True Colours: Why Leave deserves to lose


The Leave campaign could have been different. It might have been the honourable debate that Giles Fraser wishes it was, and that Vote Leave initially promised it would be, concentrating on legitimate concerns such as the EU’s decision-making process, TTIP and the ways in which it has fallen short of its ideals. It might have been honest about the economic risk, arguing that the gamble was worth taking. If it had lost, then it would have lost with dignity, and without poisoning the well of political discourse.

That is not, of course, the campaign we saw.

Rather than risk losing on the facts, Leave chose to try and win on lies. Lies like the utterly discredited £350m-a-week figure that they were brazen enough to print on the side of a bus. Lies like the claim that Turkey’s EU membership is imminent (it’s not) and that the UK will have no veto (it does). Lies like UKIP’s instantly notorious Breaking Point poster of refugees in Slovenia who have no legal right to enter Britain. Huge, shameless lies. Professor Michael Dougan of the University of Liverpool Law School calls it “dishonesty on an industrial scale”.

The biggest lie, the Death Star lie from which all the other lies are launched, is the claim that everything wrong in Britain is down to the EU. Can’t find a decent job? Can’t get the school place you want? Can’t get a GP appointment the next day? Can’t get on the housing ladder? Brexit, they say, is the silver bullet that will fix them all. It was astonishing to hear free-market libertarian Nigel Farage pretend to care about those issues on the Today programme yesterday when all he really wanted to do was pin them on EU migrants. He has no serious plan for the future. When Farage says he wants to take his country back he really means “back”: back to an idealised past before foreigners spoiled everything. But you can never turn the clock back, least of all with a single decision. Another lie.

You see a version of this on the left as well. Left-wing Brexiter Lisa McKenzie writes: “In working-class communities, the EU referendum has become a referendum on almost everything,” from affordable housing to pub closures. But it is not a referendum on those things, nor will Brexit solve them. One can respect with the anger and frustration of people who feel left behind by globalisation without endorsing the wrong solution. If someone tells you they’re ill, you don’t insist they feel great, but nor do you prescribe the wrong medicine with terrible side effects. McKenzie says a lot about working-class unrest, all of it true, but nothing about why Brexit is the right answer. Nothing about how it will ameliorate the adverse effects of globalisation and neoliberalism. I can see why the right wants workers to vote against their own economic interests — that’s an old strategy — but it’s dismaying to see people on the left selling a similar brand of snake oil.

Unfortunately, lies work. A recent Ipsos MORI poll recently found that Britons vastly overrated the number of EU migrants, the number claiming benefits and the percentage of the EU budget spent on bureaucracy, while seriously underrating the amount of EU investment the UK receives. According to the LSE, far from being pushed around the UK got its own way over EU laws 87% of the time between 2009-2015. Many Brexit supporters admit they haven’t been adversely affected by immigration and live in areas with relatively low levels but fear it anyway. Of course, the Leave campaign can’t claim all the credit when for years tabloids have been seeding the ground with distortions and scare stories while politicians have glibly blamed the beast of Brussels for their own failings.


Ipsos MORI

For all these reasons I believe the left-wing case for Brexit has become untenable. Giles Fraser claims “It’s not who you vote with — it’s what you vote for.” He writes: “A vote to leave is not a vote for Farage or Johnson. It won’t make Nigel an MP or Boris the PM. This is not a vote about the next government of the UK, or whether the NHS is safe in Johnson’s hands.” On the contrary it is all of those things and it’s self-indulgent to believe that conscience liberates him from facing up to the consequences. (Paul Mason, an instinctive Brexiter but a realist, recognises this.)

One should at least feel queasy about voting for a result that will delight Vladimir Putin, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, the BNP and the EDL, empowering demagogues, nativists and charlatans. More pressingly, if British voters choose to leave the EU on Thursday they will be handing the keys to the country to the people who ran this shabby, mendacious, hateful campaign.

