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17 September 2014updated 05 Oct 2023 8:51am

Top 10 Political Songs

In the first of our lists on political art, the New Statesman's critics and our readers select ten thought-provoking songs, dating from 1916 to 1989.

By harry harry

Explore the full list, with contributions from Bryan Appleyard, John Bew, Deborah Levy and others, on May2015.com.

What are the greatest political films, novels and songs? Over the summer we asked two dozen of the New Statesman‘s leading contributors to recommend a choice.

They could choose between any art form. Together they chose nearly a dozen novels, and half as many songs and films. We will be publishing their ideas across different lists throughout the week.

As we put together their contributions, we asked our readers to weigh in on a list of music we compiled five years ago. The two popular selections have been kept, and two more  of their choices added, making a list of ten. Do you agree with these choices? Let us know on Facebook.

William Blake’s Jerusalem (1916)

Jerusalem is the colloquial title for a poem by William Blake set to a tune by Hubert Parry. I was slightly taken aback to hear it played as the English national anthem at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games; some vicars ban wedding couples from singing it because of its nationalistic overtones and an anxiety that it’s not really Christian enough.

But at St James’s Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised in 1757, we sing it gladly. One critic memorably said that the first verse is a series of questions to which the answer is “no”. The second is a series of commands to which the answer should be “get it yourself”.

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But with its images of satanic mills and weapons of justice, Blake makes scathing reference to the unjust, godless land of industrialised Britain, and instead offers a greener future inspired both by legends from the past and his own colossal imagination of a better, more golden world.

 Lucy Winkett; priest, writer.

Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit (1939)

Strange Fruit would sit comfortably in a list of the top 20 songs of all time, let alone the 20 most political. Holiday has arguably the greatest voice in the history of popular music, and it stretches to breaking point on the line “Here is a strange and bitter crop”.

It is not, though, a song that invites applause. Holiday once said of it, “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close-order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.”

The lyrics come from a poem written by Abel Meeropol in response to lynching in the American South, and with Holiday it found its purest expression. The central metaphor allowed a dangerous taboo to be discussed nearly thirty years before Nina Simone and Dylan would sing about Medgar Evers.

 Readers’ choice; contribution by the New Statesman.

Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me (1963)

From the defiant piano riff at the start, it’s clear that this sixties hit is a far cry from its contemporary, saccharine love songs.

While her counterparts were chirruping milkshake-drenched odes to heartache, Gore, a teenager from New York, was demanding respect. You Don’t Own Me, although written by men, is arguably the first ever feminist pop song…

Explore the rest of the list.

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