Election 2016 has come and gone, and it seems no one is unaffected. As evidenced by national electoral maps, political passion still deeply divides us as a nation. Thanks to social media, red and blue now spills over to friendships and families. It’s going to make for interesting Thanksgiving dinner table conversations, for sure.
I believe our differences make us better. There is an ebb and flow -- a rhythm of change that is the hallmark of our democracy. And be sure, no matter what your political opinions -- our founding fathers set forth documents and guidelines that will see us through these changing times. America will survive.
The good news might be a new era of music inspired by the events that we see unfolding before us. The beautiful tradition of music inspired as a sign of protest dates all the way back to the 18th century. War, abolition, poverty, civil liberties, women’s rights and economic injustice -- these subjects and many more have been the cause and inspiration for music that allowed the common man to express feelings.
A longing to see friends return from fighting in the Civil War led Patrick Gilmore (under the pseudonym Louis Lambert) to write “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” in the fall of 1863. This song became very popular and was sung by soldiers and families on both sides.
“Bread and Roses,” a song taken from a poem written by James Oppenheim became an anthem for striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in early 1912. Workers equated the song with both fair wages and improved work conditions. The labor struggle was settled March 14, 1912 and is now referred to as the Bread and Roses Strike.
Powerful music erupted in the middle of racial discrimination in the 1930s. A photograph of a lynching in Indiana inspired a poem that would become the song, “Strange Fruit,” recorded by the legendary Billie Holiday. Haunting lyrics, “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,” allowed expression through music of deep feelings of anger and fear associated with the protest of racism. In 1999, Time Magazine would list “Strange Fruit” as the most important song of the century.
“This Land is Your Land” is a protest song. Woody Guthrie sat at a writing desk at the Hanover Hotel in New York City on February 23, 1940 after repeatedly hearing Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” on a New York radio station. He wrote five verses that day borrowing a familiar melody from a Carter Family song. Guthrie’s 1944 recording of the song dropped two of the original five verses including:
“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office, I saw my people --
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.”
It would be shocking to hear that verse sung pre-anthem before the Super Bowl.
You can’t really talk about protest music without bringing up the name Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan). People forget that Dylan and Joan Baez were playing at the podium shortly before Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” are pillars in the Dylan song catalog and all became part of the strong fabric of 1960’s counter culture.
Sam Cooke, Peter Paul & Mary, Otis Redding, Pete Seeger, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye -- there is a long list of artists who cared about their causes and expressed those feelings through lyrics and melody.
What music awaits us as the tradition continues?
Paul Crutcher is the broadcast specialist and XLR Radio general manager at Lander University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at@PaulCrutcher.