October 2011, Week 2


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Fri, 14 Oct 2011 22:37:00 -0400
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Where Are They Now?: 7 Protest Songs With Legs

by Kim Ruehl

October 14, 2011

People protest different things. But they often use the
same songs. And no matter what the movement's goals are,
the people in them sing.

Joe Hill repurposed Baptist hymns for workers' rights at
the turn of the last century. Zilphia Horton cultivated
empowerment anthems and activists like Rosa Parks in
workshops she ran out of the Highlander Folk School in
the 1930s and '40s. Pete Seeger sang from the back of a
pickup truck in the South during the civil rights
movement. Helen Reddy made "I Am Woman" a generation

Throughout American movements music has been a source of
both personal and collective empowerment - a tool used
to bridge the apparent distance between individuals, to
remind each other we're stronger together than alone.

Now, as activists gather on Wall Street - and around the
country - music is again playing a vital role in
collective empowerment. Whether quoting these timeless
anthems on signs or developing their own rhythms to
chant and songs to sing, the people gathering across the
nation find music a necessary tool in their campaign.

With that in mind, here's a look at some of the most
timeless anthems of movements for social change and how
they've evolved through the years.


We Shall Overcome

"We Shall Overcome" got its footing during the 20th
century labor movement and was then popularized in the
civil rights struggle by folksingers like Pete Seeger
and Guy Carawan. Whenever people have fought for
collective justice and freedom, this song has found its
way into the mix. Zilphia Horton's verses included the
lyric "we will organize"; civil rights activists added
"we are not afraid." In 2009, to celebrate Seeger's 90th
birthday, Bernice Johnson-Reagon and her daughter Toshi,
Billy Bragg, Emmylou Harris, Del McCoury and others led
a packed Madison Square Garden in singing this song

We Shall Overcome (Ensemble )



We Shall Not Be Moved

Another benchmark song of the labor movement which was
recycled by civil rights activists, "We Shall Not Be
Moved" was recently adopted by the freedom movement in
Iran as well as public workers in Wisconsin. Labor
activists back in the day had verses like "the union is
behind us" and "we're fighting for our children." Civil
rights activists added "Black and white together."

Iran: We Shall Not Be Moved (Mavis Staples)
http://youtu.be/IOaWK47cJSQ 4:42



Solidarity Forever

With transit workers, pilots and nurses unions showing
up at Wall Street in recent weeks, a solid labor song
like "Solidarity Forever" seems ever more appropriate.
All it needs is a song leader and a crowd to sing along
to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic":
"Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong." Written
in 1915, the song has since been recorded by the likes
of Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg and Leonard Cohen, but it
hasn't been prominent in movements more recent than '70s

Solidarity Forever (The Weavers)


This Little Light of Mine

This unlikely children's song was introduced to the
civil rights movement by Zilphia Horton and others who
championed it for its simple, timeless statement. Since
then, it's been recorded by everyone from Raffi to Ralph
Stanley and Aretha Franklin. This video shows Bruce
Springsteen performing it with his Seeger Sessions band.
The song has proven timeless, and its message is
fundamental: even a small flicker of light is enough to
break the darkness.

This Little Light of Mine (Bruce Springsteen and The
Seeger Sessions Band)


This Land Is Your Land

Woody Guthrie wrote this song in response to the
popularization of "God Bless America" in 1940 (the
original chorus said "God blessed America for me").
While "This Land Is Your Land" spoke to both the labor
and civil rights struggles, it's been revived more
lately by mainstream artists like Springsteen and Sharon
Jones. The former sang it with Seeger on the steps of
the capitol on Barack Obama's inauguration day. This was
a feat, considering Seeger had once been investigated by
the U.S. government and Guthrie's song was originally
censored - both due to accusations of communism. Former
Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello played
the uncensored version of "This Land Is Your Land" at
Occupy LA on Oct. 8th and again at Occupy Wall Street on
Oct. 13th.

This Land is Your Land - Occupy Los Angeles (Tom

(Occupy Los Angeles)


Which Side Are You On?

Recorded several times over the past 70 years by folks
like the Almanac Singers, Seeger, Natalie Merchant and
Dropkick Murphys, this classic labor song also got quite
a bit of mileage during the civil rights movement. More
recently, writer Silas House, who advocates for an end
to mountaintop removal mining, has put it on two albums,
and new verses appropriate to current issues have been
added by Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco. Here's DiFranco
sharing her updated version (wherein she asks, "Are we
just consumers or are we citizens?").

Which Side Are You On? (Ani Difranco)

(Mountain Stage, Charleston, West Virginia)


Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around

This tune was recorded by the Freedom Singers in the
'60s. It caught on quickly and was eventually recorded
by Joan Baez, Sweet Honey in the Rock and others. More
recently, The Roots contributed this version to a
documentary about the role of music in the civil rights
movement. It's a simple song whose lyrics can be easily

"Can't Turn Me 'Round" (The Roots)

(Soundtrack - 4 a Revolution)


[Kim Ruehl is a writer at No Depression. She's working
on a book about Zilphia Horton.]


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