You know what’s been missing from every protest I’ve gone to over the last 10 years?
Protest songs. Political songs.
Songs that everyone knows and can sing together.
This tradition, at least in the corners of the universe I’ve experienced, seems to have died out. And this is too bad. There was a time when most activists had a few songs in their back pocket. They were sung to keep spirits up, as a symbol of unity of purpose. They were a demonstration, how beautiful the voices are, of those without a voice.
And most of all because singing is fun.
I remember when I first sang at a protest. It was in the 1990s, in Berkeley, CA, and I learned to sing “We Shall Overcome” at political events from older lefties. (Mostly white, actually.)
They really sang it. At marches, strikes, wherever. They knew multiple verses. They knew other songs, but since I hadn’t learned them I couldn’t sing with them, and they were lost to me. It was just a matter of timing, and what kind of music had been popular during their youth.
“We Shall Overcome” is such a good song for political action because it has such a low barrier for entry. The verses repeat almost all of the words, while only the refrain changes:
We shall overcome
We will live in peace
We’ll walk hand in hand
You don’t have to learn a lot of new patterns.
That song is anthemic because it is so powerful. No matter what atrocity it is you are protesting, no matter how hard it is to imagine that humans could ever treat each other with more kindness, that song picks you up and carries you on.
When you are first discovering the brutality of human history, protest songs give you a sense of progress. They are your grandparents reminding you that everything is going to be OK. Activists of all ages now need this more than ever.
The other source I know of is the labor movement. There are still union songs being sung too in Philly and in the East, but I don’t know if they are being passed on to the general population.
I recently read a book on the history of political songs, “Songs of America” by Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw (the best chapter is on Bruce Springsteen).
Songs have always been a part of movements for change in America, from abolitionist days onward, but they were much more universal before digital recorded music. In other words, when more people were used to performing music themselves rather than passively consuming it, it was just more normalized.
The other song that I’ve been thinking about lately is “If I Had a Hammer” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.
There are a lot of political songs in the world that are powerful but are very difficult to perform: Bob Dylan, Kendrick Lamar. The lyrics are complex and the delivery is too fast for most non-musicians to master and feel confident performing.
“If I Had a Hammer,” on the other hand, is just so simple. It seemed too simple. It never made any sense to me. I’d seen videos of Seeger performing it, just one guy on a stage, and I didn’t get it.
But then I saw footage of Seeger performing it at a rally in the 1960s. He starts singing, by himself, but then the crowd takes it up too because everyone knows it.
And in this footage, that song just electrifies people when they sing it. People start smiling, they stand up straighter, they look joyful and even cavalier, like we’re all in this together and victory is ahead.
If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land
It’s the hammer of Justice
It’s the bell of Freedom
It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land
This is a tradition that should be brought back.
It is so sustaining, and more than anything else, movements need sustaining. I just don’t think something this powerful should be left behind.
So what’s next? What are we going to sing?
(Also published as a Letter to the Editor in the Philadelphia Weekly.)