Tag Archives: Phil Ochs

The Role of the Arts in Political Protest

By Ron Eyerman

Understood in the broadest sense to include music and street theater as well as all forms of visual representation, artistic expression has an undisputed place in contemporary social activism. There is a long, perhaps even ancient history of wall writing and what we would today call street art and graffiti used as means to express discontent and catch public attention. Recall the humorous scene in Monty’ Python’s Life of Brian, where an occupying Roman soldier corrects the Latin grammar in a rebellious piece of street art. While this may be fanciful fiction, it reflects a reality in the current Palestinian conflict (think local activists as well as Banksy), as well as in our own Occupy movement. More stylized and professional art forms, and artists, have been involved in political protests and movements throughout the modern era and the linkages between aesthetics and politics, art and propaganda has been long debated. Can political art be good art, can good art be political? How effective is politicized art and the artists who make it? What exactly does art do in demonstrations of political protest? These are some of the issues I would like to address. Continue reading

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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”). Continue reading

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Filed under Art, Music, and Movements, Essay Dialogues