ready to risk my life, though, to give my life in one way or another to make life a little bit better for some other human beings in this world. It means that I do not believe that you can truly within the system of capitalism make it into a just system for all. I don’t believe that. Through reforms. I believe that there has to be in the system a radical change. A revolutionary change meaning it takes one leap from a quantitative to a qualitative step and that means it would change into a socialist system. That doesn’t mean it would be by arms, taking up arms. It doesn’t mean that people will have to die. Obviously I’m a revolution [sic] because I want to save people’s lives, not because I want take them.”

– Dean Reed

On America being a ‘free country’:

“We say that America is the freest country in the world and I would answer ‘yes, probably so’. You have the freedom in America to be unemployed and to have fear of not having enough to eat. Nobody has this fear [in a communist country]. There is no unemployment essentially. You can have the special freedom in the United States, as my father, for example, who worked his whole life and he writes in a letter that he’s had a toothache for a year, but he hasn’t gone to the dentist because it costs so much money. That’s unbelievable. I tell that to my friends in the socialist countries and they say come on, you must be exaggerating. All medical facilities are free of charge. There are a lot of different types of freedoms. So I would say that I feel that I am in a free society in socialism.”

– Dean Reed

Ray Davies:

Lead singer and primary songwriter of The Kinks. The Kinks really stood out among their contemporaries for being unapologetically British in their songwriting and for their songs having a working class perspective, and you can attribute that to Ray’s upbringing and the band being banned from touring America (The Kinks are the only rock band to be banned from America, as far as I’m aware). It always surprises people when I tell them about the socialist side of The Kinks and that’s because their hit songs were not very political. Ray isn’t talking about eating the rich in “You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night”, “Tired of Waiting For You”, “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lola”, or “Come Dancing”, but dig a little deeper in their discography and you can see why people say that The Kinks really did pave the way for punk rockers, and not just with the fuzzy power chords, even if Ray doesn’t consider himself a political songwriter.

As one line in Sunny Afternoon, the musical, goes “We’re working class socialists from Muswell Hill and we don’t believe in what you believe in in Muswell Hill!” The Kinks are a socialist band. It’s canon as you’ll see!

When talking about the politics of The Kinks, we have to start with Ray and Dave Davies’ upbringing. The Kinks were truly self-made. If you go to Muswell Hill now, it’s pretty middle class and gentrified, but back in the Kinks’ day, it was working class. Ray and Dave were born into a large family, the 7th and 8th children born into that family. The father, Fred, was a slaughterhouse worker (ironic considering that Ray and Dave later went vegetarian) and a socialist and the mother, Annie, was a homemaker, busy raising her kids – the oldest, Rose, being born in 1924 and the youngest one, Dave, being born in 1947. That’s a lot of mouths to feed and as you can expect, the family were broke, but they managed to get by somehow. Ray’s leftist roots started in his childhood. He told Gay Times in 1994:

“In my childhood I was told that I would probably have a physical disability [referring to his chronic back pain]. They said, ‘when you’re old you’ll be a cripple’. Knowing that made me feel a bit of a victim and an outsider. I found myself looking for other people who got banished.”

– Ray Davies

The Kinks went on to be a big success, but when you’re a successful rock band, it’s not in your best interest to get (too) political. As time went on, Ray found himself and wrote the songs he wanted to write, and those included political songs. You can hear bits of it early on with “Things Are Getting Better” having a little working class perspective, “A Well Respected Man” and “Mr Pleasant” satirising rich people, and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” being a critique of consumerism, and it’s not his last one. Two songs, “Dead End Street” and “Sunny Afternoon” are very political and all about class, written from two different perspectives: the unemployed working class person who wants a hand up so they can live a good life and talks about the ugly realities of poverty, and the wealthy man who laments his money being taken by the taxman, but keep in mind Ray doesn’t want you sympathising for him so he makes the character a drunk asshole who is cruel to his wife.

The Village Green Preservation Society isn’t a socialist album per se, more a nostalgic proto-cottagecore album, but I love that line in “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” – “I’m the last of the good old renegades, all my friends are middle class and grey”. Could this be a reference to Ray being “not like everybody else”: that he doesn’t care about flex culture, hobnobbing with the rich, and he hasn’t forgotten where he came from (Notably, Rod Stewart is also from Muswell Hill, and was even a classmate of Ray and Dave’s, but you don’t associate him with Muswell Hill because he doesn’t talk about it)? I really like how The Kinks early on did things before other people did, but by this point, they say screw trends, let’s go retro.

