Music and Political Protest Research Paper

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Because music engages hearts, bodies, and minds it has been a powerful force to foster feelings of solidarity throughout history—in political revolutions, religious reformations, union organization, civil rights movements, and antiwar demonstrations. From “classic” protests songs (“L’Internationale”), to surprising examples of the genre (“Yankee Doodle Dandy”), to newer forms like Thomas Mapfumo’s African-roots-music- inspired Chimurenga, music has brought people together in many calls to action.

Music has been an integral part of expressive culture worldwide and a source of personal and public enjoyment and edification for millennia. Most cultures have used music, and still do, to accompany and enhance every conceivable collective activity and ceremony, from the mundane to the sublime: eating, working, storytelling, worshipping, marrying, performing, mourning, healing, criticizing, satirizing, and just plain celebrating. Because it is an integral part of everyday life and is a medium that evocatively and holistically engages minds and bodies, thoughts, emotions, and desires, it is no surprise that the power of music has been employed to create feelings of solidarity and loyalty to political causes and movements in the modern world.

Songs of Revolution

In the 1950s, the sociologist R. Serge Denisoff wrote that modern protest songs had their roots in the rousingly defiant songs of early Protestantism such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (c. 1528), considered the battle hymn of the Reformation. A century later Protestant songs rallied radical forces in the English Civil War (1641–1651), notably “Levellers and Diggers” (1649) written by Gerrard Winstanley. As the leader of the radical group True Levellers (1649– 1651)—later known as Diggers to further distinguish themselves from a group close in values called Levellers”—Winstanley (1609–1676) composed this protest ballad so that the Diggers’ vision and practice of fostering Christian agrarian and egalitarian communist communities could reach the masses in a popular and traditional art form. As social levelers Diggers wanted to “level all estates” (that is, abolish private property rights) and allow all people to cultivate the earth as “a common treasury.” Common ownership, they believed, would ensure universal freedom and the end of privilege; it would bring an end to unequal social, economic, and political power.

Naturally, the Diggers’ seizure and cultivation of common land alarmed local landowners who regarded such acts as threats to their own holdings and to their supply of landless laborers. Consequently, England’s Council of State sent soldiers to break up the Digger communities that spontaneously arose in many parts of the country. Winstanley printed and distributed the song hoping to rally the spirits of Diggers throughout England who suffered persecution by local landowners and clergymen. They learned and sang it in their communities: “You noble Diggers all, stand up now . . . Your houses they pull down, stand up now . . . But the gentry must come down, and the poor shall wear the crown . . . With spades and hoes and plows stand up now . . . That we should now begin, our freedom for to win . . . ”

The Levellers, quite similarly, believed in popular sovereignty (government created by, and subject to, the will of the people) and representative government; equality before the law; and freedom from arbitrary arrest, religious oppression, and taxation without consent. They found resonance in British North America and gave rise to protest movements there in the eighteenth century. A New York grand jury found an early North American protest song, “Come On, Brave Boys” (1734), inflammatory and seditious, and ordered the song sheet to be publicly burned although no author or publisher could be identified. Among the protest songs that articulated colonial discontent and stirred seditious activities before the American Revolution (1775–1783) were “American Taxation” (1765), “The Liberty Song” (1768), “The Taxed Tea” (1773), and “Liberty’s Call” (1775). Rebellious colonists appropriated a bright ditty called “Yankee Doodle” (c. 1755–1775), originally written by a British surgeon to poke fun at rustic American colonial soldiers, and rewrote the words so that its upbeat melody would inspire their troops and serve as a protest against British arrogance. The colonists sang this song at Lexington and Concord to insult the retreating British soldiers, and it became wildly popular among American troops. Songs were spread by newspapers, periodicals, ballad sheets, and broadsides, and by singing in public houses and military encampments.

