Which Side Are You On, Boys?

I’ve had a powerful punch of Billy Bragg today. The BBC’s been playing clips of his song, “Which Side Are You On?” every time they’ve mentioned the 1984 miner’s strike and the Battle of Orgreave.

Listening today, it struck me how the letter d of side slowly thickens and coagulates as Billy’s story leaves hope behind and reaches angry confrontation. In the first chorus, the of side is an ‘ordinary’ d. In the final chorus, as the words slide up one side of d and down the other, it’s become the bitter dividing point between right and wrong:

Billy sets up a ‘normal’ d in the first chorus, so that his audience knows what to expect as ‘standard’, within the boundaries of his voice and his song. At this point he’s setting off to join the picket line and believes that together we cannot fail. He’s young and innocent. There’s hope in his heart.

Little by little, as the song continues, as he’s stopped by police at the county line and told that he’ll go to jail if he doesn’t go home, the division between each ‘side’ on the strike becomes more serious. The and everything around the of side become more serious. When he sings of a hungry, crying child on his side of the divide and hears a scab say ‘Sod you Jack’ on the other, battle lines are drawn and Billy, the singer, has made it clear which side he’s on.

Billy subtly adds layers of thickness  to build the d of side into a thick, weighty sound. He makes d into the fulcrum of the chorus and a strong sound barrier between the two sides. As he sings side are, the line swoops up to the peak of the and slides down the other side of the barrier. That thickening d speaks of bitterness, a community divided and a feeling of heavy betrayal.

Which doesn’t mean that Billy planned it. The emotion of the song has to go somewhere and that thickened consonant holds and spills over the contempt, powerlessness, disappointment and fighting spirit of a man who’s learnt that the powers that be are ranged against him.

Billy Bragg borrowed his chorus from Florence Reece’s 1931 miner’s strike-inspired Which Side Are You On? He added lyrics to suit a new miner’s strike – the unpleasantly-policed 1984 confrontation between Margaret Thatcher’s government and the coal miners of the UK.

His lyrics are well chosen and well constructed, but it’s the disappointment that Billy funnelled into that murky that made his song all the more powerful, and so memorable that the BBC uses it as an immediately recognisable point of reference, 31 years on.

Listen to Pete Seeger singing the original version of Which Side Are You On. Even though the Harlan County miner’s strikes that inspired the song were bloody and brutal, he’s singing a song of hope. There’s fluidity to the situation, as Pete sings it. He sings the of side to mark a division, yes, but the d‘s a low wall that he wants you to step over, to join him on his side:

It’s all subtle stuff, but it all adds to the sound picture of a song. In English, you can’t stretch a consonant, but you can thicken it, sing it in an unusual way, cross the Atlantic with it, hide it or produce it with a flourish. Every single sound in a song is there for you to mould to your will when you sing. Your audience will ‘read’ the sounds you make, as if they were written on a screen.

Billy’s song speaks of battle lines drawn and of deep, distrustful division. Pete’s song speaks of choice and hope for a better future. That makes the difference physical.

 © Sing Better English, 2015


2 thoughts on “Which Side Are You On, Boys?”

  1. I may have to listen to Billy Bragg a few more times to pick up the subtle “d” differences you describe! But in the meantime it’s interesting to ponder how two artists could produce such different renditions of one song. Thank you, Elaine!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Heather – yes, I was surprised. Pete Seeger’s song sounds much gentler somehow. Though he was singing it nearly 40 years after it was written, so maybe it had morphed into a more general 60s song of change, with all the hopefulness of the time.

      I suppose the original song was written when Kentucky miners were beginning to unionise, whereas Billy’s song was written at a time when British miners’ unions were being destroyed.

      I only started thinking about Billy’s song when they kept playing clips of it yesterday. The division between miners and police sounded harsh and wretched, and it felt as if Billy was pouring it into and around the ‘d’ of ‘side’.

      I may, of course, be imagining it all!

      Liked by 1 person

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