The Kinks get even more political in Arthur, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, and Muswell Hillbillies. For sure, I’d call these socialist albums. Who needs theory when you have The Kinks? In Arthur, you’ll get songs critical of the prudish, poverty-filled Victorian Era (“Victoria”); Churchill’s warmongering and contempt for the working-class (“Mr Churchill Says”); war in general (“Yes Sir, No Sir” and “Some Mother’s Son”); and consumerism, the rat race, and capitalism (“Brainwashed”, “Shangri-La”, “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina”, and “Arthur”). In 1969, famous Chicago journalist Studs Terkel interviewed Ray about Arthur (you can listen to the interview here), definitely worth a listen if you’re a Kinks fan and want to know what Ray was thinking when he wrote those songs. He doesn’t profess to be an expert or a spokesperson, but I hear a lot of honesty and wisdom from this then 25 year old rock star. What better way to hear it than from the man himself? In a way, the album reminds me a lot of F is for Family with Arthur being kind of like Frank Murphy, average guy whose dreams and ambitions were crushed and he has to conform to the capitalist system and comes to accept it as the way things are and the cycle continues. At the end Ray basically says the message is don’t hate people, hate systems. Here’s a quote from the interview about class:

“I don’t think that a lot of people realise that people are in their place. I know there are people [who] are aware of class: working class, upper class, middle class and all that, but they’re not aware when it actually happens to them, that it actually happens to them.”

– Ray Davies

Sometime in the early 70s, Ray Davies was in talks with a Chicago film director named Gary Sherman (who was living in the UK after becoming disillusioned with the 1968 DNC – Phil Ochs felt the same way) to star in a film with a socialist message called Turned Over. Ray was going to play the main character, a middle class man who steals for a living. In this interview with We Are Movie Geeks, Gary Sherman describes Ray as “very left wing”. The movie never materialised because Dave told his older brother that he can’t be both a rock star and a movie star and the filmmakers didn’t want the movie to be made without Ray. I get what Dave is saying, you only have so much time. Ian Gillan turned down playing Jesus in the film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar because fans would prefer it if he toured with Deep Purple – this was during the “Smoke On The Water” peak fame (I’m guessing money also was a factor). The Kemp Brothers of Spandau Ballet had to take a hiatus from music when they wanted to get into acting. However, this movie would have been cool to see, more as a novelty though.

Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround is critical of the music business as a whole. People will often misinterpret “Get Back in Line” as an anti-union song that expresses Ray’s frustration with the American Federation of Musicians, but I think Ray is more frustrated with the corruption in unions, which even pro-union people have to admit is a problem. Plus that song and other songs on the album like “The Contenders”, “The Moneygoround”, “A Long Way From Home”, “Rats” (written by Dave), “Powerman”, and “Gotta Be Free”.

Muswell Hillbillies is a “back to basics” album (every classic rock band seems to have that kind of album) with working class themes throughout and marries Ray’s pride in Muswell Hill and his love and fascination with America, with him comparing being a working class person from Muswell Hill to being a working class person from Appalachia or the south and the album being about gentrification. People really aren’t that different after all, even if there’s an ocean between us. Once again, there’s misinterpretation of “20th Century Man” and the album as a whole being conservative. When you read the quotes below, you’ll see that Ray isn’t conservative in the least. Very far from it and he’s definitely not a milquetoast liberal. Definitely left wing with libertarian leanings and Muswell Hillbillies takes a point of view that’s working class and libertarian for sure, but you can interpret it as left wing. It takes some inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984 but that book isn’t conservative either, it’s anti-authoritarian. I think if you’re a rock star, you can’t be authoritarian.

The Kinks really went political with Preservation Acts 1 & 2 with the whole Mr Flash versus Mr Black “cinematic universe”. Some people listen to it and feel like Ray predicted the rise of Trump, but perhaps these problems existed for a long time. This era of the band is polarising to say the least, but it’s an interesting attempt at a political rock opera. Not their best work though.

In the late 70s and early 80s, The Kinks had some more political songs, my favourite being “Father Christmas” with a message of screw toys, we need money. Really gets you thinking of those toy drives for the less fortunate. I think having food to eat, a roof over your head, and peace of mind is more important than a Barbie doll or Hot Wheels. I mean who else would write a rock and roll socialist Christmas song? It’s the best Christmas song, period. There are some more topical political songs, but I see critiques of fake allies/activists, consumerism, elitism, and authoritarianism as themes in these songs.

Here’s a playlist I made of The Kinks’ socialist songs:

Ray Davies is far from being an open book, explaining that his songs are written in the points of views of characters and that the political side of his music is him expressing himself, but not necessarily telling people what to think. I will say he makes a good case for left wing politics and he’s a good gateway to winning normies over to socialism. He’s reluctant to talk politics, but I’ve found a few quotes.

