Protest songs: soundtracking Trump's first days in office with the National, Bon Iver and more

The Secretly Group will release a song a day for Donald Trump’s first 100 days in the White House, to raise money for those who might suffer under him

The whereabouts of modern protest music has been questioned so frequently that it has spawned its own Tumblr, a glorious repository for all the articles wondering whether political music still exists, whether Donald Trump’s America can expect a punk renaissance, whether the real protest musicians are now more commonly found in hip-hop and grime than in the guitar-led music of yesteryear, and whether we will ever again revel in a politically charged music scene to rival the glory days of Red Wedge and Rock Against Racism.

At the risk of joining those articles, I note that in the days since the US election, we have seen a resurgence of musical protest, both direct and indirect. Fiona Apple’s mesmerising anti-Trump track Tiny Hands is a minute-long incantation of the lines “We don’t want your tiny hands / Anywhere near our underpants”, while Arcade Fire and Mavis Staples’ song I Give You Power is a spirited show of unity, with proceeds donated to the American Civil Liberties Union. And a benefit concert held after the Women’s March in Washington, DC featured performances from Sleater-Kinney, the National, Dirty Projectors and others.

Last week also saw the launch of Michelberger Music, an online musical hub which, if not overtly political, is certainly fired by a sense of rebellion, with musicians such as Bon Iver, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Fionn Regan, Lisa Hannigan and Stargaze coming together to collaborate, play and present music in a way that is commercial-free and artist-led. At a time of fracture and disarray, it is a show of musical togetherness.

Among the most ambitious projects to have arisen since the election of Trump is Secretly Group’s Our First 100 Days, unveiled last week. The Secretly Group – a collection of independent American labels including Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, Numero Group and Dead Oceans – will release one previously unreleased song a day for the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency, to “inspire progress and benefit a cause for change”. Artists involved include Angel Olsen, Whitney, Will Oldham, Jens Lekman, Strand of Oaks, Torres, Mountain Goats, Sam Amidon, Wild Nothing, Courtney Marie Andrews, Nap Eyes and many more.

In partnership with 30 Days, 30 Songs and Revolutions Per Minute, Secretly will sell the songs in a subscription format, via Bandcamp, for a minimum contribution of $30. Though the tracks themselves may not necessarily be political in content, all profits will benefit organisations that stand in opposition to the Trump presidency: All Above All, Cosecha, Hoosier Action, People’s Climate Movement, and Southerners On New Ground.

The idea began in November, a couple of days after the election, explains Jon Coombs, general manager of Secretly Publishing. “If there was one silver lining that came [out of the election], it was the way the music industry started putting their tools to work,” he remembers. “And so I looked at what we had, and I thought: we can do some good work here.”

What they had, Coombs realised, was a treasure trove of previously unreleased music, and access to artists who might be willing to contribute. “We came up with a wishlist,” says Phil Waldorf, co-founder of Secretly Group. “People are careful about what music they put out into the world, and we didn’t get yeses from everyone, but we got a lot.” “And it was amazing how quickly people responded,” Coombs adds, “no conversations needed.”

Among the many gems is a Bill Fay song that Waldorf was particularly happy to bring into the light. “It was my favourite demo and they just couldn’t finish it in the studio,” he says. Fay, already an established activist, was more than happy to finish it for the project. Next up is the release of Group Transport Hall (Alternative Version), a track by the band Women.

Coombs was particularly inspired by the work of the 30 Days, 30 Songs project, which was founded by the writer Dave Eggers and artist manager Jordan Kurland in the month before the election to release songs written and recorded “for an inclusive, compassionate and just America”. Post-election, the initial ambition of releasing 30 songs has been extended to a whopping 1,000 songs in 1,000 days, with the aim of helping people through the four years of Trump’s presidency.

Secretly’s other partner is with the nonprofit organisation Revolutions Per Minute, which provides artists with support and structure for philanthropy. “From my vantage point, I want to raise as much money as we possibly can for these organisations,” Coombs says. “And I want to be careful that we don’t turn this into a project that is self-serving.” Suggestions that the Secretly Group turns the project into a physical album or hold a benefit concert would necessitate overheads that would mean less money for the charitable causes. “Though we are considering a limited edition merchandise component with artists who perhaps couldn’t contribute a song,” Coombs says.

The beneficiaries include “smaller charities doing amazing work but who are maybe in the shadow of larger organisations”, Coombs says. Among them are Cosecha, which works to support America’s 11 million non-documented immigrants, Southerners on New Ground, which campaigns for LGBT liberation in the southern states, and All Above All, which combats restrictions on access to abortion.

“I can’t express enough gratitude for everyone who’s thrown in for this,” says Waldorf. “The thing we are trying to show here is how, with a simple gesture, people can achieve a lot for a broad cross section of people.” It also provides, he hopes, a glimmer of possibility in a dark, dark time. “It’s going to be a challenging four years,” he says. “I hope our version of the world isn’t the alternative version. Trump didn’t win more votes. And I think we are speaking for a lot of people. What is happening is you’re finding a new-found generosity that people always had capacity for, but now there is an urgency.”

•Order the 100 Songs for 100 Days compilation at


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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