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[H]ip-hop is . . . the sound of music getting out of the ghetto, while rock is looking for a ghetto. -- Bono

The power of music to sustain the spirit

The Age

Few songs take their title from that of a historical event, the occasional mining disaster aside. Even fewer can draw a line directly to that event and yet resonate in the wider world. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2 is a child of its time, yet its themes enabled it to survive, indeed grow stronger, in the years afterwards.

It was recorded in the depths of the Troubles -- 1982 -- and released as the opening track on the 1983 album War. Two years before its recording, Irish republicans had begun the latst wave of hunger strikes, this time in protest at their loss of status as political prisoners. Bobby Sands was the best known of the 10 who took their own lives through starvation. A couple of months after War's release, Gerry Adams was elected member for West Belfast for Westminster. In 1984, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly survived the Brighton bombing by the IRA.

Bloody Sunday occurred on January 30, 1972, in Londonderry. British troops shot dead more than a dozen civilians and wounded many more during a civil rights protest. In the aftermath, the Widgery report cleared the army.

This week, a report by Lord Mark Saville, commissioned by then prime minister Tony Blair in 1998, brought down its findings: the shootings were unjustified; the dead and wounded were not to blame for their fate.

U2's Bono was 11 at the time of the killings. Then he was just Paul Hewson. The Edge, then David Evans, was 10. They lived in the south of the island. Tony Blair was 18.

When their paths crossed later in life, all three were leaders: Blair of one of the most powerful countries in the world, and the others as part of one of the most powerful republics on earth -- the empire of the song.

To quote Australian singer-songwriter Graham Lowndes: ''Survival's a song.'' It sustains the spirit. African-American chain gangs knew this.

One of Blair's favourite songs, reportedly, is U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." Bono also became a knight of the realm under Blair's watch.

It's ludicrous to think the song would have had a causal link in the chain that led him to appoint Saville to investigate Bloody Sunday. Indeed, there's no hint of it in his speech to the Commons on January 29, 1998. Nor should there have been. The inquiry was the result of tireless work by many parties to have the scales of justice reweighed. New evidence was presented to the British government that couldn't be ignored.

The wheel of history was being pushed by an invisible hand. Its force can't be quantified, but governments have risen and fallen by its touch. Mass movements have felt it, embraced it.

When the Saville findings became known in Derry this week, people gathered in the town centre broke out into "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the oppressed.

Four years before Bloody Sunday, civil rights protesters sang it on a march from Coalisland to Dungannon in Northern Ireland. The organisers had modelled their campaign on the U.S. movement (300,000 sang it, led by Joan Baez, at a march on Washington in 1963). Thus the song flew across the Atlantic. It would also have blown through the corridors of power, too. Truncheons and bullets cannot stop it until every voice is silenced.

Artists know this.

When U2 wrote "Sunday Bloody Sunday," they would have known they were getting into dangerous waters. Indeed, mentioning paramilitary groups such as the IRA and the UDA didn't last long in the performance.

Bono also prefaced it at times with ''This is not a rebel song." But by making it more universal, while retaining its core theme, the band gave it a greater depth and strength.

Bono has made activism an artform. The band's concerts are in part high-volume, large-screen information nights. It's mass awareness. It's watering the garden. From little things big things grow.

It's true few people would sing "Sunday Bloody Sunday" on marches, but just in the listening, cogs are turning. Midnight Oil, and before them Redgum, used song not only as entertainment but as mass awareness campaigns. There are many bands and solo performers in America and Britain, for instance, who use their medium as the message.

Critics rail against the irrelevance of the effort. After all, an artist rarely has a voice in the boardroom or cabinet. But they miss the point. Survival's a song.

© The Age, 2010.