Twenty years ago the frontmen from Irish rock bands U2 and Ash held a concert in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall that swung the ‘Yes’ campaign for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Now ex-NME editor, Stuart Bailie has written a book entitled Trouble Songs, supported by the British Council, which addresses the role of music in peacebuilding.
About that time in history, the book says: “It was a very significant moment. It symbolised everything the Good Friday Agreement was: orange and green, Unionism and Nationalism, coming together. It changed the dynamic.”
The book is a reflection of the story of music and conflict in Northern Ireland since 1968 and involves over 60 interviews and conversations with the likes of Bono, Christy Moore, the Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Orbital, Kevin Rowland, Terri Hooley, the Rubberbandits, Dolores O’Riordan and the Miami Showband
Ahead of the official release of Trouble Songs, Stuart will read excerpts of his book tonight at Belfast City Hall as part of the international peace conference, Peace and Beyond.
We ask him his opinion on the role of music in peacebuilding:
What makes a song or a musician the voice of a movement?
My book Trouble Songs tells the story of music and conflict in Northern Ireland. It begins with ‘We Shall Overcome’, an anthem that has inspired people for a century. This developed in America as a hymn called ‘I’ll Overcome Some Day’. Then it was embraced by striking miners and tobacco workers, who adapted the chorus as ‘We Will Overcome’. The folk singer Pete Seeger and his friends added verses and changed “will” for “shall” which was more emphatic. And so it resounded through the American Civil Rights movement of the 60s, led by Martin Luther King. It gave the participants strength and encouragement on marches and rallies. Artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez added their voices and so it emerged as a phenomenal call for social change. In 1968, the song was taken up in Northern Ireland. The protest marchers in Londonderry (often referred to as Derry) remember that they initially felt awkward when they sang it. They supposed that it belonged to black people in the American South. But it became a universal anthem, as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement marched for changes, including universal voting rights and the fair allocation of social housing.
In 1968, this was a non-violent movement, but it led to clashes. Unionists wanted to retain the links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Nationalists wanted these six counties to unite with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland. This is a very complex story and much of the history is contested. My book avoids getting bogged down in these arguments. Rather, I look at how musicians and their audiences expressed their feelings in song. Over 3,700 people have died in conflict-related events since 1968. Paramilitaries armies and State security forces have been involved. There was a political agreement in 1998 and life in Northern Ireland is considerably less violent, but we are not entirely at peace yet.
A song can also have immediate impact. In 1998, just as the peace process seemed to be making progress, there was a bomb in the market town of Omagh that killed 29. The local artist Juliet Turner sang the song ‘Broken Things’ at a memorial service in the town a week later. She channelled the sense of heartbreak and frustration into a short song. She articulated what thousands of people were feeling. They wanted a cessation of violence. It was such a powerful moment.
How does a song become linked with a time or movement?
When the Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers released their song ‘Alternative Ulster’ in 1978, some critics felt they were exploiting the conflict. Now the work is received by critics and fans as a roaring expression of frustrated teenagers in Belfast during the worst decade of the conflict. Punk fans were largely outside the sectarian conflict. They were against a failed political system and the song gave voice to this.
Conversely, John Lennon sang about the killing of 14 civilians by British Paratroopers in Derry in the 1972 song ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. It is not regarded as one of his best. Slogans and shouting are useful tools for the songwriter, but the result can sometimes sound simplistic and charmless.
What makes music such a powerful medium for expressing a place in history?
Compared to other expressions such as film and theatre, music is fast, cheap and accessible. During the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 70s, 80s and 90s, local punk musicians could record music cheaply. You can hear the thrill and the sense of empowerment in those recordings.
People can make a statement with a couple of chords or basic software. The song ‘The Men Behind The Wire’ by the Belfast folk group Barleycorn topped the Irish charts a few months after the introduction of internment in 1971, when hundreds of suspected terrorists were imprisoned without trial. The song articulated a raw feeling for the affected families from the Nationalist/Republican community. A more famous song like ‘One’ by U2 has been used to soundtrack many causes and events over the years but in May 1998, it was about the peace process in Northern Ireland and support for the Good Friday Agreement. Bono performed it at the Waterfront Hall and during the gig he encouraged the two main political leaders, John Hume and David Trimble, to shake hands on stage. It was an iconic moment. Music helped to swing the referendum and the future of Northern Ireland.
Do all peace movements have a musical element?
In my youth, there was a great connection between the rebel traditions of British punk and Jamaican reggae. Both forms were anti-authority and so punk bands like the Clash created an exciting fusion. Irish folk music has carried a dangerous spark across the centuries, even when it speaks in code. And often it was necessary to speak in code, during times when pro-Irish sentiments were outlawed by the British. So I’ve been fascinated by the disruptive power of music. On the other hand, the American Civil Rights movement aimed to be peaceable and non-aggressive and their anthems fitted that aspiration. ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ are the classic examples. These songs underlined the dignity of their campaign at a time when media images and soundbites were becoming very important.
The sad demise of Dolores O’Riordan from the Cranberries reminds us that ‘Zombie’ was one of the last songs to express a sense of disgust with the conflict. It was released in the middle of two major ceasefires from paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland in1994. After this, a lot of local artists were tentative about the peace process, but the song ‘Sunrise’ by the Northern Irish pop group The Divine Comedy was a beautiful expression of a more hopeful future. The rock band Snow Patrol tried to articulate a more assertive, post-conflict mood in tracks like Just Say Yes and Take Back The City.
Why do music scenes thrive at times when other areas of society do not?
The 60s was a great decade for protest music because there was an emerging, rebellious generation – the demographic of the Baby Boomers. The new songwriters of that time had learnt well from elders like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Billie Holiday. Counter-cultures like punk and rave had a huge impact in Northern Ireland. Visitors were also inspired. Orbital were from Kent in England, but their track ‘Belfast’ was a tribute to their experience in the city’s blissful youth culture.
There is still evidence of friction and resistance in new music from Northern Ireland. A lot of the best new songs find our local artists singing about LGBT+ issues and the lack of marriage equality, while Derry band Touts sing the lyrics of their song ‘Political People’ with contempt.
What links the music, and musicians, who emerge during times of crisis?
It takes charisma, edge and audacity to pull off a protest song. The folk singer Christy Moore has written about difficult subjects in Ireland for 40 years. He’s a controversial performer and a big influence on the singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor. In the United States, mainstream performers like Kendrick Lamar and even Eminem are putting out lyrical rage that compares to the vintage era of the 60s. I think we are entering another great era of trouble songs.
What led you to write your book and music and conflict in Northern Ireland?
Music has changed my life in so many ways. Listening to The Clash encouraged me to be self-aware at a time when my hometown of Belfast was a sectarian, entrenched city. Punk nights in town blew away so many myths and the alternative outlook was a valuable gift. It has never left me and in ‘Trouble Songs’ I’m looking at conflict through this particular viewpoint. It’s been an intense process but I believe the story has meaning.
Stuart's book, Trouble Songs will be officially released on May 11.