On the morning of February 22nd, the first of the fourteen non-consecutive days of striking that have dominated the last four weeks at Exeter, I spoke on the picket line with English lecturer Dr Joe Crawford. Our assembly, guitar-accompanied, had just finished singing the famous and verbose union song ‘Solidarity Forever’, which would become the movement’s unofficial anthem. Joe told me about the many protests his parents brought him to as a child. He doesn’t remember much of it now, but the songs they sang have always stuck with him. Song, he said – sound, language, rhythm – these are the things we keep. Three weeks later, on the March 16th, a crowd of students gathered outside the famously occupied Northcote House to prove that.
The show started small and uncertain. The Facebook event page had promised more than one hundred people, yet, so far, a crowd of maybe fifteen had gathered in the car park outside the window of the occupied meeting room, under the eyes of security guards, cameras, a couple of police officers. Unperturbed by the small numbers, one half of student band The Allergens kicked off the show, opening with my favourite track of theirs, the student-fee-protesting ‘9125???’. By turns thrilling, heartfelt, and always witty, they ripped through several of their more political songs, dragging energy out of a crowd that was, though slowly growing in numbers and enthusiasm, still a little nervous.
the great power of music: to bring huge groups of people together in one place
The Allergens were followed by newborn group I Say Flower, who made their live debut. Husky, roaring singing, three guitars and a harmonica rang across the ever-expanding crowd, into which adrenaline was injected by unsung MVP Gabriel, the frankly epic cajón drummer from Exeter’s most popular student band, Psychopomp. The rest of that 2017 Battle of the Bands-winning group soon joined him: skilled guitar-playing and awesome drums accompanied angelic, Jeff Buckleyish vocals. Not so immediately political, these songs, but made moreso by frontman Matt Ward’s humorous ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ – like reaching to relate them to the struggle at hand – even if it meant ad-libbing extra lyrics. At last, the crowd now swelling and swelling, I Say Flower frontman Alex Rafael Rose returned briefly to the stage for a roaring solo encore, just in time to welcome our headliner.
At 11:30am, amid soaring anticipation and raucous applause, with a crowd from the picket-line at his back, folk-punk hero and picket-line legend Billy Bragg stepped onto the car park. A vision in a flat cap and red-buttoned coat, guitar hanging off his shoulder like a machine to slay fascists, he took the stage (slightly raised pavement) to speak and sing to us. He performed songs from picket lines: the same songs miners sang, the same songs Joe Crawford’s parents would have sung, the same songs we had been singing for weeks. When he spoke, he reminded us of our place in a long tradition of strike action, of workers fighting for their rights to “be exploited on your terms”. He spoke too of his own position in this history, paying tribute to his great 1930s predecessor:
“I’m a disciple of a guy named Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie never did a gig like I do a gig, he never did any kinda gig that you’ve ever went to. The kind of gigs he did were like this: picket lines, lock-ins in factories, playing in school strikes . . . It’s not enough to sing Woody’s songs: you’ve got to walk it like the little guy walked it as well.”
This, then, is the great power of music: to bring huge groups of people together in one place, in one time, across one history, and draw their heartbeats into one rhythm. When Bragg performed ‘Solidarity Forever’ (a special request), he didn’t know the lyrics to the traditionally American song’s verses – but Oliver Gromski, just one crowd member, did: he joined Bragg up there and they performed it together. I didn’t remember those verses either, only that rousing chorus, but they are seared now into my memory and the voices I hear singing them are those of my fellows from the picket lines. Five days later and the tune still runs in my mind. Solidarity, forever.