A post-EU Britain will not be shaped by Giles Fraser but by a government of dogmatic neoliberals whose ideal is Thatcherism on steroids. For all their faux-populist rage against “the elites”, the Tory Brexiters are simply a different brand of elite. These are the people — Johnson, Gove, Grayling, Duncan Smith, possibly even Farage — who will be responsible for the divorce settlement. They will be in charge of the following:


  1. Guiding the economy through what nine out of 10 economists predict will be a traumatic, self-induced shock that will hurt the low-paid most of all.
  2. Maintaining, let alone improving, public services amid a likely fall in GDP and an extension of austerity.
  3. Negotiating years of new trade deals, including ones with former EU partners who they have spent a long time trashing.
  4. Deciding the precarious fate of EU citizens currently resident in the UK.
  5. Making up for the loss of EU subsidies everywhere from farming to the arts.
  6. Investing in hospitals, schools and house-building, because none of those shortfalls will be solved simply by blocking EU migrants.
  7. Preserving the countless rights and protections for workers that will no longer be guaranteed by the EU.
  8. Taking leadership on international crises such as refugees and climate change.
  9. Holding the UK together after England has decided the fate of the more pro-Remain Scotland and Northern Ireland.

That would be a tall order for the most noble and gifted politicians you could imagine. Have the Leave campaigners given us any reason to believe that they can be trusted with those tasks? That they are fit to remake Britain?

The damage they have done will last long beyond Thursday. The Leave campaign is a grim example of post-truth politics and the atavistic roar of “paranoid populism” that also animates the continental far right and the Trump campaign. It’s Michael Gove saying, in the face of evidence from economists, businesspeople, scientists, environmentalists, artists, trade unions, universities, charities and world leaders, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” It’s conspiracy theories, smears and demonisation. It’s blatantly courting racism, then feigning outrage whenever anybody calls it out. It’s exploiting the anxieties of the poorest citizens with xenophobia and lies. It’s stirring up rage and hatred for short-term gain and damn the consequences. If they win it will send a message that the basest form of politics works.

Thanks to this wretched referendum, says The Economist: “The currency of facts will be debased, that of stunts inflated, that of conviction sidelined. It will be de rigueur to question an opponent’s motives before his arguments, sneer at experts, prefer volume to accuracy and disparage concession, compromise and moderation.”

That’s why it is sickening hypocrisy for Leave to whine that the murder of Jo Cox will lead people to vote with their hearts rather than their heads, having shamelessly appealed to the heart’s worst instincts.

Over the past few days I’ve heard about a lot of Leave voters and undecideds switching to Remain because they don’t trust these people. They don’t want to reward this ugly, debased, destructive kind of politics. They don’t believe that it will lead to a happier, more confident Britain. They sense that they are being taken for a ride. Like Sayeeda Warsi, they have had enough. I’ve also spoken to many Remain supporters who are more determined than ever to go to the polling station and be heard.

The Brexiters had a chance to show us what country they want Britain to be and they have shown it at its very worst. If they lose, the Leave camp will complain that they have been misrepresented. On the contrary, I think they will lose because a growing number of people know all too well the kind of people they’re dealing with. As with Zac Goldsmith’s sordid dog-whistle campaign for London mayor, it would be appropriate if Leave’s own gutter tactics cost them victory.

Say it loud, she’s black and she’s proud – Beyoncé’s Formation

One reason I’ve let the weeds grow over this blog over the past couple of years is the sense that there are enough opinions already. The intersection of politics and pop music has never been as thoroughly examined as it is now and I often wonder what I can add. Miss out on the initial online feeding frenzy and you’re left with nothing but bones and scraps and the feeling that everything has already been said.

There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about Beyoncé’s song Formation, which she performed at the Super Bowl on Sunday. I’ve read gushing hagiographies that left me thinking she was getting too much credit and snarky dismissals (primarily, inevitably, from older white men) that convinced me she wasn’t getting nearly enough. The second reaction annoyed me much more. By any metric, one of the world’s biggest pop stars performing an unapologetic celebration of blackness in one of the citadels of mainstream American culture is a big fucking deal. This level of debate around a protest song? It just doesn’t happen. If you think it matters less because she’s rich or because she wears hotpants, then you’re just not paying attention.