Of his politics, Ray Davies said in a 1979 interview with NME:

“I was a socialist. I was brought up to think that way, and then I had success and it made a lie out of what I was. I made a gesture and it wasn’t accepted so I left it physically and emotionally, but I didn’t become a capitalist. I hate ultra-capitalism and ultra-socialism, but I’m not a liberal. I believe in anarchy with order.”

– Ray Davies

In his “unauthorised autobiography” X-Ray, he said this about the Swinging 60s:

“But old Harold Wilson, bless him, our Premier and guiding light for most of the sixties, reminded me of so many of those promoters up north who came to us after a show and expected us to thank them for giving us work. It’s unbelievable that Harold Wilson was part of the ‘swinging’ sixties, but I think the sixties were a con: the establishment still ruled the country. Grenville didn’t know too much about managing a rock group, but he knew about the establishment. The sixties were like a carrot held up to youth to distract us so that we would not rebel against the ruling classes and all the backhanders and corruption that were actually present in politics. The countryside was being eroded and trees pulled up in order to build motorways, factories were being closed, coal mines were being ear-marked for the chop. I suppose there’s some Welsh in me – probably a lot of Welsh in me – basically I’m a mongrel, and being a mongrel I was becoming aware of the thousands of people who were given the shit end of the stick in the sixties. They were the people who would be left behind without work when the party was over, without a place in society. My job lasted from record to record. The sick thing was, that I was heralded as a standard-bearer for that deceitful time. I was writing songs and the country was gradually being sold out. Cheated. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go down the King’s Road with the others. They thought that I was uncool, unhip. Some even called me a snob.”

– Ray Davies

He reiterated in a 2008 Rolling Stone interview that he didn’t like neoliberalism and what the Labour Party has become, but this time he identifies as a socialist.

“Another reason I wanted to move to New Orleans was to escape Tony Blair. I’m a socialist, and Labour is not socialist anymore. The working man is still downtrodden and unheard. And now they’re vanishing. Blair came in and it became uncool to be working class. Ev­erybody aspired to be something a little bit better. Nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself, but when you forget your origins —— that’s bad. That’s why I don’t fit into this culture anymore. I take the side of the underdog.”

– Ray Davies

In another 2008 interview, this time with a publication in New Zealand, he expressed some patriotic socialist views saying that not all who wave the English flag are right wing and said this in response to a question asking if the leftists in the US and UK should reclaim their country’s flag, but didn’t want to talk much politics:

“Absolutely, all governed by the laws of that flag and the political correctness of that flag. I was brought up to be a socialist — but I shouldn’t get into politics because I’m pretty heavy duty when I get into it.”

– Ray Davies

In a 2010 BBC documentary about him called Imaginary Man, he said this about seeing the British Empire highlighted in pink on the maps in school growing up:

“The British Empire was vanishing when I was in school. We used to have maps in school where the British Empire was in pink. They don’t dare to do that anymore (laughs). I thought the pink meant that we were gonna be communists. That was my hope. Socialist, working class of course you were going to be a socialist.”

– Ray Davies

Finally, there’s this interview in The Quietus from 2017, there are a lot of great quotes from Ray about politics in this article, but here’s some great quotes from it:

On patriotism and corporations:

“I’m concerned to be British, because flats are being built but they’re going to hedge funds, as an investment rather than somewhere people can live. Proud is a strange word. Britain’s lost, politically, we don’t know where we are. Big corporations, these cathedrals of consumerism, have taken over our identity.”

– Ray Davies

On voting and being politically independent:

“I’ve never voted. I haven’t found a political party that adequately expresses how I feel about the world. My dad was a working class socialist, but as a person … I just don’t want people in shops to have to sell their businesses, I don’t know what that makes me [politically].”

– Ray Davies

On him wishing he could change the system somehow:

“I wish I had time left in my life to be political – I’d like to change things politically. I wouldn’t say run for parliament because you’re already in the system if you’re running. If you’re nailing your colours to the mast you’re part of the system. If I could find a way of being outside the system and still being politically involved, I would.”

– Ray Davies

I will say this about Ray, you can’t accuse him of being as money hungry as his contemporaries, because if he were, he would have gotten over the sibling rivalry, set aside his differences with Dave, and done a Kinks reunion (or a few!). He knows that there were a lot of fans out there who were willing to pay big bucks to see that. But he’s not gonna Give The People What They Want. Ray does things on his own terms, and that’s what Kinks fans love about him.


