How I’ve understood music’s role in activism

By William F. Danaher

This essay assesses the use of music in activism. Most of the research I’ve coauthored on music and activism has been from a historical perspective analyzing social movements. This poses special problems for the researcher who is seeking to assess the role of music in activism. When one is on the ground, direct observations can be made of what music is used and the effect it has on movement participants. If one attends a rally or participated in a march, the effects of the music can be directly seen and felt.  For instance, a friend and I once observed a rally for striking hotel workers in a major city. We marched several blocks through the streets to a gathering spot outside one of the city’s largest hotels. Popular music was playing from speakers. On stage, a speaker was shouting and chanting above the music, getting people to respond in unison. After the crowd was sufficiently excited, the speaker began to recount the problems the staff encountered while working in hotels. I looked around the crowd and saw some of my colleagues; to this day, when I see them, I think of this moment. So being there can elicit emotions in the short-term that can have long-term effects and give the researcher a greater sense of understanding.

This participant observation gave me a first-hand sense of what participants experience and how music is used in activism. Mostly, it was the feeling of being part of something bigger and having a connection to others. Of course, participant observation is only one way to assess the use of music in activism. Historical research augmented by other research strategies is another way I have gauged the emotions and solidarity brought on by music. This type of research can illicit that feeling of empathy one gets in participant observation but it comes more slowly and in a different guise. Combining historical research with observation and oral history has been one way I have attempted to understand activism of the past. This combination of research methods can give one a strong sense of what the workers were experiencing, and hopefully, a deeper understanding of their plight. I and co-authors have used a combination of research approaches to do historical research involving reviewing the literature, visiting field sites, reading and performing oral histories, searching through archives, and performing the music associated with the activism. Each has its place in fleshing out the social movement under study and helps one become immersed in the topic.

For instance, when we first began looking at depression-era mill worker activism that led to the General Strike of 1934, where nearly half a million workers went on strike, I read about the conditions in the mill, the relationships among owners, supervisors and workers, and the everyday lives of mill workers. We visited the towns where the work was performed and talked to some who had been present during the strike. Traveling to Gastonia, NC and seeing the largest mill in the south was an amazing moment. It gave us a real sense of how things must have been for workers living and working there in the 1920s and ‘30s. The mill still loomed over the mill village which is adjacent to the city, part of it and yet apart from it. The houses in the mill village pale in comparison to the mill and give one the idea that it must have indeed been inspirational in some of the songs about the mills in positive and negative ways. When interviewing a mill worker/musician from the time, he noted that his musical group sat on a porch and performed within sight of the mill. Many of these workers came from the mountains to this Piedmont mill town. The giant mill must have seemed like a new mountain, not likely one that nestled and protected them but one that was ever present, bringing mixed blessings to workers. For many, it was the first time they had power and running water. The machinery provided a beat to sing to; the work provided a wage. But it was also in this setting that songs expressing grievances about work in the mill were written and performed.  The songs of the mills were often so harrowing and had such long-lasting effects, that they were banned from local radio play for decades after the strikes. The power of music in activism was present in the mill villages of the southern Piedmont and gave workers hope that they could change their situation. When we played these songs as part of our presentations to academics, they often commented on the power of the music. When I performed locally at retirement homes, members of the audiences often said that the music brought back their days working in the mills or living in mill towns. It was obvious from their reactions that the songs sometimes elicited strong emotions.

Recently, I returned to the southern Piedmont to interview workers and musicians born one, two, and, sometimes, three generations after those involved in the General Strike of 1934. Does music still play a role in their daily lives? It certainly does; music is alive and well in the area. However, the textile mills have left in droves and the work conditions and tight-knit mill life that led to the creation of music linked to activism are largely absent. Still, music is important. Musicians create networks, mostly local but some regional, where they have a sense of solidarity through being musicians and are closely tied to the people in their community. Musicians perform in local clubs, festivals, and schools. Music is also important in what one might call a new artistic activism. Art galleries use music to attract and entertain patrons and guests and spread both the music and art across a wider plane, bringing groups into contact that might otherwise be separated by class or race. By working together, musicians and artists keep the creativity of the region alive and percolating. It is this underlying, pre-existing culture that is important for activism to thrive. It is what activists turn to when the need for change for arises. Activism comes in many forms, just like research. One form may be more sudden and tangible in eliciting understanding, just as one may feel when performing participant observation, such as the General Strike of 1934 that surprised those in power and eventually spawned laws regarding child labor, wages, and work hours. Or it may be a movement to bring art and music to more people, slow and subtle in form compared to strikes but also imbued with deep emotion and the potential to create greater understanding among diverse groups, much like the empathy one derives from doing historical research augmented by methods such as observation, oral histories, and music-centered presentations. Through sociological research, it remains clear that the role of music in society plays an integral part in our everyday lives, perpetuating and creating culture that may be used to bring people together to generate the conditions leading to social change through activism.


Filed under Art, Music, and Movements, Essay Dialogues

4 responses to “How I’ve understood music’s role in activism

  1. Pingback: How I’ve understood music’s role in activism | OccuWorld

  2. I second that! I think we feel instantly connected with music where the feeling of empathy is portrayed. Music has the power to create empathy in pain and distress. Thanks for sharing wisdom through words. I couldn’t agree more, this is complete 🙂


  3. Keep up the great piece of work, I read few articles on this internet site and I think that your website is really interesting and has got circles of great infoimatron.


  4. Javan

    This has been so rich and informative,keep on with the great work


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