Sceptics say that Formation is too simplistic and self-aggrandising to be radical, but they miss the significance of firmly stating: “I am a black woman and I am powerful.” That assertion has weight and heritage. You can hear it in Jesse Jackson’s Wattstax chant “I am somebody”, or Kendrick Lamar’s chorus “I love myself” or the name of Black Lives Matter — simple claims really, but radical in the context of American life. (Something clearly lost on white people who reply: “All Lives Matter.”) Even in the early days of hip hop, when very few rappers were engaging with politics, every song had the subtext: “I am here. We are here. Listen to us.” Beyoncé isn’t fastening onto a new issue but digging deeper into who she is and what her success represents, tapping into her own dormant power. She states the obvious because it still needs stating.

In The Blacker the Berry, Kendrick itemises his black features through the lens of a racist: “My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round/You hate me don’t you?” Beyoncé does it with joy: “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” Note the historical weight of “negro” in 2016, and the implied reference to the racial psychodrama of Michael Jackson’s ever-changing nose. There’s pride in those lines, and the shadow of the opposite of pride. (Note also that those lines come from a woman who just the other week was attacked for having “blonde hair, green eyes and seemingly bleached-out skin” — for insufficently black.)

Beyoncé’s not just saying she’s black — she’s Southern black, born and raised in the former Confederacy. Hot sauce, cornbread and collard greens are signifiers of a heritage she has rarely addressed (the 2006 B-Day bonus track Creole is a little-heard exception), while the New Orleans bounce rhythm nods towards her mother’s Louisiana heritage. The video, without which the song wouldn’t be half as effective, drives this home with historically resonant images of black women occupying an old plantation mansion, like the joyful victors of a non-violent coup. On NPR the writer dream hampton cleverly describes the video as a “visual anthem” and says: “It’s about a black visionary, a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power, and magic. And I think it’s beautiful.”

During the current controversy around the lack of racial diversity among Oscar nominees, it’s been noted that movies about black people only get recognised by the Academy when they’re about slavery or civil rights. Black characters have to be struggling and overcoming and delivering a tough but ultimately uplifting message to white viewers. They can’t just be living their lives in all their complexity. The Formation video acknowledges the struggle — the floodwaters of Katrina, the small boy dancing defiantly in front of steely-faced riot policemen, the graffiti reading “Stop Shooting Us” — but it shows so much more, from the church to the hair shop. There is celebration as well as resistance. In fact, the celebration is a form of resistance. To quote Syreeta McFadden’s wonderfully lyrical piece in the Guardian US:

“It’s old and new south; it’s dark and dirty south; it’s Chantilly lace and denim jacket south; it’s baby afro, baby hair and pink and purple wig south; it’s second line and pentecostal holy ghost south; it’s southern gothic and bounce south; it’s my granny, grandaddy, auntie, uncle, cousin south. It is us, it’s for us, and it’s not concerned if white people understand.”

Another criticism of Formation is that it’s only about Beyoncé but that’s not true. She certainly trumpets her own achievements but she also celebrates her parents, her daughter and her husband and “I slay” mutates into “We gon’ slay” as she moves towards the Black Panther-echoing rallying cry, “OK ladies, let’s get in formation.” (Or “information”.) I confess I’m not quite as excited by Beyoncé’s obsession with flexing her economic muscle as Alex Macpherson in the Guardian. It’s true that black artists celebrating their wealth and power is inherently political in America (aka the Watch the Throne defence) but it isn’t inherently new or provocative. The implication here, though, is that the power isn’t hers alone. Unlike Kanye’s lonely, locked-in boasts, her bragging opens the door to other black women. The video makes this explicit, turning the camera on all the people around Beyoncé to make the celebration communal.

The Super Bowl performance added another layer, bringing Black Power salutes, Black Panther berets and an X (as in Malcolm) formation to America’s shop window. I couldn’t help thinking about the FBI’s relentless harassment of the Panthers in the 60s and 70s, or the famous use of the salute at another sporting event, the 1968 Olympics, and marvelling at how slickly Beyoncé brought that history onto the playing field. She’s canny enough to make a subversive statement while still ostensibly playing by the rules, unlike MIA and her middle finger (you can valorise the Black Panthers but by God don’t disrespect the NFL). This was blackness as pageantry.