Proto-punk/hard rock band from Lincoln Park, a suburb of Detroit. They were a part of the late 60s/early 70s left wing counterculture and one of the bands that paved the way for punk rock with their anti-establishment lyrics and provocative stage presence which included showing off unloaded rifles and simulating one of the band members, Rob Tyner, being shot on stage by a “sniper”. They have a short discography, with just three albums, so they’re not an intimidating band to listen to. One of the members, Fred “Sonic” Smith, married Patti Smith, who will be talked about in part 2 of this series. The other members of the classic lineup were Rob Tyner, Michael Davis, and Dennis Thompson. Tyner was the one who gave the band their name with the MC standing for Motor City, and 5 being the number of band members. He also was the one who famously shouted “Kick out the jams motherfuckers!” on Kick Out The Jams.

The band were formed in the early 60s by friends Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith, who loved listening to R&B, early rock and roll, surf rock, and garage rock. Their first manager was Rob Derminer (better known as Rob Tyner, naming himself after John Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner) who was involved in left wing circles in Detroit, but in their peak fame, poet and political activist John Sinclair was their manager, but refused to be thought of that way. Sinclair was the founder of the White Panther Party, a group of white leftist allies of the Black Panthers and a publication called Fifth Estate. Sinclair was famously arrested and jailed for possession of marijuana.

The MC5 would perform at anti-war protests and were famously at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Later that year, they recorded their debut live album Kick Out The Jams on Halloween and the day before, an interesting move for a band since usually a debut album is a studio album. The album opens with this intro:

“Brothers and sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there. I want everybody to kick up some noise. I wanna hear some revolution… Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution. You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds – five seconds of decision, five seconds to realise your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realise that it’s time to move, it’s time to get down with it. Brothers, it’s time to testify. And I want to know – are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial: the MC5”

– Intro to Kick Out The Jams, just before “Ramblin’ Rose”, a Jerry Lee Lewis cover

Otherwise, it really isn’t a political album except for the song “Motor City is Burning”, it’s really more about their stage act and their appearances at protests and stances on issues. “Kick out the jams” itself is a revolutionary slogan. Here’s what Wayne Kramer had to say on it:

“People said, ‘oh wow, kick out the jams means break down restrictions’ etc., and it made good copy, but when we wrote it we didn’t have that in mind. We first used the phrase when we were the house band at a ballroom in Detroit, and we played there every week with another band from the area. […] We got in the habit, being the sort of punks we are, of screaming at them to get off the stage, to kick out the jams, meaning stop jamming. We were saying it all the time and it became a sort of esoteric phrase. Now, I think people can get what they like out of it; that’s one of the good things about rock and roll.”

– Wayne Kramer

A quote from “Motor City is Burning”:

“I’d just like to strike a match for freedom myself. I may be a white boy, but I can be bad, too”

– “Motor City is Burning” by the MC5

Their 1970 follow up album, Back in the USA, has more of a psychedelic sound with 50s rock and roll influences, hence the title and title track, a cover of a Chuck Berry song, which is the last song on the album. 50s rock and roll covers bookend the album and the first song is a cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”. Still, you hear some anti war lyrics in the music, such as on “Tonight” and “The American Ruse”. This album was not as commercially successful as their debut, not even reaching the top 100 in the albums charts. Still, it’s regarded as a really good flop album.

“Tuesday got the letter, the army thinks I better
Get myself down there right away
It’s not that I’m lazy, I’m just too crazy
To be going doing things that way
Because the kids will be in town and the jams will be going down
I wanna do things the natural way”

– “Tonight” by the MC5

“The American Ruse” is another great political song. Hard to pick just one excerpt from it, but here’s one:

“Sixty nine America in terminal stasis
The air’s so thick it’s like drowning in molasses
I’m sick and tired of paying these dues
And I’m sick to my guts of the American ruse”

– “The American Ruse” by the MC5

Their last album, High Time, was even less commercially successful, but critics liked the album. Sadly though, the band had a sad ending. Their record label dropped them after their last two albums flopped and Wayne Kramer and Michael Davis ended up spending time behind bars on drugs charges.

Here’s another quote from one of their political songs from High Time:

“Presidents, priests and old ladies too
They’ll swear on the Bible
What’s best for you
Atom bombs, Vietnam, missiles on the moon
And they wonder why their kids are shootin’
Drugs so soon
Young men fightin’ for democracy
And sacrificed for mediocrity”

– “Gotta Keep Movin'” by the MC5

And another great lyric from the album:

“The power crazy leaders
Who control your very fate (huh!)
They would twist your will
Steal your life and sell your soul away, yeah”

– “Future/Now” by the MC5

Honourable Mentions:

In this section are musicians and other creative people who were before the 60s or didn’t exactly fit into classic rock, but were either from the era or inspired music of the era.

