Don Franks

Event: Protest Music Aotearoa – Tales of Resistance and Rebellion
Venue: Lower Ground Floor, National Library (Aitken St entrance)
Entry: Free
Time: 6-8pm, Friday 7 June


Don Franks’ contribution:

Thanks everyone for coming along here today and thanks to the Alexander Turnbull Library crew for putting the show on.

As you’ve read in the event promotion, this panel discussion is about the sound of protest in Aotearoa.

Over the last  forty odd years I’ve helped make some of that sound and this talk is about my contribution.

Since 1973 I’ve been an active member of various communist organisations so my main political interest has been promoting struggles in workplaces. My protest music reflects that. Much of my performance has been at union gatherings and picket lines, once in worker-occupied clothing factory at Rixen.

I’ve also sung at various political rallies, in churches, prisons, at parliament, once, back when we got on a bit better, for the Chinese embassy.

I’ll tell you about my motivation to produce protest songs and methods of song-writing.

Before that I want to briefly sketch out the context in which I’ve worked –  class struggle in New Zealand over the last few decades. How  is that era – this  seminar’s description – “revolting”?

Politically, revolting means mounting attacks on the state, especially in the form of armed uprising.

There’s been quite a lot of protest activity in this country over the years, but apart from the land wars, little that could be fairly described as revolt.

For example, although the 2007 “Operation Eight” raids have been found “justified and reasonable” by the Independent Police Conduct Authority, they were neither reasonable or  justified. I say that because the police targets posed no threat to the state.

The bushwacking antics of the arrested activists were theatre, pure and simple. To me, it was and is incredible that the cops  and their Dominion Post columnist cheerleader Chris Trotter could have imagined the activists were committed to armed uprising.

In terms of revolt, socialists have gone little further than anarchists. The central strategy of Socialist Aotearoa, the most visible left grouplet, is getting rid of the National government. To this end Socialist Aotearoa even hosted a Labour MP at their last conference.  This buy in to the established political system is accompanied by rhetoric about changing that system, but no serious preparation for such a change.

I  emerge from this tradition myself. Although I have never given Labour any space and believe social progress requires a socialist revolution, most of my life’s activist energy has been expended in support of reformist campaigns.

Our history of protest in New Zealand is not one of revolt, more a mixture of moral outrage and appeals for the authorities to be nicer to us. Recent years have seen fewer mass protests and more tiny symbolic events, mounted by very small numbers of habitual activists.

It is my hope that future New Zealand revolutionaries will dig deeper than we did and make more use of Marxist analysis in their quest for a better society.

That said, I don’t think our efforts have been all bad.

We have won some reforms under capitalism.

To mention just a few:

Women have the right to vote, Te reo is now taught in schools, New Zealand is out of Anzus, gay marriage is a legal right, and the death penalty has been removed.

All those advances came about after struggle from below, at the conclusion of which the parliament of the day was forced to tick the right box (and then claim the credit as though it had been their idea in the first place).

Ironically, it is in the areas most sensitive to the preservation of capitalism that protest has been least effective.

At the point of production, where capitalism’s lifeblood of surplus-value is created and expropriated, there is little revolt – and increased corporate control over staff.

Workers’ chains have become measurably shorter and heavier. Over the course of my working life National- and Labour-led governments have steadily tightened up laws restricting workers’ freedom to strike. Yesterday’s strikes against nuclear weapons, racism, government surveillance and unjustified dismissal are now illegal and can be punished by imprisonment. One by one, the state has pulled most of the unions’ teeth. Consequently, union organisation has been less effective and union membership has fallen dramatically.

When I entered the world of work, strikes were frequent and gained improvements in wages and conditions. It was nothing very special for a strike to continue for a week or more. Some Auckland militants dubbed their Trades Council president “two day Bill” because he was said to ensure any strike led by him was over inside a couple of days.

Things are very different now.

Unite union recently claimed an important victory when they brought off their first Wellington McDonalds’ strike.  Yet this action was a stoppage of just five workers, for half an hour. The bulk of the people on the picket line outside the store were not strikers but sympathetic habitual activists.

Such micro strikes may be of more importance than the longer actions we took in previous years. In a long night of darkness, they are a reminder that the contradictions of capitalism still remain, that resistance is not dead and will reassert itself in time.

For now, thousands of working people suffer dire poverty, deliberately misnamed ‘child poverty’.

Activism has also been found wanting against the other central aspect of capitalism – imperialist war.

When I was at school there was a day once a year called ANZAC day, which was not that big a deal. Old soldiers marched quietly and had a few drinks afterwards.  We now endure ANZAC week, an orgy of media nationalism  building up to the big day, when politicians of all stripes compete to display their devotion to the state forces. A day when kids are hauled out of class to hear how wonderful it was that thousands of their ancestors were marched off to be killed. Gallipoli is now a must visit spot in the OE itinerary.

Today, of course, imperialist wars still continue, with New Zealand participation. By means of a grotesque Orwellian euphemism, soldiers have now become ‘peacekeepers’ whose saintly actions we should revere, without examining too closely. In face of all this, our anti war movement has shriveled to a tiny ineffective handful.

