What’s that I Hear Now? A Few Thoughts on Music and Social Movements

By William G. Roy

What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear
I’ve heard that sound before
What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear
I hear it more and more
It’s the sound of freedom calling
Ringing up to the sky
It’s the sound of the old ways falling
You can hear it if you try
You can hear it if you try

–Phil Ochs

Social movements are not just influenced by culture. Social movements have culture and they do culture. I want to think a bit about how they do culture. By doing culture, I mean the actions and relationships through which they engage in music, art, drama, poetry, literature, dance, etc. (Thus I am focusing more on the sociology of culture than cultural sociology). My book on the use of American folk music by activists in the 1930s and 40s People’s Songs Movement and in 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement distinguishes between the use of music as a medium of persuasion and music to cement movement solidarity (Roy 2010). It shows how the Civil Rights Movement used music more effectively than the People’s Songs movement because music became part of the collective action itself—the sit-ins, freedom rides, picketing, mass meetings, even passing time in jail. Activists in the Old Left such as Pete Seeger imagined singing unions and a singing movement, creating a vision, collecting songs, and training a younger generation. But the use of music as a medium of persuasion prevailed, treating music as an instrument of propaganda (cf. Lieberman 1995). For many historical and contextual reasons, the Civil Rights Movement was different: its institutional base was the Black church, where people frequently sang together; many leaders were trained at the Highlander School in Tennessee, where Pete Seeger and Ziphia Horton tutored song leaders in singable songs such as “We Shall Overcome”; many of the forms of collective action involved people congregated with time to fill. Thus many of the songs were light about persuading, educating, or radicalizing. Some were politically vague (“We Shall Overcome”) or even bereft of obvious political meaning (“Michael Rode the Boat Ashore”).

Most sociologists who write on the topic implicitly share the Old Left theory of the role of music in social movements—defining as political those songs that have political content and evaluating the significance of music in terms of its persuasive value. The most common approach to analyzing political music is to unpack political meaning in the lyrics, implicitly taking the role of a solitary listener. The most authoritative account of music and social movements by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison (1998) situate music in a cognitive theory of social movements. While most sociology about music and social movements focuses on content, some such as Rosenthal and Flacks (2012) take a more inclusive approach addressing both political content and the functions that music plays for social movements. Roscigno and Danaher (2004) similarly show out country music became the basis of a movement culture for southern textile workers.

Clearly music and other arts[1] are important to social movements both for their content and persuasive power and for their power to bring people together (or create boundaries between them). The issue I want to raise here is the underlying model of how social movements work in each of the two approaches. Let’s call the first one, the evangelical model of movement building: people are seen as potential recruits who join a movement when they are converted to the movement’s beliefs. The goal of recruitment and movement building is to change belief systems and music (along with other arts) is valued for its persuasive power. Thus music is analyzed in terms of its message and how effectively the message is communicated. Potential recruits are seen as information processing, emotion producing, decision-making actors whose internal mental state must reach some threshold of belief before joining the movement. The term evangelical describes what the movements do—seek new recruits—and what the recruits do—accept or reject the invitation to become “born again.” Whether or not the potential recruits accept the invitation is seen to depend on characteristics of the recruits such as demographic characteristics, identities, or life experiences, and characteristics of the messages. What is crucial to the evangelical approach is that the recruit’s change in belief is temporally and analytically prior to participation.

An alternative approach to music and social movements might be called relational. By relational, I mean the qualities that span individual or collective actors. This is the underlying logic of network analysis. For example, dyads have qualities that cannot be reduced to single actors—equality or inequality, agreement or disagreement, linked or unlinked, dominant or subordinate, reciprocal or unreciprocal, cooperative or conflictive. There is no amount of information about any single actor in a dyad that can tell you about relational characteristics apart from knowledge about the other actor. For example, a poor person can be a part of an equal dyad or an unequal dyad, as can a rich person. Triads and larger networks also have relational qualities that are irreducible to smaller units—coalitions, centrality, density, etc. A relational approach to social movements would focus on the relationships among members, between members and non-members, and between the movement and targets.