Idris Davies:

Poet best known to classic rock fans as the one who wrote the lyrics to “The Bells of Rhymney”. He was born in Rhymney in 1905. His father, Evan, worked in the coal mines, and the family were working class. At 14 years old, he left school and worked as a coal miner until he was 21 and lost his finger in an accident at work. He was politically active at this time, participating in the General Strike of 1926. Not long after, he lost his job because the coal mine was shut down and so he had to retrain as something else. And so he got into poetry thanks to a coworker introducing him to the works of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (side note/fun fact: That’s where Buzzcocks lead singer Pete Shelley got his stage name from – Pete Shelley’s father also worked at a coal mine). From there, he studied to become a teacher, attending Loughborough College and University of Nottingham. He worked as a teacher in London during WWII and after the war, he moved closer to his hometown and taught there. Between 1938 and 1953 (the year he died), he published four books: Gwalia Deserta, The Angry Summer: A Poem of 1926, Tonypandy and other poems, and Selected Poems. The best known is Gwalia Deserta, which translates to Wasteland of Wales, and that is where “The Bells of Rhymney” came from. The poem a Welsh, working class socialist twist on the traditional nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” (another side note, XTC named one of their albums after this nursery rhyme). Unfortunately, Idris Davies didn’t live to hear “The Bells of Rhymney” (Part XV of Gwalia Deserta) become a folk rock standard. He died 5 years before Pete Seeger performed it and over a decade before The Byrds covered it.

How did a bunch of Americans find out about this poem? Well, Pete Seeger saw it being referenced by Dylan Thomas and in 1958, he set the poem to music and from there, musicians like The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan recorded their own versions. My favourite versions are The Byrds’ jangly one – I love that guitar solo and Gram Parsons’ version with his band The Shilos – this one has more of the poem in it.

Idris Davies once wrote of his politics in a journal entry:

“I am a socialist. That is why I want as much beauty as possible in our everyday lives, and so I am an enemy of pseudo-poetry and pseudo-art of all kinds. Too many ‘poets of the Left’, as they call themselves, are badly in need of instruction as to the difference between poetry and propaganda.”

The editor’s frontispiece of Gwalia Deserta reads:

“The author of this lyrical sequence is moved by a fine indignation born of experience. His poem, therefore, is the outcry of a community as well as that of an individual. It expresses the hopes, betrayal, and suffering of the people of South Wales. It has the simplicity of folksong, of a modern folksong rich with the idiom and image of the contemporary scene and outlook on life. These songs ring true and their appeal is more than a literary one. The author takes his place with Welsh poets such as W. H. Davies and Huw Menai as one authorised by his people to sing for them, and to show the world in music what they have suffered and are still suffering in actuality.”

Paul Robeson:

Actor, singer, athlete, and activist. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898. His father, William, was born into slavery and escaped as a teenager and eventually became the minister of a the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton. His mother was a member of the prominent mixed race Bustill family. When Paul was only a toddler, William was forced to resign because of a disagreement between him and white donors to the church, and so he was forced to work menial jobs. Three years later, his nearly blind wife died in a house fire. While in secondary school, Paul acted in school plays and was a star athlete. The valedictorian of his class, he won a scholarship to Rutgers, where he was the third black student ever enrolled and the only one currently attending the university at the time. He continued acting and playing football in university. When he was in university, WWI was going on and he saw how black soldiers were drafted and fought hard for their country, but didn’t get the same opportunities as white soldiers. He enrolled in NYU’s School of Law in 1919 and continued acting in plays. In the early 1920s he retired from playing football. He played for the now defunct Akron Pros and Milwaukee Badgers. He briefly practised law, but quit because of racism. He acted in plays in New York and London and this helped him get into elite social circles. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925, he made his film debut, acting in the silent film Body and Soul. He loved London so much he bought a home in the fancy neighbourhood of Hampstead. With the introduction of talkies, his career was on the rise and he starred in The Emperor Jones. In the 1930s, he continued his studies and studied phonetics and Swahili in London and got into African history, and became even more proud to be black. He got more political and made friends in anti-imperialist and socialist movements. Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein invited him to visit the USSR, while there he felt like he was finally treated as a human being and not reduced to his ethnicity. In the 40s, he got involved in Civil Rights and met President Truman, warning him that if he didn’t enact legislation to end lynching, black Americans would be forced to defend themselves. He also advocated for Civil Rights legislation and supported trade unions because he felt they were integral to civil rights. He supported progressive Henry Wallace for president. even risking his life travelling to the Deep South to campaign for him. Internationally, he supported independence and anti-imperialist movements in Africa.

