Singing for Solidarity and Social Change

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One of music’s most powerful attributes is its ability to bring people together around a cause, a theme Bill has explored many times with a variety of artists. Below, we’ve excerpted four of those conversations — with Pete Seeger, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Johnny Cash and Tom Morello — which delve deeply into music’s power to inspire, unite, and strike a common chord.

Along with his friend Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger is credited for sparking the folk music revival that swept America in the 1960s and played a role in the social movements that gained traction during that decade. In this clip, Seeger tells Bill how music has a power that, even after decades of playing it, he still doesn’t fully understand.

Bernice Johnson Reagon — singer, civil rights activist and scholar — was an integral part of the African-American struggle for civil rights. Along with Cordell Reagon, Rutha Harris and Charles Neblett, Bernice founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers, the first group of freedom singers to travel nationally. In this excerpt from a 1991 interview, Reagon explains to Bill how music was used throughout black history to empower and show solidarity.

One of the many things Johnny Cash is remembered for are his prison performances, during which he showed a heartfelt empathy for inmates. At Huntsville State Prison in 1957, Cash’s performance of “Amazing Grace” held special potency for crowds of convicted felons. In this 1990 clip featuring both conversation and performances, Cash and Huntsville prisoners explain the common message that “Amazing Grace” holds for them.

Like Woody Guthrie (whose guitar was famously inscribed with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists”), former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello uses his instrument to “steel the backbone of people on the frontlines of social justice struggles.” In this clip from his May 2012 conversation with Bill on Moyers & Company, Morello explains the role of music in uniting a movement.

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  • proletariatprincess

    The late Joe Glazer, Labor’s Troubadore, once quoted that the Tryrant King trembles when he hears voices raised in song.
    Voices singing together is the greatest demonstration of solidarity and a very powerful tool in the fight for justice.

  • Arthur Brooks

    “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything”. Plato

    Music is the landscape of the soul.

  • JohnPQ

    While there may be quality music out there, it hasn’t permeated pop culture or been mainstream since about the year 2000. We are left with a cultural wasteland hollowed out by hyper commercialism. It degrades the quality of life to be in an artistically dead shopping mall of a society.

  • Anonymous

    All the artists are from a prior generation with the exception of Rage Against the Machine which is no longer a band. So I guess singing for solidarity and social change is largely a thing of the past?

  • Zane

    A plug for one of my favourite contemporary protest songs:

  • Derek Aktion

    No. Culture and politics runs through the generations is a more sensible read on it. (note: Tom Morello is still a musician.)

  • bubba

    The great jazz saxophonist,Sonny Rollins once said in an interview that, when he was young,he believed that music was the universal language,
    and that music could bring all people together.Then he paused and said,
    “I don’t believe that s–t anymore”.This puts me in mind of that scene in
    Schindler’s List in which the Nazi soldiers break down the door of the Jewish family’s apartment in the Warsaw ghetto and haul the family away.The young Nazi officer sees their piano,goes to it,and plays a beautiful classical piece.Even Nazis liked beautiful music,but that did not stop them from killing millions of people.
    All this talk of music bringing people together is naive, wishful thinking.Incidently,
    I’m a musician.

  • Willaim C. Sweet

  • Sharon Abreu

    Getting to do music with Pete Seeger has been a great honor. He has inspired many talented musicians for social change to “carry it on.” Music has the potential to reach into us when mere words bounce off of us. I’ve been singing for peace and environmental healing for many years, having sung in concert with Pete Seeger on several occasions. You can hear many of my songs at:

  • Anonymous

    “Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.”

    Angela Monet

  • quietwrite

    Still, music has the power to unite whether for good or bad. It’s not magic; we still have to choose what side–and the anthem for which–we stand, right?