World Book History #7: Music In A Crisis

It has been said a thousand times: music is the great healer.

From the earliest days of ritualistic dancing to cathedral choirs, music has always been the most direct form of creative expression. And many people will be feeling that as keenly as ever right now.

In desperate times, it’s always music that brings people together. Its value has been explored in literature for decades, but never is its impact more powerful for any community than when in a crisis.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that the Coronavirus is inspiring writers to ponder its resonance. Back in March, online music publication Pitchfork published this article detailing which albums its writers were listening to in order to ‘ease the lockdown’.

This article features three books which examine the impact of music in a crisis. From Northern Ireland to South Africa via Serbia, they exemplify just how universal the curative power of music is. They explore not just how music unifies people, but also the way it tracks cultural upheaval.  

‘Trouble Songs’, and music in Northern Ireland

Written by the legendary music journalist and activist Stuart Bailie, Trouble Songs is the definitive examination of music in Northern Ireland. Spanning the entire four-decade conflict of The Troubles, Bailie’s book traverses from the early days of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Radio Free Derry in 1969, right through to the Good Friday Agreement and beyond. Along the way he touches on seminal figures like Terri Hooley, John Lennon’s contrarian support for the IRA and the revelatory power of punk music.

Central to Bailie’s narrative is the way in which music acted as a revolutionary motion for the normal people of Northern Ireland. For many, it was a literal escape from an otherwise disastrous probability. As Jim Reilly of the punk group Stiff Little Fingers says: ‘All my friends I grew up with – they all ended up in the IRA doing long years in prison. And simply because I was playing music that kept me away from that’ (Bailie, 2019).

Stiff Little Fingers onstage in Berlin. Image Credit: Montecruz Foto Flickr

And in Northern Ireland, music counted for the truest representation of the community – a counter to the bias that was appearing elsewhere. Late on, Paul Hartnoll, one half of the English duo Orbital talks about their super-hit ‘Belfast’;

‘We just thought ‘wouldn’t it be good to actually make something that’s beautiful and lovely and soft about Belfast and put it out in England where everybody has a completely different view of the place?’’ (Bailie, 2019).

Bailie proves that during the Troubles, music was both a reaction to the violence and how people come together to rise above it.

How can Electronic Music Save Communities?

Rave culture also has a well-documented history of inclusiveness, from its early beginnings as minority expressionism in the US to the fall-out from the Berlin Wall in 1989. Matthew Collin’s Rave On is meant as an exploration of clubbing across the world, but many of the communities he visits turned to electronic music culture as – just like in Northern Ireland – a reaction to their dire surroundings.

The most obvious example is techno’s birthplace, Detroit. Throughout the book, he hands the narrative over to those who were there at the time, including choice quotes from the likes of scene originator Juan Atkins; ‘There’s nothing to do here. There’s nowhere to go; the scene is dead. That’s why our stuff sounds like it does’ (Atkins, 1988).

The story is similar in Israel, where the psytrance scene has consistently seen Israelis and Arabs push beyond the never-ending conflict and conservatism there. Like in Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs, Collin emphasises how it’s most notably the everyday, normal people that come together to push back against distasteful politics and partisan atrocities.

And in his chapter about the impact of house music in South Africa, he examines why it means so much in a country still marred by racial division. But again, in places like Cape Town and the suburbs of Durban, music is what unites black and white people above everything else. When talking about black and white kids partying together for the first time, he makes a profound assertion; ‘rave culture, with its implicit message of tolerance, suggested… that another way might at least be possible’.

What toll does a crisis take on music?

The Troubles saw a high physical cost to musicians. The horrific case of the Miami Showband Massacre is the most infamous example.

But Asne Seierstad, in her wonderfully human With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia, navigates the mental cost in the final chapter with Yugoslav pop/rock titan Rambo Amadeus.

From the beginning Amadeus’ music reflected civilians’ distrust and their suppression by a malignant regime. He has always cultivated himself as a protest against the uber-nationalistic musical fare that dominated the Serbian charts – and pretty much acted as a propaganda machine – in the late ‘80s.