As WWII ended, there was another Red Scare. The Attorney General made a list of Subversive Organisations and in the 50s, McCarthyism took hold and it led to many left wing celebrities being blacklisted. Talk about cancel culture! He was completely excluded, basically memory holed, from a book hailed “the most complete record on college football”. TV appearances were cancelled. He was denied a passport and didn’t get it restored until 1958, as a result of the Kent v Dulles Supreme Court case which ruled that denying a passport without due process was unconstitutional. That same year, he published his autobiography, Here I Stand. In the early 60s, things took a bad turn with his mental and physical health. He became reclusive. He was invited to get involved in the mainstream Civil Rights movement, but he turned it down because Bayard Rustin was anti-communist and James Farmer asked him to denounce communism and the USSR. He died in 1976.

Here’s a great quote from him from this 1960 Australian TV appearance:

“The Africans and the American Negroes have turned out to be an extraordinary, gifted people. The great tragedy is that by not making us full class citizens as yet in America, they may be losing, I don’t know how much yet, and to come back I would say that unquestionably I am an American, born there, my father slaved there, upon the backs of my people was developed the primary wealth of America. The primary wealth. You have to have accumulated wealth to start to build. You did it in another way in Australia, you had to build your accumulated wealth too. You just came and took it, you know what I mean? And that’s what they did in most of the country. That’s what you westerners, what you Europeans did, you came and took it. We got to catch up you a little bit. So in America there’s a lot of America that belongs to me yet, you understand. But just like a Scottish American is proud of being from Scotland, I am proud for being African, in schoolbooks they tried to tell me all Africans were savages, till I got to London and found out that most of the Africans I knew were going to Oxford and Cambridge and doing very well and learned their culture.”

– Paul Robeson

In the 40s, he sang for a group of Scottish miners:

*Note: I am only quoting Paul Robeson. As these quotes are from a long time ago, outdated, now considered offensive language was used. I will not censor outdated terms in this case because I think it’s important to present the quotes as they were said to better understand history.

Pete Seeger:

Folk singer and activist known for songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. He was born into a well to do family in New York in 1919. His ancestors were in the US for a long time, with some of them being in the US as early as the American Revolution. His father, Charles Seeger, was a Harvard educated composer and musicologist. He established the first musicology curriculum in the US at UC Berkeley, helped found the American Musicological Society, and was a key founder of the discipline of ethnomusicology. Because he was a pacifist during WWI, he was forced to resign from UC Berkeley. His mother, Constance, was a concert violinist and teacher at the Juilliard School. He had other important family members like his stepmother Ruth Crawford – modernist composer, older brother Charles Seeger III – radio astronomer, uncle Alan Seeger – war poet, half sister Peggy Seeger – folk singer and Ewan MacColl’s wife, and half brother Mike Seeger – founder of folk group New Lost City Ramblers.

As a child, he went to boarding school and he was shy and liked to read. Without pressure from his parents, he started playing ukulele, which impressed his classmates. Later on as a teenager, he started playing banjo, and went on to write the classic book How To Play The Five-String Banjo. He got into Harvard and had a scholarship, but because his grades weren’t good enough, he lost his scholarship and dropped out. At 21, he joined The Almanac Singers, a group that sang topical songs with anti-war, anti-racist, and pro-union themes. Fellow socialist folk singers Lee Hays and Woody Guthrie were also part of this group. He toured the world, worked as a music teacher in schools and summer camps, and played at many universities. He was an early supporter of Bob Dylan. While he preferred acoustic Dylan and was against him going electric at first because he didn’t like the distorted sound, it eventually grew on him and said in 2001, “Though I still prefer to hear Dylan acoustic, some of his electric songs are absolutely great. Electric music is the vernacular of the second half of the twentieth century, to use my father’s old term.” Woody Guthrie famously had a sticker on his guitar that read “This machine kills fascists” and inspired by him, Pete Seeger wrote “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender” on his banjo.

When it comes to politics, he got into activism as a teenager, joining the Young Communist League and later joined the Communist Party USA, but he left in 1949. He supported the Republicans (who were loyal to the left wing Popular Front government of the Second Spanish Republic) in the Spanish Civil War. Of course being an outspoken socialist during that time, you were going to be spied on and in 1955, he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He stood out because he didn’t plead the Fifth and he refused to name personal and political associations because that’s unconstitutional – freedom of speech includes political views and affiliations too. He ended up being indicted on contempt of Congress for that and was convicted and sentenced to 10 one year terms in jail, but his conviction was overturned in 1962 by an appeals court. In the 60s, he supported the Civil Rights movement and organised an important concert at Carnegie Hall that featured the Freedom Singers. “We Shall Overcome” was famously sung at that concert. As you can expect, he was against the Vietnam War. While he identified as a communist, he did not support the government of the Soviet Union.

Pete Seeger died in 2014, aged 94.

