For generations, and across movements, there has been great power in song to unite people, expose injustice, and give voice to struggle. Anthems provide an accessible, evocative, and symbolic message around which people can rally, and from which a movement can draw some of its identity. As the messengers of these anthems, musicians and artists have played, and continue to play, an iconic and often defining role in the power of social movements.
With the passing of Pete Seeger on Monday, we lost one of these icons. Seeger (as a folk artist, he’d probably prefer to be referred to as Pete, but in deference to his legacy…) was a passionate advocate who lent his voice, his instrument, and his pen, to the numerous causes he believed in. Over his many decades as a musician, Seeger spoke, sang, and fought on behalf of peace in Vietnam, civil rights for African Americans, environmental restoration of the Hudson River, and the list goes on and on.
In the true spirit of folk music, Seeger was just as much a singer with the crowd as he was a singer for it. The songs he sang, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, We Shall Overcome and If I Had A Hammer, became the anthems of movements, creating a shared language that united people and elevated the struggle. They were powerful enough to transcend performer, simplify the complexity of a movement, and preserve the spirit of those times for generations to come. As definitions of community and connectedness are evolving and transforming rapidly, there is a great lesson to be learned here; lending one’s voice, position and influence to a cause is an expression not so much of power or personal opinion, but of solidarity with those whose voices have been hushed, and power, limited.
Music has the unique ability to help all of us transcend traditional boundaries of identity and “insider” vs. “outsider” status in social movements. A white protestant man from Manhattan, Seeger helped to immortalize (along with Joan Baez, and others) We Shall Overcome as one of the key songs of the African American civil rights movement in the 1960s. The ‘we’ of this anthem was, and remains, an opportunity for alliance and inclusivity: it was a ‘we’ that expressed a shared passion, commitment and determination to overcome oppression, including allies beyond the African American community. Victor Hugo once said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Even now it is hard to imagine the movement without the music.
Though it may no longer be 1964, and a period of relative civil calm and commercialization has meant fewer opportunities for traditional application of art to convey political messages and unite struggling people, we know it remains a powerful tool. Examples of its persisting relevance and power include: Live Aid in 1985, the Rock the Vote Tour and No Nukes Concert in 2012, and Farm Aid, an annual event that last took place in September of 2013. Last Sunday we watched music move our collective consciousness forward again as Macklemore rapped the lyrics to Same Love while 30 couples from various backgrounds and persuasions tied the knot in front of 28.5 million Grammy viewers, proving once again that music expresses what can’t be kept silent.
We need more of it. Inequality, discrimination, environmental degradation, and a myriad of other social, economic and political issues persist, and movements to combat these injustices are alive and well. Musicians and other artists should recognize in Pete Seeger’s legacy an opportunity to leverage their talent and career to unite people and help raise a collective voice towards social change. It has happened before, and it should happen again.Take a few moments to listen to a few songs from Change’s Soundtrack
Pete Seeger- We Shall Overcome
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – Same Love
The Beatles – Revolution
USA For Africa- We Are the World
John Lennon – Imagine
Esperanza Spalding – We Are America
Gil Scott- Heron- The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Tracey Chapman- Talking' ‘Bout a Revolution