Singing and not singing: The activist age divide

The year 2012 is a special one in Massachusetts: the centennial of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike has been celebrated with literally dozens of events, with more still planned. The gatherings I’ve attended have given me glimpses into the cultures of different wings of today’s progressive movements. My conclusion is that participatory singing as a political act is becoming an outmoded relic of former movements.

At the big Labor Day event, the crowd included UNITE-HERE members and other Lawrence-area union members, mostly Latinos younger than 50. Union members wore union t-shirts to signify their affiliations; and they marched in contingents; but they didn’t sing as they marched. Some of the musical performers that day sang in Spanish, and young and/or Latino festival-goers either sat and listened or they danced along – but they never sang along.

A number of white and black singers at the Labor Day festival encouraged sing-alongs, and I watched to see who sang and who didn’t sing. In particular, because Bread and Puppet Theater, with its giant puppets and stilt-walkers, is so inherently interesting to all ages and races, I was able to watch their big diverse audience respond to calls to sing along. Perhaps Mobilizing Ideas readers won’t be surprised to learn that those who sang along were old and white. Many of them were seasoned leftists whose experience stretched back to the ‘60s or earlier.

At other Lawrence centennial events I saw the same singing demographic: old and white. The only middle-aged exceptions were approximately four of us hard-core political folkies, those who knew by heart all four verses of the “Bread and Roses” song about the 1912 strike. But except for us, everyone else who sang “Solidarity Forever” had white hair and weathered faces. Ditto with “Union Maid.” And twice, when “The Internationale” was sung, everyone else who stood up and raised their right fist appeared to be 75 or older; this old socialist tradition seems not to have been passed down.

During the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s I realized that young activists in that movement did not sing during protests. And the music of the Occupy movement seemed to be either performance or participatory drumming, not participatory singing (see this collection). But during those two mobilizations I thought that the singing/not-singing breakpoint was about age 35. At this year’s Lawrence events, I realized that the age divide is much older, and that political singing seems to have virtually died out even among middle-aged activists.

For those of us raised on Civil Rights freedom songs, anti-war songs, wimmin’s music, De Colores and anti-apartheid music, a movement that doesn’t sing seems strange and culturally impoverished. Media jamming and crowd-sourced creativity through Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are the new mode of activist participatory creativity; activists now have protest tools unimagined in the 1960s.

But when I think of some of the situations in which the anti-apartheid movement sang their freedom songs – between jail cells on death row, in the poverty of exile, and while marching under violent repression – I worry about how future activists will keep their spirits up and build solidarity when all their electronic devices are unavailable to them.


Filed under Digital Media in Activism

3 responses to “Singing and not singing: The activist age divide

  1. Hey Betsy,

    As the old guy who got a small portion of the crowd at the Lawrence Strike festival to stand up and sing “The Internationale” when Si Kahn was performing it onstage, I must defend those of us who are under 65 (even if it is only by three years). Over 70, indeed. But your point is well-taken. I came out of the 1960s church-based wing of the Civil Rights Movement where singing was mandatory as well as celebratory. In the 1970s I helped coordinate the logistics and security for rallies small and large where songs were programmed in to lift our spirits.

    We not only had songs on the picket line for the Pressmen’s strike and defense committee in Washington, DC, we staged a play with music at a local church auditorium. I played flute in the background for an opening act for Lucha and Sweet Honey and the Rock. Our pick up musical group included players from the Middle East Research and Education Project, Off Our Backs, and the Source Collective.

    An inspirational story is how the Highlander Center ended up with the musical rights to “We Shall Overcome,” which I have sung along with other participants at several Highlander strategy sessions. (See” More on Highlander in Francesca Polletta’s excellent “Freedom is an endless meeting: democracy in American social movements.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

    In recent years I have worked with groups such as Sister Song
    and the Spirit House Project
    (both based in Atlanta and training young activists) who use music and the arts as an integral part of their activism.

    And let’s not forget online artists who use music and videos (and both) to build sustainable activism. If you have never seen the mind-zapping rap rants of Lee Camp, you are in for a ride:



  2. michael beer

    Indeed singing can have a big influence on the impact of an action as well as on the participants. Trying to keep a chant going for more than 5 minutes is tough. Singing for 20 minutes is a breeze. This move away from producing music….to consuming music is a world wide phenomenon. It fits in with a modern society in which we are taught to consume….and produce nothing …..except in a narrow specialty that might give us income.


  3. Pingback: The Art of Demobilization | Mobilizing Ideas

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