Here’s a couple great quotes:

A great quote about how you can be a socialist and patriotic:

“I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent the implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, make me less of an American.”

– Pete Seeger

A great anti-consumerist quote:

“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

– Pete Seeger

Woody Guthrie:

Influential folk singer-songwriter who wrote hundreds of songs and poems (many of which had working class themes) and inspired a lot of the folk revival musicians of the 60s and many other musicians outside of that scene. He was born to a middle class family in Oklahoma in 1912. While his family were conservative, he wasn’t as he grew up and got into left wing politics. During his childhood there were a few fire incidents that had an impact on him: one was a house fire, the others were his sister dying of burns and his father being severely burnt. His mother had Huntington’s Disease and was committed to mental hospital when Woody was a teenager. She later died in that hospital. While he was a secondary school dropout and didn’t have the best grades, he was incredibly bright and well-read with an affinity for music. He preferred busking to studying.

Like many Okies during the Dust Bowl, he left for California to find work and when he left the state he had more opportunities to perform, get his music out there, and meet other creatives. While he never joined the Communist Party USA, he agreed a lot with their policy views and wrote for communist publications. Because of his political views, he was fired by radio station KFVD. Later, he went to New York, where he was embraced by the folk music community and started recording music. In 1940, he released one of the first concept albums, Dust Bowl Ballads. Around this time, he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which he saw as unrealistic and complacent. He continued moving around the country and went to the Pacific Northwest, the environment inspiring his album Columbia River Songs.

During WWII he got involved in pro-union causes and worked as a Merchant Marine when he wasn’t accepted as a USO performer so he didn’t have to be conscripted as a soldier in the draft. After the war, his health declined and was was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that tends to be hereditary. As well, his behaviour was becoming bizarre and erratic and his wife, Marjorie, divorced him and felt like he was a danger to his children. He was later hospitalised at a mental institution in New Jersey and then moved to one in New York, where he died in 1967. Thanks to the folk revival in the 60s, a new generation got into Woody Guthrie’s music.

He had a lot of wise things to day about politics so here are a couple of my favourite quotes:

Of the role of folk musicians, he said:

“It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people.”

– Woody Guthrie

On the military industrial complex:

“If we fix it so’s you can’t make money on war, we’ll all forget what we’re killing folks for.”

– Woody Guthrie

Ewan MacColl:

Folk singer-songwriter and activist born James Henry Miller in Lancashire in 1915. One of the most influential people in the British folk music revival. His parents William and Betsy were from Scotland and they were both socialists and raised their son on traditional folk songs. He left school at 15 and came of age during the Great Depression, and like many others, he was unemployed. During this time, he spent time in the library, worked odd jobs, busked, and got involved in political activism joining the Young Communist League. It wasn’t long until his activism got the attention of British intelligence, who opened a file on him when he was just 17. They said that he was “a communist with extreme views” and needed “special attention”. Throughout the 30s and 40s, he was an actor and playwright in an agitprop theatre group. In the 50s, he got more into folk music thanks to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s visit to the UK and Ireland in 1950. Inspired by Lomax, he collected folk songs and started performing them and pivoting his career in that direction. He even started writing his own songs and was prolific as a songwriter, writing over 300 songs, which have been covered by musicians like The Dubliners, Phil Ochs, The Clancy Brothers, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. Some of his songs were political such as ‘The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh”, “Against The Atom Bomb”, “The Ballad of Tim Evans”, “Legal/Illegal”, “The Ballad of Stalin” (a controversial one), and “Daddy, What Did You Do In The Strike?”. His best known songs though are “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. He was also the brother in law of Pete Seeger – his wife is Peggy Seeger, Pete Seeger’s half sister. His daughter, Kirsty MacColl, was also a famous musician.

Some lyrics from “Legal/Illegal”:

“It’s illegal to kill off a landlord
Or to trespass upon his estate.
But to charge a high rent for a slum is okay;
To condemn two adults and three children to stay
In a hovel that’s rotten with damp and decay
Is a thing that is perfectly legal.”

Victor Jara:

Socialist folk singer from Chile. He was born Victor Lidio Jara Martinez on 28 September 1932 in the Ñuble region of Chile. His family were poor and in those days, Chile had a lot of economic inequality. His father was illiterate and wanted his five children to help him in the fields instead of going to school. His mother could read a little and she knew how to play guitar and piano and was a good singer and she’d sing folk songs at weddings, funerals, and baptisms. Victor Jara played guitar since he was a kid. When Victor Jara was 15, his mother died and he started studying to be an accountant, but later studied to be a priest, but after a couple of years he grew disillusioned with the Catholic Church and quit. He served in the army before going into music and other creative fields. His earliest songs were love songs.

