Rhythm, Rhyme and
By RACHEL B.
The United States was born from protest and Americans have always used
music to convey messages about civil, gender and labor rights,
consumerism, war and patriotism.
Protest, demonstration and civil disobedience have been fundamental to
America's journey through slavery, labor and voting rights movements and
war. The arts have been an indispensible vehicle for protest, and music
has been at the forefront since the colonists first fought against
taxation without representation.
The United States of America was, of course, born from protest. The
Declaration of Independence is the embodiment of complaints directed at
the British monarchy regarding the governance of the 13 American
colonies. In response to taxation without representation, the situation
in which the American subjects were taxed without a voice in the British
Parliament, and were in other ways deprived of basic human rights, the
colonies revolted. They declared independence and created a government
that not only promised representation, but also the inalienable right to
speak freely, protest, assemble and express their religious beliefs
peacefully. One of the earliest American protest songs, American
Taxation by Peter St. John, was written in this era.
In response to the
conditions imposed on them, slaves often sang spirituals, both in
the fields and in church. Several of these songs are still sung in
Christian churches throughout the United States. Some of them, such
as I Shall Not Be Moved and We Shall Overcome, were later invoked in
the civil rights and labor rights movements. Many recording artists
across genres have recorded their own versions, including Johnny
Cash, Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Baez.
The labor movement changed the lyrics of well-known spirituals and
anthems to suit its purposes. The movement reached its pinnacle in
the first half of the 20th century. The Socialist Party put Eugene
V. Debs on the ballot for president five times between 1900 and
1920. Debs was involved in the founding of the Industrial Workers of
the World, an organization meant to represent the interests of
laborers in capitalist countries. On behalf of the organization,
Ralph Chaplin wrote Solidarity Forever to the tune of The Battle
Hymn of the Republic, a famous anthem of the Civil War. The final
line of the chorus, "For the Union makes us strong!" was meant to
motivate laborers and form a unified front to managers and
corporations. Folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie sang Solidarity
Forever and other songs urging workers to organize, join unions and
assert their rights. The line between politics and art was blurred,
and the link between the two continues today.
The civil rights
movement was, of course, a key turning point in U.S. history. The
leaders of the movement repeated the words of abolitionists and freed
slaves such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Likewise, the
musicians of the era invoked the spirituals sung in the days of slavery,
as well as popular genres such as jazz, blues and folk. In 1939, jazz
singer Billie Holiday recorded a painfully disturbing song, Strange
Fruit. Written originally as a poem by Lewis Allen, the pen name of a
Jewish high school teacher in New York, this song describes an eerie
pastoral scene after a lynching, "Black bodies swinging in the southern
breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." In the 20th
century, the American South passed from staunch segregationist laws
through the challenging gauntlet of integration. After Holiday recorded
the song, her label, Columbia Records, refused to release it, fearing
the reaction from Southern listeners. Commodore Records offered to do
what Columbia would not, and after securing a rare one-session release
from her contract with Columbia, Holiday recorded the most famous
version of this troubling song. Many artists in the 1950s and beyond
would later reference Holiday's version of Strange Fruit as a powerful
influence in crafting their music and their message. Baez and Bob Dylan
are the two most prominent singer-songwriters to emerge from the civil
rights movement. Like many of their contemporaries, they also protested
against the Vietnam War. Baez's father was Mexican; because of this she
encountered significant discrimination in her youth. She often sang out
to the Hispanic community, including a Spanish version of the spiritual
We Shall Not Be Moved, No Nos Moveran. Dylan's prolific oeuvre was
performed by many artists of the civil rights era and beyond, including
folk and rock and roll musicians.
The turbulence of the late 1960s marked a significant change in U.S.
culture. Protest music turned from folk to more assertive styles such as
funk, hip-hop and punk. Hip-hop evolved in New York City's South Bronx
borough in the 1970s and hit widespread radio play in the 1980s. Hip-hop
was, contrary to popular belief, not inherently countercultural or angry
in its origins. It was originally the product of disc jockeys and
masters of ceremonies ad-libbing comments and rhyming commentary as they
played music in clubs. It was mixed with the aggressive style of
breakdancing and the subversive art of graffiti. As hip-hop evolved, it
gave voice to the traumatic experiences of its audience: police
brutality, poor housing, gang violence, poor education and
discrimination. Today, many hip-hop artists continue to address the
concerns of the urban poor and their most political work receives
significant airplay on popular radio stations.
As hip-hop was surfacing, so was punk. Punk is inherently a
counterculture, a response to mainstream culture, or "The
Establishment." Unlike hip-hop, which evolved as its own culture in the
South Bronx before spreading throughout New York City and beyond, punk
was deliberately deconstructionist from its inception. The music is a
strong example of the punk culture: rapid, chaotic and angry.
Contemporary groups like Green Day are examples of punk bands that have
long made albums full of political and social criticism. Throughout U.S.
history there has been a convergence of musical genre and social and
political movements. Popular artists such as Bruce Springsteen, the
Dixie Chicks, and Prince have all recorded music commenting on American
life. Americans embrace the tradition of protest music as a cultural
manifestation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, both in the
freedom of speech and the right to assemble.
Rachel B. Crawford is a U.S. vice
consul in Mumbai.
Courtesy: SPAN Magazine [email protected]
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