Union Songs

Hold That Line – 2005 Interview with Peter Hicks

Folk singer Peter Hicks was definitely one of the highlights at this year's folk festival, sponsored by the CFMEU. Armed with a guitar, working class politics, and sharp commentary Peter Hicks certainly sticks it up the bosses, the Liberals, and anyone who tries to attack the unions. He talked with Nick Martin at the festival, gave some of his thoughts on what's going on in Australia, his background, and his music.

NM: Peter thank you for your time today, could outline a little about yourself, your music and how long you've been performing?

PH: I was a teacher come amateur musician and I linked up with Geoff Francis in the mid-1980s. We sort of clicked in our interests in music and politics. Geoff had just come out from England and had been involved in the British Miners' dispute and had been quite active in supporting the miners by housing them in London when they needed accommodation and alike. And at that stage I was getting politicised myself. I was looking at the footage coming back from England of the police marching over the ordinary workers who were just trying to defend their right to work, their right to a living wage and that was a thing that politicised me. And of course in 1985-1986 that was a time when Bjelke Peterson was in charge of Queensland, where I'm from, and he really decided at that time to put the kybosh on the unions in Queensland. At that stage I was an amateur journalist for 3ZZZ community radio and it was sort of my ambition to take a walkman recorder to the picket lines and record what was going on, but I didn't realise that it was all for real. The cops were coming in and basically grabbing workers, punching them, smashing them, telling them to get stuffed and I could see, as could everyone, that workers were just going on a march, they weren't even holding a picket line and that was the way that Queensland police reacted to workers just trying to win a decent wage. That was a real politicising experience for me. Queensland under Bjelke Peterson will always be a source of darkness that we should all remember, to demonstrate how low communities can go when we let right-wing forces prevail. And of course this was what was happening with Thatcher in Britain. People's wages were being driven down and of course in the end the economy was stuffed because people couldn't buy anything. So that was my politicisation. I still believe that the union movement is the only bulwark against those sorts of politics.

NM: So the similarities between Joh's Queensland and Thatcher's Britain must have been quite similar for you and Geoff. You must have had quite a shared experience?

PH: Yeah, obviously for me I was standing on the sidelines and ringing reports back to the station and pretty perturbed and moved by what was going on and what I was seeing. It was in fact a couple of years later that I got involved in the folk scene And we took a lot of those experiences from that period when we started writing songs together. Songs like ‘Hold That Line' and ‘One more Day than Then' – which are my two favourite picket line songs – were actually important for me in that they were picked up in the IWW song book and received support from places like the Victorian Trades Hall Council. More importantly I was also reading up on people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and discovering that there was a real tradition out there of people who did this sort of stuff and actually deciding that it was my role to get out there and do the same sort of thing. It was case of recognising that I had the talent to sing the songs and just getting stick in. I'd go out to picket lines in Western Sydney, only to find scab labour and thugs defending some small businesses which were driving unions out. Singing songs like Hold that Line was really interesting because realistically the workers at those picket lines hadn't heard that sort of music before and didn't have an immediate connection to it, in their everyday job situation. But sitting out there on the bones of their arses on a picket line, that's when songs like mine really have their real affect. And that's where the tradition of Woody Guthrie or Joe Hill really lives. I had that situation arise again just recently. I was playing May Day in New Zealand last year for the forestry workers whose jobs were being thrown on the scrap heap. Also, I went and played for a bunch of meatworkers in Tasmania, again the bosses there are trying to drive out the union and force people onto individual contracts (which read like pieces of filth) and I had such an enormous response from the workers – you just can't get a better feeling, reaching out to people. And while you're not going through their situation, you try and sing about their struggles and let them know that they're part of a tradition. Working with music, with real folk, that's great. The gigs at the National Folk Festival this year have been very much like that, but I'll be honest, sometimes you go to these gigs and the bourgie types go "woah"! So you have to pick and choose your material, but at the end of the day I don't like to compromise and I continue to write songs about the way I see things. I have a pretty good career on a picket line but not such a good one at festivals! That said the Folk Festivals are important. Folk festivals are a place where the culture of the working class has been kept alive, when the rest of the world has moved into pop culture.

NM: You're living in Tasmania now, what are some of the big grassroots issues that are informing your song writing right now?

PH: It has to be the environment. There are plans by the multinationals to go in and access the Tasmanian forests, which they see as a resource rather than wilderness. They use the rhetoric of "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs" and have tapped into redneck values down there. The problem of course remains keeping peoples jobs, retraining them, and injecting cash into alternative industries. I haven't had many dealings with the Forestry union and I acknowledge that they are doing their best to protect their workers rights but there also has to be a recognition that things have to change.

NM: A few years ago now you released an album called "The Bottom Line". It was a diverse album. Tell us a little bit about how it was received.

PH: Yeah, "The Bottom Line" was a period when we all had the first awareness that the Soviet Union was gone and that capitalism was beginning its rampant march. Basically they had gotten rid of the bulwark, whereas up that point workers could at least say ‘there is an alternative'. I still believe that there is an alternative, but I don't think that we really appreciate that what happened in the Soviet Union was a form of socialism. While there could have been a more democratic form of socialism, at least there was healthcare and basic needs were catered for. When the Soviet Union came tumbling down, capitalism was rubbing its hands with glee. That was the context in which "The Bottom Line" was written. It was also a personal album for me with songs about the East Timor Dili massacre – an issue I feel very strongly about. You've got to have a balance of songs on an album; humour and critical comment. It has to say something about what's going on out there. I don't ever want to write waffly songs.

NM: Are you feeling pretty positive about how things are going in Australia today?

PH: Yeah, I'm always looking for good stories to write about, and people's stories about triumphing over adversity, but tinged with a bit of sadness out there. We need stories that inspire.

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