The Avid Listener: Music and Politics

19 posts categorized "Music and Politics"

September 14, 2015

“Solidarity, Forever”: Zilphia Horton’s Labor Songs, Communism, and the CIO

Felicia M. Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX)

When labor agitators met for marches and rallies in the early twentieth century, they sang from songbooks. Their songbooks were inexpensively printed, pocket-sized, and usually included only the lyrics because the tunes were well-known. (A song set to a familiar tune is known as a contrafact.) They sang about labor demands, encouragement and solidarity for their fellow workers, and government and industry corruption. Some songs, such as "Joe Hill" (which boasted original words and music), canonized labor saints who had been martyred for the cause. Every scandal, victory, or loss seemed to inspire a song. In 1911, for example, Joe Hill himself wrote the lyrics to “Casey Jones—the Union Scab,” to be sung to the tune of “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” just before a huge railroad worker strike. It was published for the first time the next year in The Little Red Songbook, compiled by the International Workers of the World (IWW).

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June 1, 2015

Joe Hill Returns: Labor Movements and Protest Music

Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX)


Joan Baez performs “Joe Hill” at the Occupy Wall Street Veteran’s Day rally, November 11, 2011.


In 2011, singer Joan Baez performed the song “Joe Hill” for a Veteran’s Day rally sponsored by Occupy Wall Street, a movement that began in New York City that same year in response to widespread financial corruption at banks and corporations. Baez has long been known for her work as an activist; although she might be new to younger generations, her voice is still respected at protests. The assembled crowd was clearly familiar with her song choice, but for those who may not have known all the words, she spoke each line of the final verses before inviting them to join in. Protest music as a communal activity depends entirely on the audience’s familiarity with the song and its willingness to sing along.

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May 4, 2015

“I Can’t Breathe”: Protest Music Now

Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX)

The following essay discusses violence and brutality. Music videos contain news footage of violent acts, accompanied by strong, explicit language.

In 2012, the New York Times offered a retrospective about Woody Guthrie’s life to honor his centenary, noting his legendary ability to sing truth to power, to embody protest in song, and contrasting his legacy with today’s artists whom the op-ed author characterized as tepid, quiet, and Republican. In the same year, Emily Kopp pondered the lack of political bite in contemporary punk and the general dearth of political song, despite the plentiful nature of contemporary injustices. “Maybe artists don't feel equipped to write songs about the recession and the Arab Spring just yet,” Greg Kot argued in the Denver Post, “but you would think that the Occupy Wall Street movement might've sparked a few protest songs by now.”

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March 23, 2015

Selma’s Music: The Politics of Commemorating Bloody Sunday

Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX)

In 1965, documentary filmmaker Stefan Sharff captured the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sharff’s style is sonically sparse: in the entire 17-minute film, we hear only the chopping of helicopter blades; the voice of Dr. King, taken from a recording of his speech in Montgomery; and the communal singing of Civil Rights songs. The music is nondiegetic, meaning that the people in the film do not hear what we hear. And although the documentary captures the sight of marchers singing, we do not hear what they actually sing. Instead, we hear four songs common to Civil Rights marches, protests, and meetings—“This Little Light of Mine,” “I’m So Glad,” “We Are Soldiers,” and “We Shall Overcome”—as performed by the Montgomery Gospel Trio, Nashville Quartet, and Guy Carawan, preserved for history on We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-ins, a recording by Smithsonian Folkways.

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December 15, 2014

Handel’s Messiah: A Seeming Miracle Itself

HandelThe following excerpt focuses on two of Handel’s most famous oratorios, Israel in Egypt and Messiah, considering the political and religious context of their composition and the impact of their music. Oratorios are dramatic compositions, usually set to religious, and often Biblical, texts, as is the case here, and performed without any staging as concert pieces. At the time these oratorios were composed, Protestant England was in conflict politically with Catholic Spain and France. English Protestants, however, were concerned less about the religious threat of Catholicism than with the rise of Deism, a rationalist philosophy that denied the existence of miracles or prophecy. While including reference to these political and religious issues, the two oratorios also contain some of the most astonishing music ever written.

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Norton Music

A History of Western Music

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca

The Enjoyment of Music

Kristine Forney, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Joseph Machlis