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Singing It Right Out Loud: How Protest Songs Have Propelled Progressive Politics

November 10, 2014
by Andrew Gilbert
Mavis Staples

Name a progressive cause from the 20th century, and odds are it reverberated to the soundtrack of protest music.

Singing together “helps unify people and bring people together with a common message,” says Terry Garthwaite, who sang at protests on the UC Berkeley campus during the Free Speech Movement and went on to found the pioneering Berkeley rock band Joy of Cooking in 1967. “I think the Free Speech Movement benefited greatly from the musical legacy of the civil rights movement, which of course was still going strong.”

Of course, artists and activists were deploying the power of music decades before the struggle for African-American civil rights turned into a mass movement. In the 1920s and ‘30s the labor movement produced a vast body of songs to recruit new members and build solidarity during strikes and actions. Even relatively brief movements could leave a memorable legacy, such as the songs of the lost Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, which decades later inspired bassist Charlie Haden’s classic 1969 album Liberation Music Orchestra.

But no cause sparked an outpouring of songs as potent, influential and enduring as the fight for civil rights. As Waldo Martin, Cal history professor and author of A Change is Gonna Come: Black Freedom Struggle and the Transformation of America 1945-1975 noted, “It was a singing movement.”

To help mark the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, a panel of artists, academics and activists recently convened to explore the stirring role of music in the movements of their generation. The panel included R&B icon Mavis Staples, who owns a Lifetime Grammy Award and gave a commanding performance later that night at Zellerbach Hall; Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, an indispensable champion of American and Mexican roots music for more than half a century; and jazz and blues vocalist Kim Nalley, who is earning her doctorate in history from UC Berkeley.

“I think a lot of people don’t necessarily understand the connection between the black church and protest music of the 1960s,” Nalley said “A lot of people want to talk about rock ‘n’ roll and folk music. They think white rock singers came up in thin air, and don’t know where the songs came from. This music comes from spirituals and work songs, which move into the church and evolves into gospel and soul music, which gave voice to the movement. The continuity is so deep.”

Though the civil rights movement flowed out of the black church, gospel singers mostly stuck with spiritual concerns through the early 1960s when Roebuck “Pops” Staples forged a close friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Already the Chicago-based Staple Singers—featuring Pops and his offspring Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne and Mavis, the youngest—were one of the country’s most celebrated gospel ensembles. The family quickly crossed over onto the pop charts with political songs such as “Long Walk To D.C.” and “When Will We Be Paid?” After the group signed to Stax in 1968, it reached an even wider audience, scoring numerous Top 40 hits, including the 1972 chart-topper “I’ll Take You There.”

The Staples’ music was always focused on transcendence, though their gospel peers didn’t see it that way at first.

“The fact was when people in the church saw we hit the charts that was when we really felt challenged,” said Staples. “When ‘I‘ll Take You There’ hit the charts, they thought we had left behind our message, but we were singing about taking you to heaven! I think since Dr. King used his church and his pulpit to lead the movement, Pops had the idea that if Dr. King could preach it, we could sing it. And we did still record traditional gospel songs like ‘What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?’ alongside covering Dylan and Buffalo Springfield.”

Staples was part of a wave of artists who expressed and accelerated the era’s changing consciousness. In jazz, Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” caustically rebuked Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus for blocking the integration of Little Rock Central High School, while Max Roach’s album Freedom Now! Suite emphatically called for an end to Jim Crow. Nina Simone recorded a series of musical commentaries culminating with her furious denunciation “Mississippi Goddam.” The movement even generated its own stars as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent out the Freedom Singers in 1962 to raise money for the organization’s efforts to register black voters in the South. (One of the founders, Bernice Johnson Reagan, went on to launch Sweet Honey In the Rock, an ensemble that continues to carry the tradition forward).

In some ways, however, the protest song was a victim of its own success.

With the rise of opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, protest music moved to the very center of popular culture. From old lefties such as Pete Seeger to young folkies such as Joan Baez to R&B stars such as Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, from John Lennon to bands such as Bay Area-based Credence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane, the anti-war message resounded over the airwaves. A song didn’t even need to reach the charts to become a popular anthem. When Country Joe McDonald was coaxed on stage at Woodstock to fill time until billed acts arrived, he performed “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and the audience sang along. Strachwitz had recorded Country Joe and the Fish’s original version of the song several years before for his Arhoolie Records, and ended up splitting the publishing rights. When the song was included in the film Woodstock and hit soundtrack album, he received a royalty check for more than $50,000, which he promptly used as a down payment on an El Cerrito building that still houses Arhoolie and his record store Down Home Music.

The commercial success of songs with at least a nominally anti-war message—and the simplicity of the message itself—cast a long shadow over music generated by subsequent movements. The splintering of progressive movements in the 1970s, with the rise of identity-powered activism for women’s and gay and lesbian rights, undercut the encompassing demographics of earlier times.

At the same time the increasingly corporate music industry left far less room for independent labels and artists in the late 1970s and 80s.

Among the unanswered questions raised during the panel was why recent movements, from the anti-globalization struggle that flared in Seattle in 1999 to the Occupy Wall Street protest and other Occupy-styled demonstrations, haven’t spawned memorable anthems.

What are the prospects for future protest material? In the last decade, technology has radically transformed both the recording and the distribution of music—opening new doors for artists to get their message out. Take Nalley, for example, who has long included as part of her repertoire “Strange Fruit,” the wrenching cri de coeur against lynching indelibly associated with Billie Holiday. When she felt current events required a new musical response, she answered the call, writing and recording a raw and unmediated anthem powered only by her handclaps: “Blues for Trayvon Martin (Big Hooded Black Man).” In the past an artist would have had to find a producer and label willing to release the track, but Nalley posted it on YouTube, where it quickly attracted widespread attention.

“It just kind of came out at once,” she said. “I recorded it and slapped it up without thinking about it too much. I think the fact that I didn’t manicure it had a lot to do with it being passed around on Facebook.”

The Internet’s vast connective power is a feature as well as a bug when it comes to finding an audience. When everyone can produce, record, and post their own protest songs, and so much activism takes place online rather than in person, opportunities for singing together have become few and far between. It can be a daunting landscape for musicians seeking social justice, but at least one giant of the movement isn’t hiding her light under a bushel.

“I have more work to do,” declared Staples, whose career has been enjoying a big resurgence. “My work is not finished.”

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