If you wanted to sum up the song, the video and the performance in one phrase it could be an old one: “Say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud.” Like Beyoncé, James Brown was accused of not being black enough, of being an arch-capitalist, of treating his hair instead of letting it grow naturally, of pandering to white people, of being too self-involved to put his career on the line by taking a stand. He recorded Say It Loud as a slightly grudging sop to the Black Power movement and late complained that it alienated his white fans. The point is that he did it anyway, and that song meant the world to his black listeners. He meant it when he wrote it: maybe not a year earlier or a year later but in that moment he was telling the truth and being courageous. Before then, black artists didn’t feel able to commit the simple words “I’m black” to record. After Say It Loud, the floodgates opened. Do Brown’s myriad character flaws and compromised motives make that galvanising statement any less valuable?

I wouldn’t compare Beyoncé, as some people have, to Nina Simone. Simone threw herself wholesale into the civil rights movement, driven by volcanic anger and painful self-doubt, and she paid a high price for her outspoken black pride, ending up as a lonely and disillusioned cult figure. Beyoncé is an immensely powerful megastar and businesswoman who visits the White House and isn’t going to let politics derail her career . She’s far more James than Nina.

Some people expect too much from Beyoncé. I read some of the pieces calling for her to be more of a radical activist, even to reject capitalism, and I think of the 60s protesters who expected the Stones and the Who to write anthems for the coming revolution. That’s not how megastars operate. They work within the system and their occasional political statements are powerful precisely because they take place on an enormous, unignorable platform. A lot of people can write a protest song but how many get to perform it at the Super Bowl and start the whole country talking? That’s risky enough, and her and Jay Z’s donations to Black Lives Matter show that it’s not just a rhetorical posture. She’s not as fearlessly direct as Kendrick but that’s OK.

I get the sense from Formation, like I did from Flawless, that Beyoncé is testing the limits of her power, seeing how tough and provocative she can be, and that’s admirable. She doesn’t have to be a revolutionary superhero, any more than James Brown or Marvin Gaye had to be. She just has to make the right statements at the right time and signal-boost important conversations about race, gender, power and identity. That’s why I have contempt for people who claim that Formation is no big deal and suspicion for those who want to smother her with excessive praise. Neither gives due credit to the brave, imperfect experiment of Formation, which feels like a way station rather than a destination. Let’s be patient and see just how far she’s willing to go.



Nobody’s short of lists in December but why hold back? Here are my songs, albums and articles of the year.

First up, my songs of the year (minus Joanna Newsom and other streaming refuseniks) are on Spotify in a three-hour highlights version and the full six-hour marathon.

My Top 40 albums of 2015:

  1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  4. Joanna Newsom – Divers
  5. New Order – Music Complete
  6. Chvrches – Every Open Eye
  7. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion
  8. Laura Marling – Short Movie
  9. Tobias Jesso, Jr – Goon
  10. Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
  11. Django Django – Born Under Saturn
  12. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
  13. Tame Impala – Currents
  14. Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
  15. Miguel – Wildheart
  16. John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
  17. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf
  18. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
  19. Blur – The Magic Whip
  20. Destroyer – Poison Season
  21. The Chemical Brothers – Born in the Echoes
  22. A$AP Rocky – At.Long.Last.A$AP
  23. Jamie Woon – Making Time
  24. Wire – Wire
  25. FFS – FFS
  26. Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
  27. Baio – The Names
  28. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
  29. East India Youth – Culture of Volume
  30. Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
  31. Hudson Mohawke – Lantern
  32. Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m goin’ down…
  33. Grimes – Art Angels
  34. Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh
  35. Guy Garvey – Courting the Squall
  36. The Libertines – Anthems for Doomed Youth
  37. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again
  38. Four Tet – Morning/Evening
  39. Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs
  40. Shamir – Ratchet


Some articles I enjoyed reading:

Swoonatra by Ian Penman (London Review of Books)

Lady Gaga Goes to the Middle by Lindsay Zoladz (New York)

We’ll All Go Down Together: Billy Joel Says Goodbye to Nassau Coliseum by Maura Johnston (The Concourse)

Taylor Swift Is Definitely in Her Zone by Jia Tolentino (The Muse)

