Cerys Matthews explains the song-writing project Occupation: Five songs that shook the world, and what inspired her contribution to it
I watched with dismay as two stories unfolded in the news in Missouri and Ohio, the shootings by police officers of two young American boys, aged just 12 and 18 years old. The two youngsters were African-American and the officers were white, two facts that heralded little surprise to anybody.
The all powerful America, policeman to the world and its problems, with a constitution that aspires to be the most liberal in the world in its granting of ‘freedoms’ to its citizens, is still bleeding injustice from such a basic wound as racism. I was dismayed, yes, but not surprised. Having lived in South Carolina and Tennessee for six years, I witnessed firsthand the direct correlation between a citizen’s colour and level of aspiration or advancement, and that most basic of human needs, justice. I was also a white female European, and this commonly made people comfortable in allowing their casual and shocking racism to enter their conversations with me.
In the southern states, people of different races still literally live on different sides of the railway tracks, a fact hardly diluted by wealth and status – rich blacks will find houses in rich black areas, rich whites, in rich white areas and so on.
In the 1920s, as education and opportunities for African-Americans and the Creole population increased and presented a modicum of upward mobility for what were known as the ‘talented tenth’ (ie 10% of ‘black’ Americans, which included Creole and Hispanic Americans), a second condition, mandatory in realising the benefits, would be the need to move ever northwards.
We must strive towards the day when all opportunities are open to all, everywhere. But more work needs to be done in parallel to this, to tackle the problem at its source by educating the masses of people who subscribe to racism. Multi-cultural awareness and the enjoyment of the enlightenment that it brings with it, is an asset to life and the lack of it, where ignorance prevails, is one of the key reasons I found that I just could not settle in the southern states, and more importantly, I certainly couldn’t bring my children up in such an environment.
Modern homes have access to news 24/7 – covering the whole gamut of world events: war, religious persecution, religious fanaticism, migration, economics, natural disasters, sporting competitions, disease, crashes, celebrity gossip… Greater access to news ought, in theory, to nudge us towards more progressive thinking, and doing, but we race ahead with our gadgets, new technologies and scientific breakthroughs, and it seems our deep seated prejudices move swiftly along with us.
I watched the news unfold, and asked myself just how capable are we of real change, and at what speed any such change becomes apparent. We may be doomed to watch history repeat itself, with only tiny increments of change expected even as the decades pass us by. The 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865. Dr Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights March (‘for Jobs and Freedom’) took place in August 1963. Regular newsreels began over a hundred years ago in 1910.
A song comes to mind. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen (nobody knows the sorrow). It is a song mostly covered by African-American artists, including Paul Robeson who suffered racial and political persecution by the American authorities to the extent that he was put under house arrest simply because of his views. Louis Armstrong – whose artistry crossed the racial divide, sang this song in 1962, but it is older than that – it is a 19th century Negro Spiritual, an American slave song.
It occurs to me that I could take this song and use it simply and powerfully to question our willingness and commitment to change. I have not suffered as the artists I’ve just mentioned here; nor as the poorer inhabitants of Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas et al; but as injustices continue to be served by supposed guardians of justice, and crimes continue to be committed over the powerless by those in power, I would like to add my voice.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen is a great song, and great songs will out-travel and outlive us all. They have no trouble undergoing change. They morph and spawn sibling versions, and I hope that making a new version, decades after the conception of the original, will lead us to look at the subject in a contemporary light.
I’ll sing it slowly, without drama – ‘no glory, no Hallelujah’. To underline the passage of time, the rhythm will be marked using the sound of an old film projector. I’ll add a new section using the haunting sounds of a glass harmonium to reflect the tragedy of lessons learnt too slow (glass itself being one of the milestones of human progression, invented some 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia), and news footage of civil unrest over the last 100 years will unfold to its soundbed.
It will ask, as in the words of Sam Cooke (who also sang this old spiritual), when is the ‘change… gonna come?’
Occupation: Five songs that shook the world, brings together the global voice of protest with another commonly shared experience, music.
These pieces of music by five very different musicians, including Cerys Matthews and Judith Weir, were all inspired by crisis and protests as they were happening around the world. They are available to listen to on Soundcloud or on the Occupation Vimeo page. Read more from the songwriters and the artists who helped create the Occupation songs’ videos on this blog.