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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
sing4peace Folk Song Past & Present as Social Activism (29) RE: Folk Song Past & Present as Social Activism 10 Nov 09

Dear Crow Sister -

I am glad that you were touched by the example of the power of song to reach through barriers to unite people. I'm glad it prompted you to want to ask a broader question about the power of music in the overall struggle of humans seeking a better way to live together.

Music has always been a part of my life as I am at least a fourth generation musician. My father (Jody Gibson) showed me how powerful and controversial music could be. In the late 1950's Jody put together a racially integrated band known as the Muleskinners. They were a genre bending bunch of U.S. Air Force guys who played rock-a-billy, skiffle and other stuff that simply defied categorization. When he was stationed in England, the fact that the band members were black and white together caused a bit of a stir. All through my Dad's career, he would end his sets with Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land". It made an impression on me.

I took my cue from Dad. Pick good tunes. Pick your battles. Sometimes they merge.

I learned the power of one song one day as I sat in my Dad's car waiting for him to come out of some store. It was when he was in the military and I was thinking alot about conformity and non-comformity. I heard Malvina Reynolds singing "Little Boxes". I never forgot how I felt hearing that song as it reached into my nine year old heart and let me know I wasn't alone. (There's plenty of discussion about the merits/demerits of that song on other threads - no need to waste more space here.)

As I built my own repertoire as a musician, I never felt a need to break things down into "protest songs" and "regular songs". In the political vs personal discussion among singers and writers, Dick Gaughin says it beautifully in "A Different Type of Love Song", they are all love songs...their love is a different kind.

I am an activist who sings. I am a singer who puts herself on the line. I have seen how a song can transform a group of people from disconnected individuals into a united chorus with vigorous energy to face the challenge before them.

I have been to concerts where the performer might add one or two songs into their set that are of a topical sort. I've seen how those whispers can really move an audience to feel or think something they hadn't expected. That is just as powerful as leading a picket line with "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around". It's all in the intent of the singer and the openness of the receiver.

I have had the honor of meeting and singing with some of the singers who were deep in the thick of the struggle for voting rights during the time of racial apartheid here in the U.S. where so-called Jim Crow laws were used to oppress people of color. The Freedom Singers weren't just there for entertainment - they were organizers and they knew the value of a singing movement. To them, the song "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" was the most important song of the movement because it exhorted people to be strong when they had been beaten and were being hauled off to prison.

When one sees documentaries from that era - you almost always hear someone singing in the background - We Shall Overcome - We Shall Not Be Moved - Wade in the Water -   those were not parlor songs - they were calls to courage, they were anthems of hope, they were medicine and balm to the wounded.

The first time my mother saw me on television, I was singing for a group of United Farm Workers who were boycotting grapes and lettuce. I was a teenager and I was singing "This Land is Your Land". My mother was very upset and reminded me that singers careers can be broken if they mix music and message. I told her that I never wanted to be the kind of musician or human who would be afraid to take a stand and I wouldn't want a career that required me to be silent.

Over the forty plus years that I have been a professional singer, I have plenty of opportunity to sing love songs, funny songs, blues and country tunes, novelty songs and a few I wrote myself. The songs that I most cherish are the songs I have sung with people as we sang truth to power.

I just want to share one story here: In January of 1983, I was part of a group of religious and lay women who staged an occupation of the U.S. Federal Building in downtown Providence, Rhode Island (USA). We called ourselves "Women of Faith". The press kept referring to us as "seven nuns and two women". We were protesting United States aid to El Salvador at a time when we were financing and training death squads that were killing priests and nuns and students and peasants.

At the appointed moment, we moved into a circle together, held hands and stood together refusing to leave the building. Most of the women had never been arrested before and they were absolutely terrified. Both of my hands were being squeezed in fear as the police approached us demanding that we leave. I started to sing "They Say That Freedom Is A Constant Struggle" and my sisters sang with me. The energy in the room changed in an instant and those women were not afraid anymore. We were breathing together - the true meaning of the word conspiracy. I learned an important lesson about the power of music and my role as an activist that day.

Perhaps we need to ask how we have allowed our lives to be so compartmentalized that we have to label ourselves and others as "activists" whenever they question the status quo. Too many pigeonholes. In my humble opinion - they are for the birds.

Thanks again Crow Sister for starting this thread. I hope there are lots of others here who have stories about how they sang a song that made a difference - or how a song made a difference in their lives and made them want to make a difference in the lives of others.

Your sister in hope and song,
Joyce Katzberg
(of whom it has been said that the best place to hear sing is from from the back of a police wagon. ;-) )

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