The Franzen of It All: ‘Purity’ and the great American Novelist by Brian Phillips (Grantland)

The X Factor review by Julia Raeside (The Guardian)

Was Banning Tyler, the Creator the Victory International Feminism Needed? by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd (Jezebel)

Age of ‘Compton’: NWA With Artifical Sweeteners by Wesley Morris (Grantland)

The death and life of the great British pub by Tom Lamont (The Guardian)

Unfollow by Adrian Chen (The New Yorker)

The Third Revelation of Father John Misty by Sean Fennessey (Grantland)


Some articles I enjoyed writing:

Attack of the feminist superheroes (The Guardian)

Kendrick Lamar interview (The Observer)

Remembering Amy Winehouse (Billboard)

The Libertines interview (The Guardian)

“A Public Menace”: How the fight to ban The Birth of a Nation shaped the nascent civil rights movement (Slate)

The stagnation blues (The Long + Short)

How the compact disc lost its shine (The Guardian)

Chuck D interview (The Guardian)


The sound of the year:




Glastonbury 2015

I wrote a list of my Glastonbury highlights for friends on Facebook and some of them suggested I publish it so here it is.

1. Spending most of Wednesday lying on the grass and laughing with friends, which I don’t get to do enough. It was like a theme park based on my early 20s.
2. Going to Strummerville and hearing an anecdote about a teenager confidently explaining to his friend how it got its name: “There was this guy called Joey Strummerville who loved building fires and then he died. He was a really good guy.” Then realising we weren’t at Strummerville at all. Someone had just set fire to something.
3. Doing a Q&A with Wilko Johnson and Julien Temple and telling Temple, director of the Joe Strummer documentary, about Joey Strummerville. He thought Joe would have liked it.
4. Pussy Riot redeeming an otherwise misjudged, and very long, piece of performance art by screaming the phrase “Shut your fucking up!”
5. Hearing from a Guardian colleague that the Supreme Court had just ruled in favour of gay marriage, instead of hearing about it through Twitter as bloody usual.
6. Mary J Blige bringing ten tons of soul to No More Drama in the pissing rain and receiving an ovation so long that she couldn’t start the next song for ages and started crying. Soul bores who say modern R&B isn’t the real thing be damned: this was as electrifying as Aretha or Otis.
7. Hearing a DJ play King Kunta very loud for the first time.
8. Randomly coming across a band playing krautfolk to about 20 people and realising it was Trembling Bells. Then, when we had to go to review the Libertines, my fellow reviewer’s apologetic thumbs up to the drummer: “We’re leaving but we like you, honest.”
9. The West Holts field, my favourite crowd of the festival, singing along to Caribou’s Can’t Do Without You.
10. Run the Jewels’ repartee. El-P: “We spent our entire stage production budget on making the sun come out for you.” Killer Mike: “Yeah. 83 dollars.”
11. Mark Ronson playing Uptown Funk and introducing Grandmaster Flash, then Mary J Blige, then George Clinton. If Stephen Hawking hadn’t cancelled I’m sure he’d have rocked up too.
12. Seeing enough of Florence to clock that she’s still not my cup of tea but that she was totally nailing her headlining set and never felt like a second choice.
13. The dawning realisation that Hot Chip were covering Dancing in the Dark in spectacular disco style. With Caribou. And merging it into All My Friends. Which all happened just after bumping into a massive group of friends I wasn’t expecting to catch up with.
14. Accidentally seeing Lamb in the Avalon tent while looking for something else. Which meant that…
15. For the first time ever I’d seen 15 bands in one day.
16. Slaves’ inability to say anything without sounding sarcastic and hostile.
17. Seeing a list of all the swear words that appeared in Sleaford Mods’ set. It was very long and included the phrase “shredded wheat cunt”
18. The singer in Burt Bacharach’s band who looked like Barbie’s friend Ken. A shame Burt, who now sings like Tom Waits, played Glastonbury with about the same passion he would bring to a private birthday party for a Russian oligarch.
19. Kate Tempest’s a closing cappella rap/poem/speech about life, Glastonbury and everything.
20. Everything about Father John Misty’s knockout set but especially his response to a request. “A request? Sure. But we have to follow procedure. You need to collect a petition. The petition requires a minimum of 200 signatures. Then it goes to committee. And then we’ll play Freebird.” Father John Misty comes across as the guy who seduced Tobias Jesso Jr’s girlfriend and then wrote a mean song about it.
