MusAct Conference, Helsinki, 2023

By Sam Coley on May 15th, 2023

In May ‘23 the University of Helsinki held their first ‘Music, Research, and Activism’ conference, which brought together a range of researchers and practitioners engaged in activism around music. This three-day conference explored “the wide spectrum of music research that is committed to social and environmental justice, anti-oppression, and social change” and considered opportunities for combining academic work with activism. Keynote presentations included talks from the ecomusicology and sustainability researcher Aaron S. Allen, Chicana artivista, musician and feminist music theorist Martha Gonzalez, and feminist writer and social critic Minna Salami.

My paper, ‘Ballade de la Désescalade: Profiling Graeme Allwright as Activist’ was presented on the opening day, during a session on ‘Resistance and Community Organisation’, chaired by Marita Buanes Djupvik. I spoke about my research into the life and music of New Zealand born folk singer Graeme Allwright (pictured above), who rose to fame in France as an adaptor of protest songs by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, amongst others. Allwright’s work made the socialist themes of 50s, 60s American folk music accessible to French audiences and especially resonated with the ‘soixante-huitards’ who brought down the Gaullist regime in ‘68. My paper considered the distinctions between Allwright’s interpretations and the original works he translated, alongside assessments of his own protest related compositions. I outlined the various protest movements he was aligned to throughout his life and reflected on how these causes impacted on his musical output. Allwright’s repertoire was intensely humanist, anti-militarist, anti-nuclear, and anti-consumerism. Yet while he was well known in the 60s and 70s, I suggested that Allwright’s refusal to follow traditional artist/fan relationships led to his marginalisation in later life. My paper called for a reappraisal of Allwright’s position in the pantheon of ‘la chanson Francaise’, and as an influencer of French left-wing counterculture.

On the final day of the conference, I was delighted to chair a session which featured excellent papers from Aimée George (Surveillance and Strategy from contemporary South African women in jazz) and Melissa Arkley (“It’s metal as fuck to address these topics”: How women and non-binary extreme metal vocalists are using the conventions of extreme metal to do feminist activism).

My thanks to the organising and scholarly committee for all their work in arranging such an enjoyable conference, and to the Discipline of Musicology at the University of Helsinki, the Suoni Research Association, the Kone Foundation, and the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki for their support.