With the help of these early print media and face-to-face communications, music sustained insurrectionary impulses in France as well. The French Revolution (1789–1799) generated nearly three thousand popular songs, including a huge hit in 1790 “Ca Ira” (“It’ll Be Okay” or “There is Hope”), which people sang in the streets of Paris, Lyon, and Marseilles. Inspired lyricists altered the words as the revolutionary cause became more radical (“aristocrats to the lampposts, we’ll hang them . . .”). During the dark days of foreign invasion, “La Marseillaise,” composed in April 1792 by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle as a simple marching song, sustained revolutionary initiative. French revolutionary forces sang it as a morale booster on the way to Paris to battle the Prussian and Austrian armies that had invaded France to restore the old monarchical regime. Originally entitled “Chant de guerre de l’armee du Rhin” (War Song of the Army of the Rhine), it became so popular with volunteer units from Marseilles that it was renamed in their honor. Supporters of the revolution all over France learned the tune and lyrics, and it became the French national anthem in 1795. Although the song has seven verses, today only the first verse and chorus are usually sung. The fourth verse is typical of the song’s defiant, martial, and rousing tone. Even in the twenty-first century, “La Marseillaise” embodies the passion, sense of purpose, and commitment that aroused millions of French people to overthrow their monarchy and fight for liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Singing lifted people’s spirits, made revolutionary ideas and sentiments accessible to the illiterate majority, promoted solidarity across social groups, and invited the dispossessed classes of France to proclaim over and over again their devotion to the Revolution. “La Carmagnole,” both a song and a dance, took its name from the short jacket worn by militant sansculottes (the term, meaning “without knee breeches,” applied to the working-classes). When first sung in August 1792, the song insulted the queen, Marie Antoinette, and anyone who opposed the Revolution.

The French revolutionary tradition provided fertile ground for “L’Internationale” (The International), a song that would become the anthem of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century revolutionary proletariat. Inspired by the establishment and subsequent destruction of the radically democratic and egalitarian Paris Commune of 1871, Eugene Pottier wrote the lyrics shortly after the demise of the Commune; the French factory worker Pierre Degeyter added a melody in 1888. The song became an international hit as the Industrial Revolution spread across Europe, the United States, and the world. Embraced by socialists, communists, anarchists, and trade unionists, and sung at every one of their meetings and demonstrations, captured well the grassroots, militant, democratic, and anti-capitalist spirit of the early socialist and communist movements. Between 1890 and 1945, “L’Internationale” rivaled “Amazing Grace” and “Silent Night” in international popularity.

Since “L’Internationale” was sung on every continent and in scores of languages, there are various versions of its lyrics adapted to meet the needs of working people in different lands. Translated into Russian in 1902, it was sung at socialist (Menshevik and Bolshevik) and organized workers’ meetings before 1917 and became a crucial expression of commitment to the egalitarian, collective, and emancipatory ideals of the October (Bolshevik) Revolution (1917), and of the world socialist movement during the Russian Civil War (1917–1921). The English version, recorded in the United States in 1935, included references to the Russian Revolution.

An ocean away, corridos, folk ballads popular in Mexico from the 1880s to the 1930s, nurtured a sense of popular independence and defiance during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). They typically recounted the deeds of individuals whose conduct served as a model to the community. Corridos about the revolutionary folk heroes Pancho Villa and Emilano Zapata conveyed stirring messages of nationalism, class anger, resistance, and hope; not only did such songs ridicule upper-class rule and gringo intervention, they recruited peasant fighters for the armies of Villa and Zapata. Corridos about Pancho Villa generally described particular battles or his valor, leadership, defiance, and courage. Corridos about Zapata were similarly praiseful but more closely tied to land reform and his commitment to end the exploitation of peasants. The theme of defiant and armed resistance to authority conveyed by such corridos had great appeal to a peasantry that enjoyed little economic and political freedom or mobility. Singers (corridistas) played in town squares on market days and sold broadsides of new or popular corridos. Mexicans who could not read often purchased the broadsides as mementos of the occasion and, hoping to revive the allure of the song as it had been performed, made the broadsides available to literate members of the community. As a folk art form, however, corridos were extremely malleable and spread from town to town during the revolution; most were memorized, not written down, so the content changed as it was remembered differently or altered to reflect local sensibilities.

As early as the 1920s leaders of the Communist movement in China believed music could win converts to the Communist cause. Chinese recognition that music had the power to sway people’s outlook and emotions in fundamental ways went back at least twenty-five hundred years to the time of Confucius. Leaders like Mao Zedong (1893–1976), who had peasant origins, understood that song enabled the illiterate peasant majority to express and comprehend everyday needs and realities. Consequently, Communists held that music was the most appropriate and effective medium to teach their revolutionary perspective. They rewrote lyrics that had long accompanied traditional folk melodies and made them into songs of revolution. “Nanniwan” (1943), based on a tune from northern Shaanxi, was such a song. A new genre of Communist revolutionary music during the Chinese Civil War (1927–1949) employed a marching, resolute tempo expressing worker and peasant unity; like the reworked folk genre it protested current conditions but remained optimistic about the future and the outcome of the armed struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and feudalism. Red Army troupes often performed the songs to entice enlistments.