21. Pharrell reaching the point in the set where he has nothing but hits and playing Blurred Lines followed by Get Lucky followed by Happy because he can do that.
22. The Goan Fish Curry stall. Handy West Holts rendezvous point and source of delight.
23. The blockbuster first half-hour of Kanye’s set, before he lost the crowd. People watching at home should note that on TV it looked better and sounded better and gave you no sense of the audience reaction beyond the front rows. Later I saw that social media seemed to be divided between lovers and haters but almost everyone I was with, or spoke to afterwards, was in a different camp: people who love Kanye and wanted nothing more than for him to blow the doubters away yet felt he’d fallen short. He didn’t need to lovebomb people like Florence or write a special song about Avalon. He could have played basically the same set but with a touch of Jay-Z (or Killer Mike) charm and it would have worked brilliantly. He was that close.
24. A hoarse Patti Smith coming to the lip of the stage during Land and saying, “I’m sorry about my voice but this is fucking awesome.” Her set was nothing like the Horses one she did at Field Day but every bit as good. What a remarkable performer.
25. The Dalai Lama, who doesn’t listen to music, complimenting Patti for being so “active”, like this was an over-60s aerobic class.
26. Filing my last review on Sunday afternoon. Free at last.
27. Lionel Richie’s delighted WTF face. “What the hell is going on?”
28. The girl on her dad’s shoulders during Charli XCX’s fantastic set, losing her shit to Fancy.
29. The mob of dancers from the crowd that Stuart Murdoch invited on stage during The Boy With the Arab Strap. When he did it in London it looked awkward and sloppy but here it looked utterly joyous and even glamorous, perhaps because Stuart has a keen eye for hippy girls with bare midriffs. Then he called Glastonbury “the best little corner of England” and one of my friends burst into tears.
30. The contrast between FKA twigs’ indomitable R&B khaleesi stage persona and her incredibly sweet, polite speaking voice. If she’s this good with just one album, just imagine what she’ll be like with two or three.
31. Watching the Chemical Brothers play Chemical Beats and Setting Sun while I was dancing behind four men dressed as Teletubbies. Hello, the 90s. Then the crowd’s berserk glee during Saturate. Red flares going off, flags waving, people on shoulders, general rave delirium.
32. 2 Many DJs closing their banging techno set beneath Arcadia’s giant fire-breathing spider with Supergrass’s Alright.
33. Then Altern 8 taking over and opening with Orbital’s Chime.
34. The closing party at the Stone Bridge bar. 90s house and two-step garage.
35. The point on Sunday when a part of me was convinced that my life now consisted of seeing bands all day, staying up late and not looking after children.
36. Realising that I’d walked several miles a day while drinking Tennessee Honey. The new workout plan.

37. The company of many of the best people I know, in the best place I know.
38. Oh, everything.

Guy Carawan 1927-2015

I found out far too late that Guy Carawan, the singer, musicologist and activist credited as one of the writers of We Shall Overcome, died on May 2. When I was writing my book I emailed Guy and his wife Candie to request an interview and he graciously answered my questions.  He came across as a warm and humble man who took next to no credit for the song. As a tribute, and for anyone interested in the story of We Shall Overcome, here’s the complete email interview. RIP Guy and much love and sympathy to Candie.

When did you first hear We Shall Overcome?

I learned the song and developed a way of playing it in Los Angeles in the 1950s. I may have heard it from Zilphia Horton when I visited Highlander in 1953 with Frank Hamilton and Ramblin Jack Elliot but I’m not sure about that.

When did you first visit the Highlander Folk School?

Frank, Jack and I made a trip through the South in the summer of 1953.   I had mentioned to Pete Seeger that I wanted to see the parts of the country where my parents grew up and he encouraged us to include a stop at Highlander. He told me that they used a lot of music there as part of their work on social and economic issues. We found the atmosphere there wonderful, friendly, welcoming and open minded after visiting many more conservative areas of the South, experiencing racism and being stopped by the police several times.

