The music of a people who will not be slaves


Since the passing of Baroness Thatcher last week, there has been in certain circles a feeling of revolution, of celebration, peculiarly apparent in the rise to prominence of ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead!’ from The Wizard of Oz. This piece of music is for many a sign of rebellion, “independent thought” (despite following a crowd!), and self-definition. When one stops to think about it, it is hardly surprising that we connect music with rebellion and the affirmation of self-definition.


Wandering around Oxford at certain times last term, one could have been forgiven for imagining that one was in revolutionary Paris. Strangely clad students busied around, humming seditiously under their breath. Whenever you got closer, six words were inevitably distinguishable: ‘Do you hear the people sing?’ Much has been written about the hit musical and its spin-off film, Les Miserables; we could debate the quality of the songs at length (there’s some good pub-talk for you!), but few would deny that the most popular of them play to the themes of aspiration – to freedom through revolution – that necessarily underpin the musical. Ding dong, Javert is dead. The music is the people, and the people need expression.


Last week, Radio 4 explored of the use of drums in American slave music, and particularly the role they played in the Stono River Revolt of 1739. Although one would hate to liken this – one of the biggest slave revolts before the Revolution – to a piece of musical theatre or a few drunken revellers, there was clearly something political in the music that accompanied it. In this case, it was not that the people were singing, it was that they were playing the drums. Slaves on the plantations of Carolina were encouraged to sing, a sign of contentment with their lot, and a silent slave made owners and overseers uncomfortable.


However, the use of the slaves’ traditional percussion was denied them, in favour of an African fiddle that reminded their owners of more genteel European music. Drums, associated with royalty, with an independent state, back in Ghana, threatened secret calls to war hidden in the rhythms. Thus it was that the drums that played by the Stono River in 1739 were a rebellion in themselves. The music was part of the definition of their culture, and that definition demanded to be stated.


Is the recent ding dong such a clash between rebellious independents and dictatorship? Anti-Thatcher campaigners revelled in the hallucination that a vicious, authoritarian régime had come to an end. No doubt some deep bass beat thumped amongst the parties of Death.

But that is not what had happened. An old lady, whose later years had been plagued by dementia, had died. An opportunity for reflection, yes, a time for debate about the events of a quarter of a century ago, yes, but not an occasion in itself deserving of celebration, either political or personal. The time for that was 23 years ago, or perhaps even in 1997.

The offending chart.

The BBC controversially refused to play the whole song on the charts, and maybe some thought of the suppression of the slaves’ music in Carolina, or of the revolutionary music of Les Mis. But let us linger under no delusion: this was not the song of a self-defined group, as we saw in this country from the late 50s, but rather the chant of a loose gaggle who defined themselves by hatred (misguided or not) of a woman and her (perceived) actions. A rival group started on Facebook – ‘“I’m in love with Margaret Thatcher” for #1’ – but both of these groups miss the point: this is not the time to bicker over a corpse. You can say whether you think she did well or did badly, but to continue to define ourselves as part of the Thatcherite culture is misguided. Yes, she shaped the country greatly, but so did John Major, Tony Blair, and (for their sins) Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Her revolution is over, and the sooner we find the music of a new one, the better.