Editor’s note: On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, The News & Observer’s Thomas Goldsmith writes about the long tradition of American protest music. The article originally appeared on the website seniorcorrespondent.com/march.
Aug. 28, 1963, the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. focused the nation’s conscience with an unforgettable speech, was also a day set to music, in songs designed to reach the hearts and minds of a segregated nation.
The sense of collective purpose contained in the day’s music and speeches already had deep roots in American history. That is, the march was a milepost along the road of American protest music, but neither its beginning nor end, as seen recently in Raleigh.
During summer 2013 marches to the North Carolina General Assembly, just as at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, protesters echoed the Depression-era coal miners’ call: “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?”
At the March On Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Lena Horne, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary made up a few of the many performers who stirred crowds of hundreds of thousands. As a long day progressed, the multitudes sang along with new songs such as Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and classic gospel such as Jackson’s true-church performance of “How I Got Over.”
Indeed, Jackson gets credit in some accounts for inspiring King to shift from his planned speech to a refrain she’d heard him use before: “I have a dream.” The speech itself combined musicality, chant and rhythmic emphasis to singe the political climate with its cry for justice.
“The Freedom Songs have caught on because music speaks a language to individual souls that cannot always be expressed by the spoken word,” Jackson wrote in an article called “Singing of Good Times and Freedom.” “There is something about music that is so penetrating that your soul gets the message.”
Since the nation’s birth
By 1963, Americans had been making political statements in song for two centuries. Even before the nation was formed, rowdy colonials turned British patriotic songs and dance tunes into parodies that protested foreign rule.
In the more modern era, mill workers in the Carolinas protested horrific working conditions with tunes such as Dave McCarn’s “Cotton Mill Colic.” Its refrain: “I’m going to starve, everybody will, ’cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.”
As the colonials set their plaints to familiar music, the quintessential American protest singer, Woody Guthrie, made free use of traditional country tunes as he churned out hundreds of songs, some playful, some bitterly sad, and some both populist and patriotic, as in “This Land Is Your Land.”
Appalachian coal miners’ fight to unionize also produced songs as a means to rally and unify workers who had to fight owners’ armed corps. It was during this time Florence Reece, a miner’s wife, composed the song that has inspired marchers from the 1930s to the present with its undying question: “Which side are you on?”
“They say in Harlan County/There are no neutrals there/You’ll either be a union man/Or a thug for J. H. Blair,” Reece sang of the 1930s conflict between workers and mine owner Blair.
Through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Guthrie’s tunes, labor songs and black gospel music formed the basis of the political side of the folk-music boom. Acts such as the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary combined sometimes watered-down traditional music with topical lyrics to create a successful commercial formula.
When Dylan elevated some of that music to artful song, it helped boost him to stardom. Dylan turned away from the label “protest singer” even though he occasionally returned to topical music with such songs as “George Jackson” and “Hurricane,” and even appeared on the mega-star “We Are the World” fundraiser in 1985, an effort to help strife-ridden Africa.
Indeed, much of politically-focused musical energy since George Harrison’s 1971 “Concert for Bangladesh” has centered on such massive, message-derived concerts as No Nukes, Band Aid, LiveAid, Farm Aid and the like.
Protest from both sides
Beginning in the 1980s, U.S. involvement in the Middle East brought forth a number of protest songs from the right side of the political spectrum. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and Charlie Daniels’ “Still in Saigon” gave conservatives something to play at rallies. The September 2001 bombings brought forth more patriotic anthems as a nation united against terrorism.
Meanwhile, performers such as Pete Seeger, who learned his craft from Woody Guthrie, Sweet Honey in the Rock and the late Hazel Dickens continued for decades to deliver left-leaning messages along with their music.
In North Carolina, when opposition mounted against the Republican-dominated legislature and governor elected in 2012, a King-inspired pastor, the Rev. William Barber, joined with others in starting a series of “Moral Monday” marches to the General Assembly. With arrests of marchers passing 900 in July, the protests gained national attention, although Republican leaders claim the marchers represented only a small segment of voters. GOP leaders say they are following the agenda that got them elected.
Seemingly undeterred, the marchers showed up week after week to enter the General Assembly, make speeches and sing, with the knowledge some would be arrested for failing to obey police orders to disperse. A group of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh musicians entered a recording studio in July to record newly written songs as fodder for the marchers.
But when challenges to power turn to song, some numbers surface time and again. Among the perennial numbers on Moral Mondays? Florence Reece’s Kentucky coal miners’ anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”