Rambo Amadeus. Image credit: zeljkoo Flickr

On the one hand, Seierstad spends a lot of time dealing with Amadeus’ cultural importance. When she observes his gigs at the time of writing (1999/2000), he remains as popular and performative as ever, providing welcome relief to students suffering the perennial economic hardships since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

But as he reveals at one point; ‘I’ve asked my parents not to tell me anything related to politics – I’m just sick of hearing everyone complain while nothing happens’. Amadeus expresses what we know many musicians come to feel; that kicking back against oppressive governments – and dealing with everyday political life – is exhausting, and ultimately devoid of romance.


During the coronavirus, many people will have sought solace from music. But a literary approach to why and how it has that power is a useful tool.

Music provides an escape from political wrangling and Machiavellian point-scoring. While much of the press will be focusing on how politicians across the world deal with crises, explorations of music are far more human and relatable.

Music accompanies change, growth and development on a global scale. The three books here, alongside others, are prime examples of why that’s so important.  

Purchase Stuart Bailie’s excellent Trouble Songs from Waterstones here.

Pick up Matthew Collin’s Rave On for an insight into how dance music has also changed Shanghai, New York and more.

And head here to purchase Asne Seierstad’s now classic With Their Backs to the World: Portraits From Serbia.

World Book History #3: With Their Backs to the World

Serbia, Belgrade. Credit: Alex Blokstra

People who were born in the 1990s probably won’t remember the Balkans war. However, as the images of the horrendous conflict flooded evening news bulletins here in the UK at the time, they were difficult to ignore. Asne Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist whose 2005 book With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia is as authentic a depiction of the region post-war as there ever has been.

The book documents her time spent travelling around Serbia and the neighbouring states between 1999 and 2004. It follows and presents the lives of ordinary Serbs leading up to and following the fall of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and the chaos that continued to engulf the region afterwards.

The divisions in the Balkans run so deep and so historically that it’s impossible to get a complete guide to the situation from just one source. Seierstad doesn’t attempt this in With Their Backs to the World. Instead she engages the most honest journalistic trait possible – to present these people without judgement and delve into the true psyche of a nation in crisis.

Throughout the ‘90s and into the 00s, there was a real sense of ‘otherness’ towards the Balkan situation in Western and Northern Europe. As Seierstad writes in the forward of her book: ‘I read everything I could get my hands on… But I found little that really told me who they were, these people who – virtually overnight – found themselves cast as warmongers and butchers.’

Indeed, the situation in Serbia was bleak. But what Seierstad’s sensitive, humane approach does is show how a lot of these people are victims of their own circumstances. Take Michel, a man who poses as a lingerie salesman on a high street but actually participates in illegal (at the time) currency trading and selling gold, jewellery and cars on the black market. Or Bojana Letvic, the stoic journalist who sacrifices almost all pleasure in life in her attempts to topple Milosevic’s state-owned TV channel.

There are remarkable parallels between the mentality of Serbia in the early noughties and the increasingly fiery discussions about the European Union today. Firebrand rhetoric and dishonesty revolve around the same political viewpoints; the nationalism of the Brexit Party and the anger of the generally youthful left. In Britain, it feels like certain newspapers either side of the divide are as embroiled in their own vision as Milosevic’s TV channel.

Soldiers in Croatia during the Balkans war, 1991. Credit: Peter Denton

The book demonstrates the troublesome reality of tarring an entire nation with one brush. Most wings of the UK press stop short of this directly, but the implied hegemony of certain cultures is a growing issue in Britain and on the European mainland. The idea that people adhere to the same ways of life, opinions and march mechanically inline with one another is becoming ever more dangerous in political discourse.

Books like With Their Back to the World represent the way in which subjects like this should be presented. Journalism has never been completely unbiased, but books like Seierstad’s prove that it when it is, it can be just as powerful and important.

Get inside post-war Serbia yourself by picking up a copy here today.