Zilphia was a very warm and encouraging person and a wonderful singer and musician. She was a good contrast to Myles who pushed people to question and think about their beliefs and actions. Zilphia encouraged people and helped them feel good about themselves, their music, their communities.

Did you consider yourself a protest singer?

I considered myself a musician interested in using my music in a positive way. I was inspired by people like Pete Seeger and musicians and singers I met in the Peoples’ Song Movement in Los Angeles. I was also a young person interested in learning about the world, which is why I went to the Soviet Union and China.

After you, Zilphia and Pete Seeger, Frank Hamilton is the fourth credited writer. Can you tell me about him?

Frank Hamilton was my singing partner in Los Angeles. He was very young, but an amazing musician. He was creative and versatile instrumentally. He was also spending some time visiting black churches in Los Angeles and had a great feel for African American songs. He developed a beautiful chord structure for We Shall Overcome which greatly influenced the way that I played it. I probably met Frank through the Oliver family. Bill Oliver was active in the Peoples’ Songs and hosted a lot of gatherings at his house.

What exactly was your role in adapting and popularising the song?

I developed a way of playing and singing We Shall Overcome that worked well for me and was easy to get people singing with me. My main role in the history of the song is being in the right place at the right time to teach it to student and adult activists both at Highlander and in communities where I was invited. Ella Baker had heard it at Highlander and wanted me to be at the founding meeting of SNCC.

Is it true that a student at Highlander wrote one of the verses?

A teenager from Montgomery, Alabama, Mary Ethel Dozier made up the verse “we are not afraid” during the raid on Highlander in July 1959. People were made to sit in the dark while deputized gun thugs went through their luggage. I was there, but I had already been taken off to jail by the time the song was sung. Septima Clark was in charge of the meeting (Myles was out of the country) and she was arrested. When I and another volunteer protested, we were arrested as well. We spent the night in jail and during the night we could hear Septima singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” to keep her spirits up.

Do you believe there is a definitive final version of We Shall Overcome?

We Shall Overcome evolved and continued to evolve throughout the active days of the Civil Rights Movement (1960-66). As it passed through different campaigns it tended to take on the cultural flavor of each area. In Albany, Georgia, which was a rich musical area it took on a new beat and some additional decorations. In Birmingham it was given a gospel feeling by the movement there. You ask about a “final version” and I don’t actually think there is one.

Was there a hunger in the movement for new songs?

I would say there was some resistance to the older spirituals in the early 1960s, especially by the young people. Some felt those older songs were associated with slavery and oppression. But many of the freedom songs which eventually became useful and powerful were adaptions of the older familiar melodies. And by the Black Power period, there was an embracing of older cultural forms and artists.

How did your activism evolve?

Because of my work at Highlander I was invited to many southern communities in the early 1960s. In particular I became Mrs. Septima Clark’s driver in the South Carolina Sea Islands as she developed the Citizenship School program. She had seen how music could be useful in helping people feel empowered to develop their literacy skills. In this area I became familiar with some of the oldest African American cultural traditions still alive in the US. It was an enriching experience and Candie and I eventually moved there to live for two years.

As I traveled to communities across the South it could be both exciting and also scary. I was arrested several times. And a place like Mississippi was a very frightening place in the early 1960s. However, I was invariably welcomed warmly in the black communities and made to feel appreciated. I think I was young and naive about how dangerous it could really be.

How did you compile your songbooks?

Most of the songs which went into our songbooks were recorded by me on a large Ampex tape recorder I traveled with. I was fortunate to have a relationship with both Moses Asch at Folkways and Irwin Silber at Sing Out Magazine who encouraged me to send material. In terms of deciding on a definitive version of the songs, we were lucky to have Ethel Raim at Sing Out who was a sensitive transcriber. We tried to explain that these songs were evolving and changing and the printed page was only a suggestion of what the songs could be.

Why did We Shall Overcome wane in popularity as the 60s wore on?

