Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Music!

I realize that most regular readers are aware that this is not my first protest rodeo.  Primarily (but not exclusively) thanks to a politically active family, the Labor Movement, Divestment, Jackson '88, and the two Gulf Wars, I have had ample opportunity to participate in direct action as manifested on the American left from the mid-1970's until today.  The reason that I bring this up is that during that same time I have also experienced the decline of the great institution known as the protest song.

I miss it.  When I was a young person being dragged to rallies and marches in support of striking members of the United Paperworkers International, I remember singing.  I remember, in particular, that when the old people sang, they knew the words.  When the young people (Boomers) sang they needed the words written down or shouted out in advance.  The people just slightly older than me didn't sing at all.  When I was older, similar (mostly UPIU or Democratic Party) events showed evidence of the same trend.  As the years passed, there was less singing and more chanting, more yelling.  This is not to say that chanting and yelling aren't legitimate means of expression, of course.  However, I do wonder where the songs went. 

I think they went the way of technology.  I have mentioned this before in reference to the hallowed tradition of hymn-singing, the last place random everyday folks are expected to produce music.  With the recording industry in its various permutations came music as private entertainment.  We might sing now, but it isn't in public.  It is in the car.  "Singing in public" now means a whole family singing together in the car and making a whimsical Facebook Update out of the experience.  ("Sang Lion Man today with little Timmy.  He's gonna be a rock star!")

Churches now hang on with really loud organs and persistent pastors with ukes.  In the world of protest, though, we are silent.  Yes, I know I can google Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and so on.  But they are pros.  We on the other hand, do not sing, if only because we are out of practice and do not know the words.  We also aren't all that interested.

This woman brought her ukulele to the march this Saturday.  It looks to me like a concert-sized Lanikai.  First she seemed to be trying to get folks singing.  Then she used it as a rhythmic accompaniment to the chanting.  Neither worked out so well.  Mostly because we were stuck in a knot of Boomers who weren't going to let their nostalgia tour be derailed by some protest full of  noisy youngsters.  When we moved closer to the action, we lost track of her.  At the encampment there were also a few other musicians around.  Each, though, was giving a brief concert to themselves or a few friends.  No one was trying to reach out.

I should say, though, that I do have some hope.  Ukulele-woman was, after all, giving it a shot.  There was also a banjo guy apparently learning Blowin' In the Wind (that should make the Boomers happy).  Most of my hope comes from my experience with the DIYers in the uke community.  Here technology becomes an asset.  It is easy to find protest songs on the web.  It is easy to find Chord progressions, too.  It is easy to bridge the cultural divides and to start a "collection" of songs all people can sing.  Gen Xers and Millenials are learning ways for the Internet to bring us together rather than comfort us in our isolation.  Music--it is clear--is a part of this.  So I urge you to occupy music yourself.  Learn a protest song and teach it to someone else.

Here are some suggestions.  These are just starters, by the way, and you should do the legwork yourself.  It is good practice.  If you do not know the tune, YouTube is there to help you.  Once you know that, you can google the name of the song and the word "chords".  Yeah...I figured that out.  Then, feel free to make suggestions here.  I am occupying music, too.

This Land is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)
There is Power in a Union (Joe Hill but everyone thinks Bragg wrote it)
Blowing in the Wind (Dylan)
Union Maid (also W. Guthrie)

Good luck people!  Keep the faith...


  1. I have a post here from my Aunt Anne from way out west!

    Hi Adam:
    I am a Raging Grannie in Seattle. We sing at protest meetings (words we make up to familiar tunes) and often get singing going by singing a simple song others can learn quickly or leading "Saints Come Marching In" with verses like "when health care is/a right for all" and "when peace breaks out/in Afghanistan" etc.
    Aunt Anne

  2. By far the best and most apropos:
    "We are dancing on the ruins (of multinational corporations)" by Casey Neil

    also, harder to find, local PNW artist
    "99.9 the same" by Rob Tobias

  3. I just YouTube Dancing...very cool...Thanks!