This belief in the politically mobilizing power of music continued after the Communist victory in 1949 when the party controlled print, broadcast, and performance media and Cultural Revolution (1966– 1976) was on the horizon. A prominent example was “The East Is Red” (c. 1960) a song that served to rally pro-Mao forces in the People’s Republic of China. In keeping with the traditions of Chinese Communist political music, a farmer from Shaanxi province reputedly created the song by putting new lyrics to the tune of a local folk song.

Music of Solidarity and Organizing

In order to inculcate values that were opposed to the individualism, competition, and nationalism inherent in mainstream social and cultural institutions, the Socialist and Communist parties before World War II provided social environments for their members with football clubs, marching bands, plays, musicals, gymnastics, picnics, summer camps, schools, and consumer cooperatives. All these organizations and events were aimed at socializing individuals into working-class solidarity, cooperation, and mutual support. Marching bands accompanied all large leftist demonstrations.

German Communists in the 1920s and 1930s used music to energize their recurrent street protests with songs like “Up, Up Let’s Fight.” Bertolt Brecht wrote the lyrics, appropriating a thirty-year-old tune popular with supporters of the deposed German emperor. Such militant marching songs primed Communists for frequent high-stakes street battles with police and Nazis. While mischievously grounded in German popular culture, the songs boosted morale and advertised the Communists’ determination to press the class struggle wherever they went. Communists disseminated such songs extensively through daily newspapers and new forms of photojournalism, such as the astonishingly successful Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers Illustrated News). They also used phonograph recordings, live musical performances, and radio broadcasts to build and sustain a broadly proletarian antiestablishment movement during the Weimar Republic.

Protest Music in the United States

In the United States the Industrial Workers of the World—the IWW, or Wobblies—strove to organize all workers, skilled and unskilled, into one big worldwide union regardless of trade or specialization; their radical labor organizers, including Joe Hill, wrote songs that carried the union’s message to those who had little formal schooling. The IWW, founded in 1905, relied on songs to encourage protest and resistance because organizers learned that when people sang a song and had a little fun, they retained the message. Like other groups in other countries, Wobblies borrowed the melodies of commonly known tunes and altered the lyrical content. The Wobblies’ lyrics spoke to working people’s concerns, recruited them for the union, and created a common bond among them. One of their most recognized songs is “Solidarity Forever,” which set new words to the inspirational and well-known American Civil War song “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Ralph Chaplin wrote lyrics that stressed unity over individual efforts—including a strong and defiant chorus—and reflected the IWW’s struggles to organize unskilled workers against the bosses. Wobbly songs sustained workers during long strikes (Goldfield, Nevada, in 1906; Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912; Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913; and the Mesabi Range, Minnesota, in 1916) and in protest marches before and during World War I. Typical of other militant movements with few economic resources, Wobblies spread their songs by means of newspapers, ballad sheets, and songbooks, and by singing in taverns and itinerant work camps.

The tradition of using popular folk music as a recruitment and organizing tool and as a means of protesting conditions for workers continued in the United States in the 1930s. Some songwriters, such as Woody Guthrie and the folk musicians he inspired, helped recruit for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) labor federation. Guthrie spread a message of populist protest and hope across the country during the Great Depression by making phonograph recordings and performing live at work camps. As unions gained collective bargaining rights in the late 1940s, however, U. S. labor songs lost their revolutionary edge and leftists were purged from unions. Still, people facing injustice turned to song to express their hopes, frustrations, and alienation and to protest their conditions.

