Tag Archives: protest music

An Anthem for Solidarity?

By Andrea Bohlman

I have known this song for a long time. I was singing it when I didn’t even know that singing would be my profession. Long, long before. For me, it was a song of hope, hope for something big, for a victory—I treated it like the song which accompanied the army divisions leaving Portugal in 1974. . . . This song is one of the best songs ever written. I have always sung it, I have always known it, but I could not imagine that somebody would ever ask me to sing and record it.[1]

When the prominent Polish rocker Kazik evoked the mythical transcendence of the “Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski” (“Ballada Janka Wiśniewskiego”) in a 2011 interview, he accorded it a kind of universal significance typically located in anthems prominent in social movements on the “right side” of history. Eternal and great, the song appears mysteriously ephemeral in Kazik’s tale of its personal meaning. In response to Kazik, I want to ground this anthem in history. 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


Filed under Art, Music, and Movements, Essay Dialogues