Back in 1960, when Bob Dylan first read Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory (which not only portrayed the situation in the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930s but also revitalised the American national myth of self-determination and freedom1), the singer-songwriter and folk music scene was still worlds away from Vienna and its environs. One might point to how Austria had at least been kissed by rock ’n’ roll by that point thanks to Bill Haley’s first Viennese concert in October 1958—but in hindsight, Austria’s homegrown version of that musical style can be characterised as a genre of wasted chances to engage in rebellion and protest. Developments in international rock and pop music that entailed opportunities to produce creative manifestations of protest and resistance were barely noticed by Austrian media during the 1950s and early 1960s, and they would have been ignored by the commercial music industry anyway.
But back to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, whose musical and activist activities had begun receiving attention in Austria at least by the Golden Gate Club’s opening in September 1968 and continue to feature at that establishment’s successor Atlantis, a folk club that was a centre of the Viennese music scene during the 1970s. Guthrie, whose folksongs cast their gaze beyond his immediate present2, gave the musician Bob Dylan “an identity, a mask to wear, something to hang onto”,3 according to Court Carney—which is to say: a musical identity of sorts. Guthrie’s works deal with political themes such as working class values, labour migration from the Midwest, and the Dust Bowl4—aspects that also influenced Dylan’s output and offered a bullhorn for labour protests. The objectives of the labour movement were expressed as lyrics set to music at various types of gatherings such as union or party meetings, public performances, and also strikes, marches, and demonstrations. “These songs embodied an outward statement of faith, propagating the ideas of the labour movement and lending expression to basic knowledge, morals, and values. They served the purpose of agitation and encouraged workers to advocate for the social interests of their own class, and they also provided some self-reinforcement.”5 Workers’ songs sung as a group reflected the general social situation, political problems, and goals being worked toward while at the same time enabling collective experience and a feeling of solidarity. These keywords can also be applied to the effects of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” of 28 August 1963, which has since remained anchored in the collective memory. Alongside the historic “I Have a Dream” speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in front of the Lincoln Memorial, it was primarily songs sung by Joan Baez such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom” as well as Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” that drove forward the objectives of that march—which were to express support for the civil and economic rights of African Americans and to end racial discrimination.
Songs that had attained protest song status due to their linkage with social, cultural, and/or historical aspects or their previous existence as workers’ songs also played a dominant role in the goings-on at the folk club Atlantis, which was an early-1970s magnet for the scene that sought to get away from the mainstream German Schlager and commercial rock. At Atlantis, the spirit of American-style protest songs came together with the esprit of critical songwriters in the tradition of Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht. Eisler’s expectation of music came down to the following mission: “Rather than setting out to psychologically anaesthetise listeners or generate anarchic frenzies, music must work to enlighten the consciousness of the most progressive class, the working class, and attempt to influence the practical behaviour of its listeners.”6 Eisler’s understanding of music’s political function can also be felt in the subjects and themes of “Schmetterlinge”, a band that formed in 1969. This musical project centring on Willi Resetarits, Erich Meixner, and (from 1976) Beatrix Neundlinger linked critical and political texts written largely by Heinz Rudolf Unger with melodies influenced by folk scene protagonists such as Dylan and Baez, rock sounds, and traditional songs. This stylistic diversity and the associated political positioning ended up featuring most prominently in the Proletenpassion [Proletarian Passion], a staged oratorio. In collaboration with the writer Unger, students, historians, and other interested individuals, a work arose that addressed hegemonic structures and social themes of Europe’s modern era (i.e., between the 16th and 20th centuries) supported by various musical and literary stylistic elements, thereby juxtaposing the “history of the rulers” and/or “prevailing historiography” with the “history of the ruled”. Most memorable is probably the final song of this work’s epilogue, “Wir lernen im Vorwärtsgehen” [We Learn Marching Forward], which indeed did point the way forward for protest songs—and Schmetterlinge were thereafter to retain it as an active part of their repertoire. This oratorio was premièred in the “Arena” event series of the 1976 Wiener Festwochen as a combination of spoken theatre and concert, an event that became the central impetus behind that summer’s occupation of the city’s slaughterhouse for imported livestock (which ultimately became today’s concert venue known as the Arena).
In our present day, we see protest songs cropping up regularly in cultural life and its musical contexts. But let us for the moment disregard the content and themes of genres such as punk and hip-hop for reasons of space and mention two concrete examples from today’s Viennese scene. Alongside a new production of a reworked version of the above-mentioned oratorio entitled Proletenpassion 2015 ff at the theatre Werk X, to which Heinz Rudolf Unger added texts relevant to the 21st century and for which Eva Jantschitsch—known by the stage name of Gustav—rearranged the music, one should mention above all the Protest Song Contest. Defining itself as a critical musical event intended as a platform for contemporary protest songs, the Protest Song Contest first took place at the Rabenhoftheater in Vienna on 12 February 2004 to mark the Austrian Civil War’s 70th anniversary. The songs presented at the Protest Song Contest address mainly current (global) political and social issues, and their performers exhibit diverse stylistic orientations. 2015 saw the first-placed act Rammelhof elicit quite a bit of hype on YouTube—emanating especially from Ukraine—with its rock number “Wladimir (Put Put Putin)”, while 2023 witnessed the victory of the Ukrainian-born musician KüR with her bilingual title “Ljudi (Menschen)”, which she realised with guitar accompaniment in the classic singer-songwriter tradition.
- Cf. Donald Brown: Bob Dylan. American Troubadour. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham/Boulder/New York/Toronto/Plymouth 2014, p. 47.
- Cf. ibid.
- Court Carney: “‘With Electric Breath’: Bob Dylan and the Reimagining of Woody Guthrie”. In: Woody Guthrie Annual 4/2018, p. 24.
- Cf. Simon Frith: The Sociology of Rock. Constable, London 1978, p. 185.
- Scherer, Klaus-Jürgen: “Das Arbeiterlied als politisches Lied”. In: Neue Gesellschaft/Frankfurter Hefte No. 5/2013, p. 89–90.
- Hanns Eisler: “Gesellschaftliche Umfunktionierung der Musik”. In: Materialien zu einer Dialektik der Musik. Ed. Hanns Eisler and Manfred Grabs. Reclam, Leipzig, 1976, p. 125.