Music sustained the struggles of civil rights protesters in the United States after 1960. Songs used by union organizers to foster solidarity became staples of the civil rights movement’s sit-ins and freedom marches; these included “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a black spiritual whose lyrics were changed by striking African American textile workers in North Carolina in the 1920s, and “We Shall Overcome,” a Baptist hymn originally called “I’ll Overcome Some Day” (tobacco-worker organizers altered its lyrics in the 1940s). Both songs expressed faith that the future would be better than the past, that their cause was just, and that patient nonviolence would succeed in the end. Of the many musical styles prevalent in the early 1960s, only folk music—whether it was developed by the Wobblies and Woody Guthrie and shaped by black spirituals and rhythm and blues, or whether it took shape in “freedom songs” performed by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Harry Belafonte—protested racial discrimination and became central to building support for the civil rights movement across the United States. In fact, the term “protest music” was coined at this time to identify the socially critical folk music of this era.

This socially conscious stance of folk performers informed the views of a new generation of young Americans, and young blues and rock musicians began incorporating socially aware lyrics into their songs. Stylistically, rock and roll had been considered dangerous music in the United States since the 1950s: it was a raucous music of youthful outsiders that combined African American and Anglo American musical styles, and was performed by black and white musicians for racially mixed audiences. As the civil rights movement peaked and the anti–Vietnam War movement began to pick up steam in the mid- 1960s, folk and rock music were at hand with new antiestablishment content and style. An entire oppositional counterculture grew among young people in the late 1960s, and antiwar songs like “War,” an energetic protest song in the African-American call-and-response tradition by Edwin Starr, “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “The Unknown Soldier” by the Doors, and “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young made the Top 10 in the pop music charts. Jimi Hendrix’s irreverent, psychedelic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in the summer of 1969 brought 400,000 fans to their feet. These songs and others found wide play on commercial radio and television (and at live converts) aimed at adolescents and young adults. Responding to and helping to create the antiestablishment mood of a large section of youth, the protest songs were commercially successful, sold millions of records, and were easily reproduced and played using tape recorders and, after 1970, cassette tapes. They entertained and helped politicize millions of people, bringing them out into the streets to engage in mass civil disobedience in protest of the Vietnam War, and to rail against the Democratic (and later Republican) administration that conducted it.

New Genres for Protest and Mobilization

In Great Britain rock emerged as a highly politicized genre in the 1970s under the influence of mellow yet “ragged” Jamaican reggae and defiant, anarchist, staccato, hard-edged punk music. Commercial radio, transistor radios, and cassette tapes made the music very accessible to youths who approved its socially critical edge and stylistic innovation but lived outside Jamaican and punk enclaves in Britain. Style and content merged: the musicians and leftist politicians who formed Rock Against Racism (RAR) focused on mobilizing working-class youth against racist ideology and organizations, in particular the neo-fascist National Front Party (NF), which had been gaining electoral support among white working-class youth. RAR drew on rock’s defiant style to make political statements and to take public attention away from the NF. Drawing on musical styles with multicultural roots, the RAR’s main slogan was “Black and White / Unite We Fight!” The biggest RAR events took place between 1976 and 1978, when bands like the Clash, Steel Pulse, Stiff Little Fingers, and X-Ray Spex played at giant marches and concert performances in London and elsewhere. Well into 1979 RAR also issued a series of instant public responses to local, racially motivated hate crimes and violence. By 1980, the music of protest had served its purpose: the NF was a spent force in British politics.

From the 1960s onward British and American blues and rock, influenced by African musical forms, influenced musical styles in other countries. As old and new imperial powers they had economic and cultural reach worldwide, and they encouraged and often funded the spread of mass communication technologies— such as commercial radio and television, vinyl recordings, inexpensive cassette tapes and tape players, and transistor radios—through foreign-aid subsidies and new multinational media corporations. Once in place these mass communication technologies served to disseminate indigenous protest.

In Argentina, rock nacional (national rock) developed as part of a politicized youth counterculture that opposed the military dictatorship of the late 1970s and early 1980s, explicitly criticized the government, and created an oppositional movement that contributed to the restoration of democracy. The progressive and politicized lyrics of nueva cancion (“new song”), a protest-music movement of the 1960s and 1970s with close ties to South American socialist parties, gained great popularity throughout Latin America, especially in Andean countries. Fusing traditional folk-music idioms with commercial Anglo American rock styles, its lyrics commented critically on poverty, social inequality, and imperialism and advocated for greater democracy, social empowerment, and human rights. The movement in Chile was suppressed after the 1973 coup and continued its protests underground.

