You say you want a revolution: Soundtracks for Change in American Protest Movements

Recently, Tom Morello gave an interview with Keith Obermann on the Occupy movement that has sprung up in the United States, Canada, and across the Atlantic. The musician behind the Nightwatchman and guitarist for Rage Against the Machine spoke of the importance of music and culture in political change, saying that in America, “every successful, progressive, radical or revolutionary movement this country has ever seen has had a great soundtrack.”

Morello makes a pretty good point. This musical tradition goes all the way back to the American Revolutionary War. At the time, rather than entertaining, music had a very functional role – for keeping marching troops in line, yes, but also to instill feelings of patriotism. And over 230 years later, the music has indeed become a soundtrack; just go to your local record store and and pick up a copy of The Birth of Liberty: Music of the American Revolution.

Fast-forwarding into the 20th century, Woody Guthrie provided the soundtrack to the Great Depression, riding the rails across the country and singing of the troubles befallen everyday folks. Guthrie gave a voice to the poverty, injustice, and tragedy that had affected people throughout the country. Guthrie became the archetype of the protest singer; his attitude, music and style has affected countless musicians following in his wake, the most well known being Bob Dylan.

His songs were the stories of the people.

The 1960s provide the most well known examples of music’s involvement in social movements and dissent. The civil rights movement actively used music its fight for racial equality. Songs were a way for members of the movement to foster connections and build a sense of community. Music also mobilized participants in the struggle, and became a cultural medium of political critique. Popular songs by artists such as Ray Charles were modified into “freedom songs,” where the original lyrics were changed to support the movement. Charles’ tune “I’m Moving On,” about a man leaving a bad relationship, was altered to instead portray the racist Jim Crow laws as leaving America. The freedom songs also empowered people on an individual level, helping participants overcome fear when faced with adversity. One example is of Cordell Reagon, an active member of the movement. He asserted that it was the sound of the community that kept people strong and focused on the political goals. When, for instance, Reagon was thrown in jail with other protesters, they were kept in separate cells and divided by bars. Despite this, they still sang together, and were united by sound and song.

Since the civil rights movement could not limit action to within normal political institutions and hope to successfully challenging America’s segregation policies, they had to create new strategies. Music was a vital part of these “other means.” Folk musicians participated at the 28 August 1963 March on Washington, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Musicians from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan stood beside King as part of the culmination of the folk music revival of the late 1950s that had been heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie. Dylan sang “Only a Pawn in their Game,” which dealt with the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. In the song, Dylan lays blame for the killing at the feet of the racist civil institutions in the American south, and the prosperous white men that use the corrupt system for political gain. “The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid,” while “the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool.”Just as King would express the feelings of the movement in his speech, Dylan would do in his song.          

The black power movement was another protest group that used music as a cultural weapon intent on political change. Soul music was, according to leader Elaine Brown, the “soundtrack” of the Black Panther Party, an organization that blurred any dividing line between the political and the cultural. Another Ray Charles song was co-opted, in this case “Hit the Road, Jack.” The words were modified to “Get Your Rights, Jack.” A simple change in the lyrics was able to completely alter the meaning of the original song and makes the new version markedly more political in nature, without it losing its ‘catchy’ appeal. This was an important part of the black power struggle, as it spurred on the effort for change with blacks proclaiming “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”

Then, of course, there was the counterculture.  When Timothy Leary announced for people to “tune in, turn on, drop out,” this united likeminded individuals who intended to develop ways of living alternative to conventional society. The counterculture focused on cultural forms, creating a venue known as a ‘human be-in.’ The ‘be-in’ brought together poets like Allen Ginsberg, celebrities like Leary, and musical groups like the Grateful Dead into a space where they interacted with an audience that by ‘being there’ was thought to be producing change. Simple participation in the countercultural event created the perception that they were no longer being ensnared by the clutches of society’s mundane lifestyle.

As music was vital to the counterculture, it was the same in protesting the Vietnam War:

Now, there’s nothing like a musical protest movement to showcase the importance of music in a protest movement. Such was the case with punk in the late 1970s. Punk was protest – it was a reaction. Essentially, musicians and artists that had become nihilistic about 1970s’ America and the overblown excesses of popular contemporary bands, reverted to a style of musical performance that stressed passion over talent. By this time, the participants in the 1960s’ counterculture had become the major consumers of mainstream culture. The economic opportunities in America were declining with the weakening of the auto industry and the rise of OPEC, and the founding myth of exceptionalism was taking major damage in the form of defeat in the Vietnam War and the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Fueled by nostalgia, members of the punk scene aspired to return rock and roll to its basic elements in direct contention to the popular music of the time. The term ‘punk’ categorized many different artists that were very diverse musically. Acts ranging from the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, and Blondie all shared the stage at CBGBs, the venue where punk was able to nurture. Richard Hell, a member of the band Television, believed that a vital element of rock and roll was “the knowledge you invent yourself.” It was his band that convinced CBGBs’ owner Hilly Kristal to let them perform there; Television chose the venue because it was unpopular, and in turn Kristal benefited because the band drew at least some patronage. Soon more likeminded acts began to frequent the stage at the club, and according to Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group, “each of the bands at CBGB was like a little idea.”

The strategies of the 20th century movements and the musicians involved in them are again being employed in the 21st. Music was an integral part of the recent Arab Uprisings. Egypt’s Tahrir Square was full of stages with musical performances. While protesting, Ramy Essam wrote the song “Leave.” It became the anthem of the revolution, putting music to the words chanted by the participants in the uprising.

And now in the streets of the West, protesters are again giving voice to their grievances through song while building unity. An Occupy Wall Street Anthem has been written – “Finally Here” by The Roaring, featuring Ari Herstand:

Bob Dylan said that “popular songs are the only art form that describes the temper of the times; that’s where people hang out. It’s not in books; it’s not on the stage; it’s not in the galleries.”

Now that the folks are on the streets in the Occupy Movement, music is out there with them, helping express their grievances, give form to their cause, and unite them as a community.

And now we’ll see what new songs will be written.

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2 Comments on “You say you want a revolution: Soundtracks for Change in American Protest Movements”

  1. Chuck Says:

    Love it, great observation on how the politics have influenced music, and more importantly music genres and fans.


  2. […] way back in mid-October of last year, I wrote a post on the role of music in social movements. At the time, it really seemed like musicians were going to be participating in the Occupy […]


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