Disability Music, Rights and Activism

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Disability History Month 2018 focuses on the importance of music to the history of our movement. Dennis Queen embodies a form of Disability Arts activism that we could do with much more of, during these times of austerity and political cuts to the life support mechanisms of many disabled people within our communities. To spotlight UKDHM, DAO asked Dennis to write about her engagement with activism as writer and performer, explaining her influences and the songs that have inspired her.

Photo of a man who has no legs playing guitar

Ian Stanton. Image sourced from NDACA: All rights remain with the artist. WWW.THE-NDACA.ORG : Telling the Heritage story of the Disability Arts Movement”

I was drawn to writing and performing within the disabled people’s movement in the year that Ian Stanton died – 1998. Sadly, I only met him briefly that summer at our Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People barbecue. Ian was very welcoming and helped me find answers for a disability history quiz. It started a still-burning interest in the history of our movement and our people.

The first gig Disability Arts gig I attended was with my friend Crippen the cartoonist. It was Ian’s memorial cabaret – a powerful and moving evening with so many iconic performers paying their tributes:  Plastic Anorexic, The Incurables and Johnny Crescendo were among them. Everyone sang Tragic But Brave together.

I was hooked on Disability Arts after that and bought tapes of music at events including The Fugertivs, Mat Fraser and Angryfish. Listening to music in detail at home taught me so much and had a profound effect on how I see myself and the world as experienced by disabled people.

I was probably most influenced by Johnny Crescendo and Leigh Stirling, as well as by Ian… and I’m continually inspired by all the Disability Arts I’ve enjoyed over the years.

I met  the brilliantly talented Leigh Stirling at a disability history and equality training day with Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People. It was led by the wonderful Lorraine Gradwell who has always been somewhat of a mentor to me. Sadly we lost Lorraine around a year ago, may she rest in pride and power.

But it was Leigh who encouraged my writing and performing. Leigh found out that I was a songwriter and was beginning to get involved in campaigning for disability rights. He asked me about my earlier music experience on the unsigned band scene and why I did not make music any more. He taught me that music is also activism and asked me what listening to politicised disabled musicians had meant for me personally. He helped me realise how important and powerful it is on an individual level for many people, and the wider context of Disability Arts within activism – both recording our history, teaching, conveying ideas, and raising awareness of our power and pride.

A young Alan Holdsworth performs as Johnny Crescendo busking on a street corner

Johnny Crescendo. Image sourced from NDACA: All rights remain with the artist. WWW.THE-NDACA.ORG : Telling the Heritage story of the Disability Arts Movement”

Leigh was quite frank in telling me that in activism we should turn over every skill we have, that they are all useful, so we should not waste them. Leigh encouraged me to have a go and during training breaks, he listened to my first attempt on a scratchy cassette machine recording on a walkman. It was pretty terrible, but he gave me tips and encouragement and taught me how to think about writing from the perspective of ‘we’, rather than ‘I’, which so central to the strand of grassroots Disability Arts that we do.

Some time later – in about 2001, I was asked to debut my first few songs at the Independence Festival in Leeds. I expect Leigh put me forward for that. He was playing alongside sitar master, Baluji Shrivastrav and others… I certainly felt a newbie.

I was so scared I could hardly sing! But with encouragement from friends and colleagues – especially Crippen around that time and Colin Hambrook, I kept trying and I’m still trying now.

It is important to see disabled people’s stories reflected in the Arts, generally and especially those disabled people who are further marginalised by race, gender or by sexuality. Activism is part of our communities’ stories.

I think the Arts can be a great way to share radical ideas in a simple accessible format. That’s why I love performing music most of all. I write all my songs with B.S.L. in mind, conscious that I may have a BSL interpreter by my side. I also write from a standpoint of using direct and plain english.

It was a challenge to learn to write this way for me. Years ago, before the start of chronic illness, I played the mainstream live music scene, where clever and obscure was best. But when I first heard Johnny Crescendo his music seemed so raw and direct I was taken aback. I will never meet his benchmark for simplicity and getting core messages across, but his songs have been a big inspiration for me. I continually aim to reach his standard although I never seem to quite reach it.

These days Johnny is another person who supports and advises me about my work and he has become a great friend.

There are so many disability rights songs I love, but here I’m just going to mention two.

One of my first favourites of Johnny Crescendo’s is ‘Choices and Rights’, because it reminds me of our protest chants and talks about the many things disabled people need control of in terms of independent living.

“We dont need no special schools,
We’ve gotta get out and teach them fools
We want choices and rights in our lives”

A second favourite song of mine is ‘No Hope ATC’ by The Fugertivs, which talks about the day centres and in particular the lyric:

“I’ve been training 27 years and now its fuckin’ raining.
By now I must be ready for the community
But I reckon the community is not prepared for me”

I’d love to put together an album of songs, which between the artists cover our story and tell everyone what our movement is about. It would roughly take the form of the following themes and I’ve added some ideas for songs that fit the bill.

Welcome to the Disabled Peoples’ Movement History Compilation CD

What it is we face…
‘Choices and Rights’ by Johnny Crescendo.
‘No Hope ATC’ by the fugertivs

Protests
‘Let’s Riot’ by the Fugertivs.
‘Talkin Disabled Anarchist’ by Ian Stanton.
‘Fixed Penalty Notice’ by Johnny Crescendo.

Eugenics
‘Bones of a Dog’ by Mat Fraser.
‘Not Dead Yet’ by Johnny Crescendo.

Demonisation
‘Bogeyman’ by Leigh Stirling.
‘Take Me To Your Party’ by Plastic Anorexic.

Love
‘The Ballad of Roy and Julie’ by Johnny Crescendo.
‘Wheelchair Waltz’ by Johnny Crescendo

Hope and morale
‘Rollin Thunder’ by Ian Stanton.
‘Good Day’ by Mat Fraser.
‘Manifesto/get your groove’ by Lizzie Emeh and Mat Fraser.

Pity
‘Bar Room Bollocks’ by The Fugertivs.
‘Tragic But Brave’ by Ian Stanton (and Mike Higgins i think)

Abuse
‘The Bus Driver’ by The Fugertivs.

Self esteem
‘Taking Liberties’ by Ian Stanton
‘Wannabe’ by Johnny Crescendo
‘I Love My Body’ by Johnny Crescendo.

Karen Sheader has shared their album Joyful Noise free online here Listen to 01 The No Hope ATC by Karen Sheader Band #np on #SoundCloud

The incomparable Katherine Araniello performs as Plastic Anorexic