It seems somehow amiss to ponder the mystery of how music may move and motivate us to action when so much of the planet and its people are in unimaginable crisis. Yet I will share this anecdote, as I am sure it is somehow linked to an ongoing process of thinking and acting that can go towards making useful changes.
We were walking towards the festival exit when we heard the bagpipes and a frenetic beat that turned us around again and led us to a place where there was no other option than to jump into the air as much as we could and bit by bit shed our warm layers into a pile by the pylon and keep leaping into the air smiling with the space around us enjoying the mix of years in the crowd who registered their cause being belted out from the stage where the energy behind the band’s sweat made us want to jump with joy and body memories of every struggle and the times when folk got together trying to defend the voice of someone being kicked down and silenced.
That’s what happened the first time I heard The Go Set.
It was in a place where my love of energetic music and a desire to dance and leap around, where my passion for progressive politics and my mid age need for a roomy, smokeless, non-late-night-pub-ambience was all there at the Bulli Racing Track bar, Slacky Flat.
I wondered why this folk/punk or punk/folk or, to many in the bar, just plain hectic band was so popular with the young and the ‘getting on’ and a likely mixed political spectrum?
I couldn’t catch all of the words to every song even after three gigs over three days. But when the musical maelstrom was at its peak the spirit and sense of the stories was clear enough.
The Poguish familiarity of the outsiders looking in and people struggling to have a say was part of every Go Set song. Yet, rather than leaving you feeling done in, it seemed to recharge the batteries you needed to leap for longer, until you were utterly exhausted.
It’s strange and yet oddly appropriate to dance and sing when the political landscape continues to be filled with dirty dealing, falling bombs, drowning kids and nuclear meltdowns. Maybe it’s the movement around music that keeps us going.
Or it could be that what I see as a political storytelling powerhouse with a great beat is just another person’s dynamic dance band distraction. Yet what matters to me is that the storytelling continues and makes me want to move. Even if we cry with joy at the familiar chorus and the painful imagery all at the same time, the important thing is that we cry, that we remember why important stories told in different ways are an essential part of sharing.
Like the millions worldwide who marched, wrote pithy slogans on cardboard and jammed the city streets begging our governments not to go to war, I want to hear words of peace. I want to walk and talk and move in solidarity with others.
Bombs fall on the city streets, police vans and sirens,
Can we say, that liberation is closer now?
Can we say, sign of the times?
Fuelling incentives, with ulterior motives
The days are gone for passive voices,
Singing songs about the eve of destruction
Bombs falling, bombs falling
It’s fitting that The Go Set roared their way through songs of strength and union solidarity at that place at the base of the Bulli escarpment. After the establishment of the local mine in Bulli in 1862, miners were paid according to how much coal was produced rather than a proper set wage. In 1879, the first trade union in the Illawarra was established at Bulli Mine. On 23 March 1887, a gas explosion killed 81 men.
From The Go Set’s ‘The Hungry Mile’:
All the truth and lies, Open your eyes
Hot sun is burning, for years on this sacred ground
And the wheels are turning, pulling the inside out
There’s a mountainside with a hole in the ground,
The workers in shifts going round and around
The company gets what the market wants, and
A downturned economy is pushing up the costs
So the working man’s still digging,
And the farmer still needs the rain
The black man didn’t get the rent for his land,
But the company’s shares are still making gains
Smoke stack is rising, and a drill is turning under the sea
And the numbers are turning, in the marketplace
Do you see – All the Truth and Lies? Open your eyes
I went to the Illawarra Folk Festival again the following year and the one after that to see The Go Set, the self-described ‘bastard child of the folk festival’. The group raged through their gigs each day ending sessions with a fist-waving plea to keep the struggle alive. It wasn’t a passé slogan but an authentic reminder that we all shape the story, all have a part in telling the tales, all have a voice.
It was with homage to Billy Bragg that the gig ended and the lead singer said, ‘I hope we’ve been able to put a smile on your dial’. They had done that and a bit more, I think.
Then the music stopped. The raised fists retreated. The clapping reluctantly ended. Sweat streamed. Faces smiled. Cotton tops stuck to sweaty bodies. People trundled outside on tired limbs. Everyone smiled at each other. ‘That was bloody good,’ was the general consensus as the throng edged out. And there was a sense that folk were looking forward to another day when they could be part of something, maybe a great leap forwards.