By 1965 people in the Movement were becoming cynical and discouraged about overcoming any time soon. Too many people had died and people recognized how deeply racism was embedded in American society. No wonder people didn’t find the same hope in the song We Shall Overcome. I sometimes felt it was inappropriate to suggest it or lead it in civil rights situations. However, in my own concerts and programs where I talked about developments in the South, I continued to sing the song. It has remained an important song at Highlander.

To what extent do you consider it your song?

We Shall Overcome is definitely not my song. It is a movement song that originated in the black church and has gone on to be useful in people’s struggles all over the world. I feel most fortunate that I was able to play a small role in its dissemination and documentation.

What’s the most memorable context in which you heard We Shall Overcome?

Candie laughed when she saw this question and said “don’t forget to mention that we walked down the aisle to it at our wedding in 1961!

Too many hills to climb: some reasons why Labour lost

Predictably, there is a lot of talk in Labour circles about where the party should move next, with a side order of “I Told you so”. Blairites want a New New Labour. The left-wing base wants a more left-wing party. Of course they do. That’s a debate that needs to happen but it’s far too early for certainty. I was impressed by Harriet Harman’s refusal to cave in to James Naughtie’s demand on the Today Programme for a snap explanation. There isn’t one, unless you thought you were right along. The Labour leadership, meanwhile, has to address the various mistakes and delusions that led them to be wrong. As a Labour member and an optimist I’ll hold up my hand and say I shared many of those delusions, fostered by the publications I read and kept afloat by the opinion polls, but I don’t feel like deluding myself further. In an effort to race through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial on Thursday, anger on Friday, depression over the weekend) I’m trying to skip bargaining and go straight to acceptance. These factors strike me, with 20/20 hindsight, as almost insurmountable for Labour, and none of them are solely a question of left and right. So when someone says Ed would be in Number 10 now if only Labour had done this or that, I’m sceptical. (This blogpost started as a Facebook post.)

1. The economic crisis, however unfairly, shattered Labour’s hard-won reputation for economic competence and allowed all the old post-70s prejudices to come out of hibernation.
2. The economic recovery, however delayed, however imperfect, however fragile, is real and appreciated by people who don’t care what Paul Krugman thinks. Labour could have pushed the anti-austerity line harder early on but once the recovery happened it became almost irrelevant. Barring another crisis, it will be even less relevant in 2020. Unfortunately, many people feel that austerity basically worked.
3. The coalition exceeded expectations by staying together and appearing generally competent and durable.
4. The Tories didn’t overreach to the right because they needed to keep the Lib Dems onside more than their loopy backbenchers. Cameron & Osborne are pragmatists more than ideologues and sensibly slowed down austerity (as Krugman says) at the right time, not that they admitted it.
5. The post-referendum SNP surge could have been slowed but not by much.
6. English fears of a Labour/SNP deal. Not just a tabloid confection.
7. Tory message discipline was strong to the point of tedium, hammering home a dishonest but persuasive narrative…
8. …helped by the majority of the press that loathed Miliband. The papers, it seems, still have more power than social media to sway voters’ minds.
9. Much though I liked and respected him, Miliband as a leader never connected with the electorate or came close to Cameron in approval ratings.
10. The people who suffered most under the coalition were only a small percentage of the population: less than a million use food banks, less than a million are on zero-hours contracts. And many of them don’t vote. They loom large in the minds of the left, as they should, but are out of sight, out of mind for most voters.
11. The Lib Dem collapse was bigger than expected in many constituencies where Labour was a distant third last time.
12. Disillusioned Lib Dems aren’t as left-wing as we thought.
13. UKIP took more working-class Labour support than expected because some old Labour voters are more anti-immigration than we’d like to think. (Not that UKIP’s appeal on the left is purely down to immigration. It’s complicated.)
14. The coalition didn’t fuck up enough. Most of the time No 10 changes hands when there’s a pervasive feeling that the govt is knackered, too extreme and/or incompetent.
15. It’s very hard to turn defeat into victory in one five-year term. The last person to do it was Thatcher in 1979, and only under exceptional circumstances.

If you say you know how all of these problems could have been overcome I won’t believe you.

(I recommend interesting (and divergent) analysis from James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward and K-Punk (aka Mark Fisher).)

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