While at the University of Chile, he did choir and theatre. He liked acting in plays that had social themes, like Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which depicted the realities of the lives of poor people. In 1957, he met his idol, Violeta Parra, an important folk singer in Chile who grew up in a large family who lived in poverty. She was a pioneer of the genre Nueva Canción Chilena, which means Chilean New Song and sparked the revival of folk music in Chile. She had a following in Europe too and travelled there in the 50s and 60s, visiting Poland, Italy, France, the USSR, Germany, and Finland. Chilean Musicians’ Day is on her birthday, the 4th of October. Her song “Gracias a la Vida” was notably covered by Joan Baez, and it’s one of the most covered Latin American songs. Parra took her life in 1967.

Jara was part of the Nueva Canción tradition. He released his first album in 1966. The album is full of covers of Latin American folk songs from not only Chile, but other countries too. His follow up album, released the next year also has covers of Latin American folk songs. What made him special and why he needs to be talked about on this list is he wasn’t afraid to talk politics in his music and poetry. He wasn’t afraid to write songs attacking conservatives in his country, but it came at a cost, one of his songs, “La beata”, which is about a woman who has a crush on a priest that she goes to for confession, was banned on the radio and blacklisted by a lot of record stores. On another occasion, he played at a school and he performed a song that denounced a government official named Edmundo Pérez Zujovic who ordered an offensive that killed many people in the south of Chile. Pérez Zujovic’s son was in the audience and he started yelling at Jara and throwing rocks, so Jara fled. Jara nearly died that day.

What really boiled right wing Chileans’ blood was Jara’s support of Allende and him being part of the Popular Unity movement. Jara joined the Communist Party after he visited Cuba and the Soviet Union in the early 60s. One of his best known songs is “Venceremos”, which was used as Allende’s campaign song. Victor Jara’s music played a role in increasing Allende’s popularity and winning the election. In turn, Jara became more popular internationally. Allende was the first Marxist to be democratically elected in not just Latin America, but the world, and the US, under Nixon and Kissinger, saw that as a threat. Allende once said There’s no revolution without songs.

Until his murder in 1973, Victor Jara spoke out in support of Salvador Allende and organised cultural events that supported the democratically elected socialist government. After one of his idols, poet Pablo Neruda, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, Jara directed a ballet and musical homage to him just in time for his return to Chile. He also set his poems to music. Besides being a musician, during this time, Jara was a lecturer at the Technical University. His popularity kept growing and he played a concert in Moscow. On the 11th of September 1973, the Chilean military, backed by the US, staged a coup d’état. Salvador Allende killed himself and Augusto Pinochet was installed as dictator. As the coup was happening and La Moneda was being bombed, Jara was on his way to work, and ended up sleeping at the university, hiding with teachers and students. Pinochet instructed the soldiers to round up leftist activists and Allende supporters. On the 12th of September, the university was surrounded by soldiers with lots of weapons, demanding that all the students and staff leave the building with their hands on their heads. Victor Jara was among those taken prisoner and taken to Chile Stadium. There were thousands of political prisoners taken there. While there, they were tortured, assaulted, practically naked, and beaten. Political prisoners would jump off the balconies and take their lives. Victor Jara was singled out because of his fame and beaten severely. They beat his wrists and taunted him by saying something like try playing the guitar with broken wrists. His face was bloody. The soldiers didn’t want to shoot him straight away; they wanted to torture him and have him suffer in his last moments. When they killed him, they threw his dead body in a pile of other dead bodies. For decades, the people who killed Victor Jara got away with it. Pinochet was arrested in 1998 in the UK on charges of genocide and terrorism that include murder; it was the first time a former head of government was arrested on the principle of universal jurisdiction (which means that any country can claim jurisdiction over an accused person regardless of where the crime was committed). He was released for medical reasons in 2000 and he went back to Chile. He died in 2006. He was never convicted of any crimes he was accused of. For decades, widow Joan Jara tried to seek justice for her late husband. The soldiers made a pact of silence, but eventually some soldiers who were young at the time began to break the silence and speak out, outing the officers. In 2013, she filed a civil lawsuit against a former military officer she says was responsible for her husband’s death, Pedro Barrientos, a naturalised US citizen who has been living in Florida for over 20 years. In 2016, a Florida jury found Barrientos liable for the torture and murder of Jara and awarded $28 million in damages to his widow, Joan, and his daughters, but they are unlikely going to get any money because Barrientos is a poor retiree. In 2018, eight retired Chilean officers were sentenced to 15 years in prison for their involvement in the torture and murder of Victor Jara.

There is a documentary on Netflix about Jara called Remastered: Massacre at the Stadium.

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