In the early 1990s, a Haitian group, Boukman Eksperyans, wrote and performed Creole songs that drew on voodoo beliefs and merged them with imported funk rock and dance music. (Boukman is the name of the enslaved voodoo priest who instigated the 1791 revolt among slaves that led to Toussaint Loverture’s revolt, which finally gained Haiti’s independence from France in 1804, and eksperyans means “experience” in Creole, so the group’s name had political resonance in Haiti.) Their song “Kem Pa Sote” (“You Don’t Scare Me”) rebuked the corruption and brutality of the military regime that in 1991 had overthrown the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and it inspired an insurgent movement among the Haitian people that ended the dictatorship.

The Israeli peace movement has long used music at its large open-air rallies to oppose government policies regarding Palestinian rights and Palestinian sovereignty. During the First Intifada (1987–1993), songs like Yorim VeBokhim (“Shoot and Weep”), which was banned from the radio for months on charges of subversive content, protested Israeli government policy in Palestinian-occupied territories. Israeli peace groups and opponents of Israel’s barrier in the West Bank transformed Pink Floyd’s late-1970s critique of the British school system, Another Brick in the Wall, into a song of social protest regarding conditions in Israel/Palestine, rewriting the original lyrics (“We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control”) to read: “We don’t need no occupation / We don’t need no racist wall.” For its part, Palestinian political music has protested the Israeli state as a colonial power and expressed the need for Palestinian sovereignty and a homeland. Appropriating the musical form of hip-hop, the Arabic group DAM rapped in Arabic and Hebrew about national aspirations, national oppression, social and political inequality, and Israeli government brutality.

In the mid-1970s, political protest led to a new musical genre in the African country of Zimbabwe that was partly influenced by Jamaican reggae (called “African roots music” by its fans and performers) and Anglo American rock being broadcast on commercial radio and recorded onto inexpensive and easily distributed cassettes. This new African music, created by Thomas Mapfumo (b. 1945) and other indigenous singer/songwriters, articulated black peoples’ experiences under (and their resistance to) the white Rhodesian colonial and settler system. This genre, which became known as Chimurenga (struggle or liberation) music, blended traditional Shona music with Western rock and jazz instruments and a political message full of symbolic meanings, traditional proverbs, and rock’s rebelliousness. These innovations transformed Zimbabwean popular music of the 1970s. Black Zimbabweans flocked to the performances of Chimurenga artists, bought their vinyl singles, and listened to recordings on commercial radio before the white government banned this music. After the ban they listened to it on guerilla radio and bootlegged cassettes. They instantly identified with the music and Shona lyrics, and Mapfumo in particular became a household name. The upbeat, energizing music with its socially critical lyrics but easy, swaying rhythms galvanized the African population and encouraged young people to cross the border into Mozambique for training in guerrilla warfare. In the eyes of many Zimbabweans, including the first president of Zimbabwe, it was Chimurenga music that won the liberation war by invoking the wisdom and guardianship of their ancestors and by emphasizing the necessity of all Zimbabweans to live together, suffer together, and struggle together for the good of all. Mapfumo remains a living cultural icon in Zimbabwe today.

Implications and Directions

Because music is such an integral part of people’s lives it will continue to shape and influence their perceptions of what is important politically, their personal and social aspirations, and the ways in which these are expressed. It is one cultural arena in which ideological struggle and political mobilization will continue to take place as music circulates along with other cultural goods and commodities, sometimes in face-to-face communication or via print and broadcast media, but increasingly via new media technologies like MP3 players; iPods and other personal, portable media players; and music- and video-sharing websites and social networking websites (Web 2.0).

Music has promoted a variety of political ideas and protests, with different cultures and groups appropriating and creating music suitable to their goals. In the 1960s and earlier, music was an integral part of what were more or less organized political movements. Where populist political movements declined, as in the United States and much of Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, politicized musicians took the lead in staged commercialized “mega-events” like Live Aid, Farm Aid, and Band Aid. In these concerts, music itself provided the organizing vehicle. It was mass music that mobilized masses of people. The point was not to protest political or social inequality or to foment revolution but to raise money for famine victims in Africa or dispossessed farmers in the American Midwest—and music still called people to action.

Writing in the late 1990s, Ron Ayerman and Andrew Jamison noted that protest music can still conjure a movement and its meaning long after the movement has ceased to be active; protest music can encode and embody forms of collective meaning and memory; and it can foster processes of identity and identification vital to the emergence and continuance of new political protest movements.


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