Is It Better to Be an Optimist or a Pessimist? Oskar Jenson
Writer, historian and BBC New Generation Thinker Oskar Jenson explores the art of English protest song and how we can consider the roles optimism and pessimism play in this form of political communication.
Should we be pessimistic about the fact that some issues raised in political songs of the past are still present in society today? Or should we be optimistic and empowered by the power of the people to organise in this way? Jenson discusses what politics might be without protest song – and how we might be able to measure their success.
He explores the two rhetorical traditions of communicating political messages in song. One tradition is that of denunciation and the calling out of political wrongs, which might include abolitionist songs of the 1780s and 90s, anti-war songs like ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ or Anohni’s 2016 eco-protest song ‘4 Degrees’.
Another rhetorical tradition of protest song is the offering of alternative solutions. Songs that might come under this remit are Diggers’ songs of the English Civil War, socialist anthems by the likes of William Morris, Edward Carpenter and Edith Nesbit, or 20th-century classics such as Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’.
Jenson was senior research associate for Our Subversive Voice: The History and Politics of English Protest Song, a research project based at the University of East Anglia. At the heart of the project is a database of 750 protest songs from 1600 to 2020. Alongside this run case studies, interviews with songwriters and experts and a bibliography of relevant scholarship.
Oskar Jenson’s Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century London is published by Duckworth Books.
Oskar Jensen is a writer, historian, and BBC New Generation Thinker. His latest book is Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century London, and his current project as a NUAcT Fellow at Newcastle University is The Invention of Pop Music: Mainstream Song, Class, and Culture, 1520–2020. From 2020–22 Oskar was senior research associate for Our Subversive Voice: The History and Politics of English Protest Song, based at the University of East Anglia. He also writes children’s, literary, and detective fiction: his whodunnit Helle and Death will be published in January 2024. Oskar appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4, and his agent is Joanna Swainson.
Zoë Steadman-Milne is the Creative Content Producer for Bristol Ideas. She oversees the programming, logistics and event management of all Festival of Ideas events, content and projects, including the Festival of Economics and the Bristol City Poet.