Peter Hicks and Geoff Francis are creative dynamos. The couple, who are both members of Socialist Alliance, live in the small rural community of Pelverata, south of Hobart. From this quiet home base they make a lot of beautiful noise!
Hicks, a well-known performer on the folk music scene, also directs the Tasmanian Grassroots Union Choir. Francis, who is a sound technician, was the co-ordinating force behind No Blood For Oil, a compilation CD which brought together 20 Australian voices for peace.
Hicks and Francis, who have been writing together since they met in the late ’80s, team up to write amazing songs of struggle. Their latest collection, performed by Hicks, is titled Our World is Not For Sale and also features a multi-media e-book.
Alison Thorne caught up with Geoff and Peter to discuss the relationship between art and politics and some of the ideas behind their songs.
Do you see creating music as a political act?
Geoff: Of course this raises the question of “What is political?” Even music that I would consider “feel good music” is often too “political” for the mainstream media. To my mind, political music is that which doesn’t stop at identifying those matters which are wrong with our society — such as racism, sexism, homophobia, war and poverty — but which also seeks to find explanations and propose solutions. It’s one thing to say that war isn’t very nice. It’s another to take that next step of examining why wars, such as the recent war against the people of Iraq, happen in the first place.
Peter: All human activity is political to some extent but probably none more than songwriting, because of the power of words and music combined — and their ability to inspire and inform. Songs can be fun, they can be light-hearted and entertaining and good to dance to — but they can be much more, and to take part in the songwriting process as political songwriters holds with it an important responsibility.
What impact do you hope your work has on society?
Geoff: I’m not really in any position to measure the impact. I just see ourselves as part of a great tradition of singers, writers and artists, from all cultures, who over the centuries have played a part in the ongoing struggle for a fairer and better world. Collectively, I believe we all have a great impact.
Peter: Flippantly, we’d love to have a song which is a million seller — but the reality is, it just isn’t what we’re on about. Our songs are part of a tradition of songwriters whose songs are about struggle and the need to build a world based on love and respect, not greed. Nowadays, that divide is becoming clearer than ever. I would hope someone hearing our songs at a rally or peace march may be inspired to write their own song — and pass it on to the next generation of activists.
Who chose the title Our World Is Not for Sale?
Geoff: We both did. The song is our way of fighting back proudly and assertively against those who would steal from working people their very birthright. There’s nothing new about this, of course — the class struggle in one form or another has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As much as anything, this song is inspired by both the struggle of the landless movement in Brazil, and the environmental movement here in Tasmania. The two may be half a world apart, but they really do show how every struggle for the rights and dignity of ordinary people and our planet are really all part of one great struggle.
Peter: The phrase is from a New Internationalist poster of peasant workers rebelling against capitalists coming in and stealing their land. This is very much on our thoughts in Tasmania as rich capitalists attempt to “steal” the inheritance of us all — Tasmania’s magnificent old growth forests.
Another very powerful track on Our World is Not For Sale is called Ordinary People. I asked Peter why he considers it important to sing about refugees as “ordinary people.” What reactions do you get to this song?
Peter: A lot of the time, the reaction is stunned silence. It is pretty unbelievable that our government has chosen to treat refugees in such an extraordinarily horrible manner. The people we play the song to have generally felt the same way — although for some it has been provocative. But what’s the point of writing songs if you can’t be provocative?
The Vegetable from Hell, another track on the CD, is a hilarious comment about genetic modification of food. What serious concerns motivated you to write this?
Peter: Science, when under the auspices of the profit motive does not have any limitations. What could lead to such good, can also lead to unbridled terror. Let us hope that we look beyond what is good for the company “bottom line” when making such important decisions about our future.
What rewards come from performing? Which types of gigs stimulate you most?
Peter: It is a hard choice. Obviously when the crowd is “hanging on every word” at the folk club or political event you get to feel ten foot tall as a performer. But just as importantly, I remember a strike or picket where the people were really appreciative — where the songs really spoke to their reality.
Your song Hold that Line in so infectious and catchy that I almost started to feel it was a traditional song which had been around many decades. Can you tell me a bit about the reactions you get? Have you ever performed it on a picket line?
Peter: On many an occasion — the MUA dispute springs to mind, but also many smaller disputes in Sydney. Holding a picket line is such a powerful thing to do — you are really up against many odds. It’s nice to think that others have taken it as a “traditional song.” Let’s hope the tradition of the picket lives on.
How did the No Blood For Oil CD project come about?
Geoff: This was my response to what was obviously building as a horrible war against the long-suffering people of Iraq. I just felt that this was a way to do something. Performers came out of the woodwork — we had more offers in the end than we could accommodate.
In 1938 Leon Trotsky wrote that “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work.” To what extent is yours and Peter’s work a “protest against reality?”
Geoff: I guess it depends on whose “reality” you’re talking about. Our music is more than just a protest against their reality — it also conveys a message of what we believe could and would be a better “reality.”
Our World Is Not For Sale and other music by Hicks and Francis is available at Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road, Brunswick or can be ordered from www.trump.net.au/~glazfolk