In such bleak times it’s worth remembering the radical movements of our history, looking back to see what worked and how we can build on that legacy today.

Protest songs play a small part in this process.

Some of them preserve details of past struggles, reminder of our side’s history.akld-prog-lockout-wont-shut-up

Protest songs can also serve to encourage and rally our side, poke fun at the enemy, reinforcing our culture in the midst of a vast sea of establishment disapproval. Sometimes they can help our side keep our dignity. For example, every demonstration must eventually have an ending. But it’s often very hard to end a demo and disperse home, especially if the action has been angry and heated. Sometimes a song will serve to round off an action in a way that feels it’s ok to leave the battlefield and return another day.

The best protest singing I ever saw was on a TV3 news clip where some sitdown striking women textile workers were being violently dragged away by the police. The women were defiantly singing “Side by side”. Gus Kahn’s old tin pan alley hit suddenly became a magnificent solidarity anthem.

My  interest in protest songs was aroused by veteran communist Rona Bailey who had a collection of old leftist American records. I liked the attitude of these songs, although their subject matter sounded a bit dated and remote.

Around this time, in the early 1970s there was some protest music on the hit parade, the folk music of Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, and the more politically focused Joan Baez, Pete Seegar and Phil Ochs.

In Wellington New Zealand we had activist Jim Delahunty who rattled off witty topical parodies about issues of the day.

Armed with three chords and a lot of enthusiasm I tried to do likewise. Most of my first efforts were in the form of parody, fitting new words to someone else’s tune.

After a while I ran out of other people’s songs to butcher and began trying to craft my own melodies.

I hardly ever sat down and thought, ok, today I’ll do a bit of songwriting. If I did that, nothing much would happen anyway.

To produce a song I required an outside incentive, most of my efforts were commissioned by other people. Every so often Jim would ring up and say he wanted a number about this or that issue to include in his Access Radio “Behind the News” programme. I’d concoct something, meet him in the studio with my guitar and record it live.

On other occasions my commission would be more specific.

One day in 1977 at a meeting organising demonstrations against the SIS Amendment Bill, Workers Communist League secretary Terry Auld passed me a note saying “write a song called ‘Smash the Bill’.” Terry was my political boss in those days so that night I knocked up a song with that title. It took me ages to find a suitable tune for my doggerel, I finally settled on “when the saints come marching in, because it had a militant sound. When the time came to march, demonstrators took up my nice social democratic chorus happily, “Oh yes we will, oh yes we will, we’ll unite to smash this bill, because we want to keep our freedom, we’ll unite to smash this bill.”

Another WCL song assignment came in late 1981. Rona Bailey requested “a song summing up the whole anti-tour movement”. That seemed impossible until I hit on the old “Deck of cards” song to reword – it’s on my Don’t stop now titled album.

Once or twice I have worked up a protest song off my own bat simply because I was very angry about some particular injustice.

In the music part of this event I’ll play you a couple of those.

The process of crafting a little protest ditty is fairly simple.

First you need an issue that you care enough about to put some work into.

Then you need some lines of words and some music in sympathy with those words. Ideally, you have one strong line around which the rest of the song assembles in support.

My usual method is to sit down with a guitar or piano, getting  some sort of riff going while I’m thinking about the issue and jotting down a few relevant words. After a while I leave the instrument and go for a long run around the hills. When I get back something will have come together in my head. I’ll write down the lines that I have and experiment with fitting chords and rhythm to the mix. When I’ve got something like a song I’ll see how many words I can cut out, so that each word is essential and pulling its weight. The final step is to run the thing by my partner Jill. She’ll usually suggest some amendments which improve my song and then it’s ready to roll.

So what I am talking about here is craft rather than art. I have never come up with any big hit and don’t expect to, but I know some of my songs have helped encourage struggles along a little bit. Like the one I made last year for the teachers’ rally at parliament, the one I did for the last big anti war rallies and the one I sang on the locked out Progressive workers’ picket line. The guys there adopted my tune as their own and made a CD of it. My most recent production was earlier this year, co-writing a song with Phil Ferguson for the Irish socialist-republican organisation Eirigi.

Ok, that’s me and my protest songs, thanks for listening and please feel free to buy a CD!

  1. Horace says:

    Sounds interesting where do i buy a CD?

  2. Don Franks says:

    Cheers Horace

    If you would like a cd mailed to you please send your address with a cheque to:

    15 Holloway road, Wellington, New Zealand.

    There are two cds, “Don’t stop now” ( political songs from 1981 to 2001) and “Safer Communities together blues” ( political songs from 2001 onwards)

    cds @ $20 each, no payment for packaging or postage.


  3. Hi Don

    I will be ordering a CD, and looking forward to hearing your songs (for the first time as it happens).

