July 29, 2011 at 7:40 pm (Uncategorized)

What is a protest song and why are they so hard to get right? 

The real difficulty with the protest song is that if you sit and say, “Hmm, I think I’ll write a political song” the end result is usually that either the art or the message suffers. Writing a song that addresses the issue, and is at the same time, a song is nor small feat.

Shipbuilding was written in 1982 by Clive Langer and Elvis Costello. According to Langer he had written the song for Robert Wyatt, but was unhappy with the lyrics. Langer ran into Costello at a party and within a few days, Costello had written this classic.

Costello recorded the song in 1983, but for many people, myself included, the definitive version is Wyatt’s which appears on his Nothing Can Stop Us album . (Steve Nieve of the Attractions plays piano and Elvis sings backup) There’s just something about Wyatt’s delivery which captures the tragic nature of the song.

The shipbuilding industry in the north of England had declined dramatically resulting in wide-spread unemployment. The Falklands War meant a return to relative prosperity for the working class; however, the war meant that the soldiers through an economic draft would also be drawn from the working class of those regions: young men sent to die on the ships their fathers had built. 

“It’s all we’re skilled in.”

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday
It’s just a rumour that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we’ll be shipbuilding

Well I ask you
The boy said, “Dad they’re going to take me to task
But I’ll be back by Christmas”
It’s just a rumour that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in the result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture-postcard
Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyard
And notifying the next of kin – once again

It’s all we’re skilled in
We will be shipbuilding

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls



  1. tom said,

    Yes, it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful song… makes me almost (not quite) forgive Robert Wyatt for his folksy Stalinism (“Stalin wasn’t stallin’).

    • fischerzed said,

      There is that. Wyatt joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1980, but I don’t know if and when he left. He does still describe himself as a communist though.

      For me though, worse than Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ (a pop-front style piece written by Willie Johnson of the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in 1943), is Peter Blackman’s poem Stalingrad which closeds the record. Blackman, who apparently was also a CPGB member, reads the lyrical ode to Stalinism.

      Although the CPGB never had the size of the French or Italian parties, it did cast a long shadow. Listen to Leon Rosselson’s “song of the Old Communist” on his Wo Sind Die Elephanten?

      Rosselson comments,

      “this is for those people of my father’s generation whose lives were lit by much burning faith, were guided by usch absolute conviction that they must now be desolated by the way history seems to have reversed itself.”

      But he notes earlier…

      “Now that those authoritarian regimes have gone, and I am not sorry about that though I have witnessed their collapse with mixed emotions. One of my earliest memories is of the family jubilation when the ban on the Daily Worker [CPGB paper] was lifted – in 1941 it must have been. I have flickering childhood memories of watching a saintly Uncle Joe on film surrounded by smilin children welcoming us into the wonderful world of happy harvesters on collective farms and splendid Stakhanovites doing sterling work in steel mills. I though I’d left all that behind me in 1956 with the invasion of Hungary and Khruschev’s revelations about Stalin. And yet…and yet…A dream, however falsely based, has been lost and there is something terribly sad about that. ”

      One correction though about the earlier post: Nothing Can Stop Us was a compilation of Wyatt’s songs and Shipbuilding does not appear on it. Later when it was re-relaeased on CD, the song was added.

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