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.