The agenda for a relational approach to music and social movements would ask questions such as:

  • How music creates bridges or boundaries between groups. A musical bridge creates a feeling of “usness” between musical participants. (See Roy and Dowd 2010 for a fuller discussion of musical bridges and boundaries). Schutz  (1951) in “Making Music Together” describes how the micro-social experience of music experientially entrains people together, connecting musical participants in a common experience. Music is also central to social identities of race, gender, class, sexuality, and political commitment. While sometimes the bonds are reinforced by lyrical content, the music itself can be deeply linked to identity apart from the lyrical content.
  • How music is part of the ritual life of movements. Social movements have rituals not only to solidify the social relations within the organization but also to constitute relations with targets. This is the repertoire of collective actions—for the modern social movement that means demonstrations, picketing, blocking public movement, occupying space, presenting petitions, etc. Some of these can involve music or other arts and we would expect different arts to involve different sorts of social relationships and meanings. The most common setting of live music today is the performance, which has a clear division of labor between performers and listeners (though listeners are rarely entirely passive). Performance involves a very different kind of social relationships than group singing common in the Civil Rights Movement, with little division of labor between performer and listener. More characteristic in contemporary collective action is the chant, which is a variant on group singing, but I would venture is experientially thinner. This approach is in line with Tia Denora’s exhortation to “shift from culture‑as‑meaning and culture‑as‑text (to be decoded) to culture as a structuring medium of action and, in particular, to music as providing a set of ‘cues’ for different cultural frames as they may be invoked within structures” (2003: 122-123).
  • A reexamination of the role of aesthetics in social movements, and politics in general. Sociology has tended to treat aesthetics as subjective and personal and thus beyond dispassionate analysis or instrumental and derivative, as per Bourdieu. But sociologists venture that it is possible to dispassionately examine aesthetics as an irreducible quality in its own right. Firth (“Towards an aesthetic of popular music” in Leppert and McClary 1989) wants to explore the relationship between how we make value judgments about music and how that affects the listening experience. Presumably this would happen very differently in social movements than in other contexts. One question of particular importance is why so many people accept the argument that political potency of music inherently conflicts with aesthetic quality. Why can’t political music be just as aesthetically pleasing as religious music?
  • Reverse the usual relationship between cultural content and the content of social relations in social movements. We often assume that we know what the relations of actors within movements, between movements and potential recruits, or between movements and targets is all about and then see how music fits in. But we can turn this around and use music to reveal new insights about social relations. What is it about divisive social identities that allow music to bridge them? Most participants in the Civil Rights Movement had grown up in segregated societies; many had never had a friend of the opposite race. Music was one of the activities that helped bridge the chasm, demonstrating that solidarity could be constructed and that trust could be possible, but also that both were fragile and, as it turned out, fleeting.

Of course, in an informal essay like this, the caveats are manifold. The distinction between the evangelical and relational understanding of how social movements operate is more a heuristic than a theory. There is no deep incompatibility either in theory or the rich literature on social movements. Like much social movement literature, I’ve used the American Civil Rights Movement as indicative of social movements in general, a tendency that still distorts much social movement sociology. The agenda for a relational approach to music and social movements just barely scratches the surface and misses fundamental questions from the sociology of social movements and sociology of music. But the goal here is not to resolve anything, but only to advance the discussion, so that more of the sounds of freedom can ring in our ears.

[1] Much of this discussion here on music would also describe other arts, though there may be some differences. For the rest of the text, I will refer only to music and the interested reader can decide the extent to which it might apply to other arts.


Filed under Art, Music, and Movements, Essay Dialogues

2 responses to “What’s that I Hear Now? A Few Thoughts on Music and Social Movements

  1. Michael Schwartz

    I think that the “feeling of usness” that Roy emphasizes needs to be broadened in significant ways to capture the role of music in the CR movement. The “usness” it creates has a specific kind of content and therefore has a specific kind of impact on the group. One example:

    At one of the first sit-ins in San Francisco in 1963, thirty or so demonstrators at Mel’s restaurant were suddenly surrounded by motorcycle cops in kick-ass boots and clubs at the ready. We experienced instant terror accompanied with deafening silence. Then one of our number jumped up onto a table and sang out “I aint scared of your jail ’cause I want my freedom.” The fear dissipated, we all began to sing and also taunt the cops, link arms and resist arrest. Surely this was an expression of “Usness” but it was so much more–the was a sense of safety and certainty about the righteousness of our cause that–one moment earlier–was not there. And it remained a part of our consciousness, maybe forever.

    So…what exactly was it?

    MIchael Schwartz


  2. Pingback: Culture, Resistance and the Contradictions of Capitalism |

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