Songs That Change the World
Growing up in London Irish music pubs in the 1960s, I was surrounded by music of every description. From traditional Irish music to The Beatles and Rolling Stones who played in The Finsbury Park Astoria (later renamed The Rainbow Theatre.) This theatre was literally across the road to our pub (since demolished). Our music room was always filled with performers of all descriptions performing a wide range of musical genres.
I loved all kinds of music including folk music such as Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Coming from such a musical family as mine, these were easy songs to learn and strum on a cheap guitar.
At the tender age of 16 going on 17, my first band played the American bases across the UK. I witnessed soldiers either about to go to or return from Vietnam. That was quite an environment for a young girl, but meeting those American soldiers of all races, colours, and creeds made a lasting impression on me. Most didn’t want to fight a war so far away from home. Few understood the politics. What did Vietnam have to do with them? By the time Woodstock happened in 1969, protest songs against the war had exploded into consciousness. The lyrics and metaphors in protest songs made a lasting impression on me, making me aware that all was not right with the world.
My generation had found its voice. Unlike the Silent Generation that went before us, called such because of World War 2 and Economic Depression, I was part of the Babyboom, a post-war generation that was, in many ways, counter-cultural. It felt right to challenge the status quo and not just simply accept the dictates of the political/aristocratic classes that had previously sent us to war, or the social mores that discriminated against women and black people. Through music, we found a way to influence a whole generation and champion the cause of civil rights.
Being a singer at the time, I was very aware of the power of music and very aware that singers/songwriters were leading the change. I also became aware of environmental issues. Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi was a brilliant protest song about the environment with its simple but direct message about paving paradise and putting up more parking lots!
The term, "protest song" might carry negative connotations. But protest songs are wide-ranging. A good protest song is easy to understand. It unifies, lifts spirits, educates, motivates, and raises awareness, affecting listeners both emotionally and intellectually.
For example: “Imagine'' by John Lennon carries a powerful message about non-violent struggle. This is because musically and lyrically, it beautifully captures the imagination with implied comparisons that no one can disagree with. It takes the listener on a journey of imagining what a better world might look like. It’s not just “against something.” It inspires the listener.
On an entirely different note, “Feed The World” could be viewed as a protest song against famine. This song came from within the pop establishment and was written to be “commercial” which is why it was so effective in waking up a whole new generation to the plight of Africa. Indeed, it inspired me so much that I ended up working in Africa for Oxfam, UNICEF and World Food Programme. On one occasion, I flew in an out-of-service Hurricane dropping food parcels into war-torn South Sudan. I was living “Feed the World” and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, in which she envisioned “I dreamed I saw the bomber jet planes riding shotgun in the sky turning into butterflies across our nation.”
After working in Africa as a psychotherapist specialising in Critical Incident Trauma Debriefing during the war-torn 1990s’, I was already seeing the effects of Climate Change on the ground. Having known since the 70s that the climate crisis was coming, when back in the UK, I joined various environmental movements such as Zero Waste International. Although I left the music industry, music had never left me. WWF was funding a huge concert promoting the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg in 2002. It would be attended by (among others ) Nelson Mandela and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. I wrote a song called, We Are the Voice. It was an anthem to the Earth. A local environmental NGO heard it and passed it on to a TV station in Johannesburg. They used it to promote the World Summit on DSTV and invited me and my daughter to perform it at the concert.
Fast-forward to 2019. Finally, the environmental crisis hit the mainstream news! We witnessed images of forests burning and plastic pollution strangling birds and sea life. News of increasing storms and floods exploded across our TV networks. And of course, the Greta Factor was making its powerful impact on the hearts and minds of young people across the world.
Now a grandmother, I was concerned about widespread eco-anxiety, a phrase that had been coined by the American Psychiatric Association in 2017. Children could easily become overwhelmed by all the bad environmental news. Many would feel disempowered. Protecting the future of the planet would be too huge a burden for their young shoulders.
Eco-anxiety’ is described as, "a chronic fear of environmental doom". If children feel disempowered and feel a loss of control over Climate Change and Plastic Pollution, this could lead to widespread chronic anxiety or its opposite - a complete disconnect - certainly a natural emotional reaction to continuous “bad news” but one which could eventually cause a widespread, dysfunctional malaise.
When we conducted a trial workshop at a local Junior School and asked children how they felt about Climate Change and Plastic Pollution they gave a range of responses from anger, to worry, to personal guilt. Such sad feelings for young children to bear: their innocent childhoods broken into by fear for their futures.
I wanted to combine music with local action to help children to be future-ready. Through our music, we could raise awareness and deliver a message that was full of hope about climate change, yet still, inspire much-needed action. We didn’t want to club people over the heads with the message (“the medium is the message”) but persuade through poetic, moving, metaphorical lyrics, powerful melodies, and luscious harmonies. The power of the children’s pure, angelic voices would win hearts and minds.
The lyrics of my song were still relevant after all that time. We brought together six local schools to re-record We Are the Voice. Our children's environmental choir was born!
Since then, our choir, eponymously named, We Are the Voice, has built a full repertoire of exciting new material. We sing for the climate, trees, oceans, wildlife, and for the children’s futures. We have performed at COP26 in Glasgow, in theatres, Lechlade music festival, at public events such as Hampton Court Flower Show, and on various mayoral occasions. Our objective is to win hearts and minds and inspire change one song at a time.
Songs can reassure, soothe, inspire, and educate. Songs have always held a mirror up to the world, reflecting the things going on around us, and, arguably, have influenced society like no other art form. A good song delivers a message in a way that information alone cannot, as it reaches us on many levels at once. The combination of the right lyrics, rhythm, and instruments can build a group identity, stir strong emotions, engage audiences, and amass people to take action. This makes music the perfect partner for inspiring social change.
Music is a great tool for campaigning. We humbly hope that our music raises and maintains awareness of the wonderful world about us and the role we must all play in protecting our children’s futures.