TROY – Throughout American history there have been many moments of powerful social protest that led to change. And, in most of them there was a song that unified the emotions and illuminated the goals of those protesters.
“This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” by Woody Guthrie is perhaps the perfect example.
In the midst of the current social unrest focusing on “Black Lives Matter,” there seems an almost eerie absence of singing at protests, rallies and marches. There is no single song that stirs the crowd and expresses the emotional tone of the protest. Chants and slogans are there, but a unifying song is not.
Sarah Craig, the executive director of Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, tells a revealing story about her participation at the recent Troy protest that drew 11,000 people. She tells of listening to a creative speaker who was doing an excellent job rousing the people. He was using the call and response method of involving the crowd. She explained how he would shout out familiar slogans and the crowd would shout it back, providing energy tinged with a touch of anger.
She then tells how he tried to lead the group in a chorus of “We Shall Overcome” and says, “A few of us sang with fervor, but the majority stayed quiet. It was like only a dozen of us knew the words.” She laughs, as she says even the speaker commented saying, “Looks like we only have a few older folks with us today.”
Her experience supports a comment made by Mike Eck, a local folk musician, writer, critic and music historian. He says, “Any song that comes out of this movement should be created by a young songwriter.” He hastens to clarify, saying, “Older people are welcome and needed in any movement, but it is the young who must lead both in spirit and song.”
Margie Rosenkranz, the Executive Director of the Eighth Step Coffee House, that is housed at Proctors in Schenectady, agrees. She is of the opinion that there are songwriters who today are capable of writing a unifying song, but she believes that music will not come from the established song-writing community.
“That person has to have a complete and total emotional connection to the issues and yet have the artistic capability to step outside personal involvement and write a song that is completely understandable by all.” She adds, “That person will be probably be someone from the streets.”
No one suggests that songs protesting social injustice aren’t being written. Nor do they imply the genre is specific to the folk community. They point to “American Idiot,” by the rock powerhouse Green Day and “Fight the Power” by the rap group Public Enemy as songs that speak clearly to abuses of power over the powerless. But neither have become national anthems.
Eck says writing a song revealing the truth or offering insight about a social issue is not enough. “Too many songs are just angry. They don’t unite,” he says.
For a song to be unifying, he feels the melody should be familiar. To make his point, he explains that many of the great protest songs are essentially historic folk tunes or gospel songs to which contemporary lyrics have been added. His prime examples are Guthrie’s, “This Land Is My Land,” and Pete Seeger’s rewriting the lyrics to the spiritual “We Shall Overcome.”
Rosenkranz supports that theory using the term “collective memory.” She says we need new voices that can somehow connect us to the past. “She says there are things that connect the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to the protests of today. She also argues that the protests against the Viet Nam War were connected to the Civil Rights Movement. “The present is different. It always is, but the things that unite us remain the same. When a universally accepted song is created it will connect the past to the present”
Craig too believes in the younger generation providing the voices that define the present to lead us into the future. Their Caffe Lena School for Music has been so successful, especially with youngsters, they are now adding songwriting courses for adults and younger. The initial emphasis is Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. “There is a thirst to communicate through music,” she says.
Eck is a great enthusiast for music being a tool to understand history. He wonders if the complexity and distractingly large numbers of issues we deal with on a daily basis could be part of the reason there is no single song with which to identify. Rosenkranz refers to it as “collective isolation.” Craig sees it the challenge as “so many diverse voices trying to be heard at the same time.”
If there is an answer as to why there is no unifying song or when will be written, perhaps the answer is it will happen when we start to really listen to each other and find the common ground within all our problems.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.