    I would also like to respond to your political observations. I have previously signified that I share your reservations about protest politics. “Protest” reduces to the demand that someone else (typically the state or the ruling class) should do something to change the world in compliance with the demands of the protesters. There have been many situations in which protest movements appear to have achieved its aims – for example the anti-Vietnam war and anti-apartheid movements – but when we look closer it is questionable whether protest as such was a decisive factor. The imperial states withdrew from Vietnam in the face of an invincible enemy and a substantial domestic protest movement. They are withdrawing from Afghanistan in the face of invincible enemy fighters and a domestic protest movement which is negligible to non-existent. It is success or defeat on the battlefield which shapes the decisions of imperial states, not the moral suasion of protest movements.

    What goes for imperial states, generally also applies to individual capitalists. They do not adopt moral positions. They make rational calculations based on material realities.

    Where states accede to the demands of protest movements which have military force at their disposal – examples being homosexual marriage, abortion and so on – it is because the state comes to see those demands as being consistent the structure, ideology and practical needs of the state and the socio-economic system. It is pertinant that even the Marxists use the concepts and rhetoric of capitalist ideology to defend and justify such social innovations as abortion and homosexual marriage. In a capitalist society, protest movements can bring about the apotheosis of capitalism, and that is pretty well what has been achieved to date.

    I am not convinced by the Marxist argument that the end point of capitalism is socialism, and that in bringing the capitalist system to its ultimate point of development, protesters are at the same time advancing the cause of socialism. That argument is at best only true in a metaphysical sense. I believe that socialism can only be brought about through the establishment of socialist institutions by which I do not mean socialist, Marxist or “revolutionary” political parties. One hundred and fifty years of Marxism has shown the natural course and outcomes of such Marxist political parties. I mean institutions which are based on definitively socialist relations between people.

    Socialist values are not found within the structures and institutions of capitalist democracy, yet if one walks into an Anglican church on a Sunday morning one can hear the “collects” and see the “communion”. Collects and communion may not constitute collectives and communes in the Marxist understanding of the words, but they are the refuge and sanctuary for those ideas in a capitalist society. The holy communion is a token and last vestige of the communist ideal. Now fossilized, petrified and fixed in amber it will one day be resurrected and will once again walk upon the earth.

    Marxists who are blinded by anger and deafened by their own political demands (in which category I do not include you, Don) cannot see how the people seek and find communion, nor do they hear the collective voice as it is raised up.

    Marxism, and the left generally, will not get out of its present rut until it learns to be more open to the real voice of the people.

    • Apology and correction. When I wrote “protest movements which have military force at their disposal – examples being homosexual marriage, abortion and so on” I meant to write “protest movements which DO NOT have military force at their disposal…”

  4. Don Franks says:

    Lot of telling points there Geoff.
    Especially “What goes for imperial states, generally also applies to individual capitalists. They do not adopt moral positions. They make rational calculations based on material realities.”
    I would like to tattoo that observation onto the backside of several people.
    We will have to disagree about holy communion. As a confirmed and once keen Anglican I am familiar with receiving the blood and body, but I see it as a tenet of faith rather than a vestige or token of any materialist philosophy.
    That said, I retain some respect for the carpenter of Nazareth.
    If you like I can email you a copy of “Do like Jesus done”, which is not on my cd.

    • Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me”, referring to the shared meal of the last supper. “Breaking bread together” was the only term by which the ancients were able to denote the ideal of communist ideal, and our word “companion” derives from the Latin for “together” and “bread”, the stuff of life. In the Anglican communion the communist ideal has been reduced to a mere token (an insubstantial wafer and a mere sip of wine) while beyond (and sometimes within) the church doors class distinctions and the privileges of wealth are allowed to prevail. Even a token is not to be disparaged, however, because it remains as a witness to the world of the way things should be. The church can be called to account for the contradiction between the sharing of bread in accordance with the commandment of the Christ, and the way in which private wealth and gross socio-economic inequity is tolerated within the same church which considers itself to be “the body of Christ”.
      I frequently attend Anglican services at the Te Ngae pastorate, which like virtually all of the hahi Maori is working class, non-sectarian, welcoming to all-comers and deeply infused with the spirit of sharing and giving. So in the hahi Maori at least spiritual truths find expression in material reality, and that is the measure of true religion.
      I would appreciate receiving your copy of “Do like Jesus done”. Makes you sound rather like a believer, Don. Is that why it didn’t end up on the CD?

      • Don Franks says:

        “Do like Jesus done”. Makes you sound rather like a believer, Don. Is that why it didn’t end up on the CD?

        No mate, I just made that record for a particular gig after the studio time was finished.

        I am not religious anymore.

        When I was little boy the whole christian trip was a huge part of my mental development.

        It segued nicely into my later Maoist ideas.

        Now I am not a christian.

        All I believe in now is the international proletariat, dialectical materialism and trying to be kind to

        the people in my life that I love and trust.

  5. Thanks for the CDs Don. I enjoyed listening to them, as did one of my sons who plays guitar when he is not practicing medicine. With their clever lyrics, honest sentiments, and catchy tunes, these songs come from the heart of our people – so we decided we could easily overlook the occasional four letter word… Geoff

  6. Don Franks says:

    Thanks Geoff

    those songs are very much a collective effort, from the folks who helped me record them and particularly the folks who put the various actions on which inspired the musical response.