The Same Old Tune? Protest Song, Contrafacta, and the Search for an Interdisciplinary Vocabulary, 1600–2021
Like so many types of mainstream song over the ages, songs of protest have often been written contrafactually, with new words set to existing tunes. Some of these tunes, from God Save the King/Queen, to The Vicar of Bray, to Derry Down, have been sung in anger by new generations across at least three centuries. The practice continues to this day.
Contrafacta have been embraced by scholars of history, politics, and literature in recent years, as a means of engaging with the musical dimension of song – though all too often this ends up as a way of taking the music back out again. Perhaps quixotically, I wish to establish, both what a songwriter’s choice of tune might and might not bring to the political import of a new lyric, and the potential for a genuinely informed interdisciplinary conversation on the perilous subject of song and musical meaning.