PeaceQuest in Conversation with Martyn Joseph…

Using music in our work for peace and social justice

A snapshot of Sunday morning, April 17, 2016  11 – 12 noon at the Kingston Delta Waterfront Hotel. 



People present:  Martyn, Craig Jones, Willa Thayer, Wendy Luella Perkins, Jamie Swift, Al Rankin, Jeff Piker (note-taker)

We started with a brief description of Martyn’s powerful, moving and nearly sold-out Live Wire concert the previous evening at Octave Threatre.  Then brief introductions of themselves for Martyn, by everyone present.  A link to Martyn’s official website is here.



Brits often somehow seem to lead trends in music, but we don’t like to show emotion.  Was 10 years old when started to get into music.  Mentions being impressed very early in his life by a Welsh singer, Max Boyce, who sang about his life as a miner.  Was also           listening at the time to John Denver, David Bowie, Glenn Campbell, Bob Dylan, etc.  These were musicians who were trying to make sense of their world through music.

Really, it’s all about telling stories:  how do we get across what we’re trying to do, who we are,     where we come from?  That’s the job of any art-form — music, poetry, painting, etc.  It reminds me, I’m not the only one — someone else has gone through this.  It reminds me of something bigger than myself.

Someone once said of his music, ‘As a melody-maker, he makes Leonard Cohen sound like Julie Andrews.’   (laughs)

Four years ago, was at a refugee camp in the West Bank — the situation pissed him off —  15,000 people in a 1.5 km square area.  He came across a children’s theatre — among other things, it gives kids musical instruments — the idea is, when someone can have peace within,   they can make peace with others.  He thought:  If all I do is get angry or sad, I give her (a little       friend he made at the camp) nothing.

Described his Let Yourself Trust project (  In the last two years, he and the project have raised $170,000 (I’m not sure my note is correct about the amount) for some small, local, ground-level initiatives around the world — the West Bank, Uganda, Guatemala,             Wales and most recently Grassy Narrows Reserve (Ontario).

He talks about these things from the stage when he performs.  He tries to make singing together ‘like a dinner party’ — we’re in it together.



Much of your music is about the development of political consciousness.  Does writing it and performing it change your consciousness?



The best songs come from something you want to say — a selfish thing, perhaps, doing it for myself.  But it can trigger recognition in others.  The job of the artist is to trigger those things:  seeing something and expressing how it affected him (Martyn).



The things you write about can be troublesome (for some people to hear).  Is this dangerous?



Has even had death threats.  For example, the Palestine issue is incredibly divisive — even raising it can generate hate.



Why focus so strongly on social justice issues?  Is it difficult to resist focusing on consumerism (or on topics which ‘sell’)?



People say some lovely things bout his music.  No matter…”it’s what I have to do.”  People grow up more quickly these days — young people start focusing early on materialist things.  There’s an apathy among young people.



Are things changing in Britain?



Yes, the Scottish election, for example — young people got involved in it and became active — wanting to make a real choice.  Corbyn (Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party) is changing the focus.  Sanders too (Bernie Sanders, running in the Democratic Presidential race in the U.S.).  Billy Bragg is a good example of a musician active in those issues.

Folk Alliance.  (Folk Alliance International:  “To nurture, engage and empower the international    folk music community — traditional and contemporary, amateur and professional — through education, advocacy and performance.” )  It’s a place where people can showcase what they do.

Folk music is about people and their stories and their lives — that’s missing today, from much folk music.  Lots of folk music these days is simply ‘confessional’.  Someone said, ‘That betrays the legacy of Woody Guthrie.’



What music is stirring him today?



Classical music — it helps restore him.  Also Springsteen.  The narrative music.  He writes well for males, gets into the heart and soul of guys, tells them, ‘You’re not alone.’  Many            women musicians do this — Ani DiFranco is a good example — but few men do it.



Wonders whether people singing together is still happening.  Remembers an earlier time when peace (and other social justice) movements always included people singing together.  Pete     Seeger, of course.  (Compliments Martyn for his excellent leading of audience singing last       night.)  These days, it seems to be all singer-songwriters singing their own songs — singing someone else’s song is called ‘covering’, rather than just singing or singing together — there seems to be less chance for people to sing together — in support of a common objective like peace or equality or justice.



He didn’t start out in music being in contact with the rich history of folk music.  Leading singing is not natural for him.  Saw U2 in NY a few months ago — everyone knows their songs before they get to the concert — they all sing along.

Wants to bring more joy into concerts — even when songs are about heavy issues — singing together can do that, can bring a feeling of joy.

He has a deeper personal connection to Springsteen than to the music of Rolling Stones, for example — it’s (Stones music) just an entertaining diversion, not a genuine connection.



Pete Seeger said about songs, they can do three things:  help people escape their troubles, help people understand their troubles, help people transform situations of trouble.



It’s the ‘so what?’ issue —  the power of the moment, to make things different.  I just listen to music because I enjoy it.  It’s not for the singer to know the effect of his performance.

The context of where the song is sung is very important — because the song relates to and connects with the meaning of experience.


Minutes from the conversation compiled and summarized by Music Coordinator Jeff Piker.