Posted in: American Vocabulary

The Fall of Folk

By | February 9, 2015

She went to Sarajevo during the civil war, singing while the bombs fell.

She called an album “Where Are You Now, My Son?” after a twenty-minute song filled with confusion, mourning, a mother’s cries, the sound of death. She called it singing, but the lyrics were moans and the music was air raid sirens, parts of it accompanied by her poetic commentary, all of it recorded in the bomb shelters and war-torn streets of Hanoi. In her “Song of Bangladesh,” she condemned the “laws upon which nations stand, which say to sacrifice a people for a land.” Joan Baez refused, at age sixteen, to leave her classroom during an air-raid drill. She staged sit-ins at armed forces induction centers to protest the Vietnam War. She said in a 1967 Pop Chronicles interview, “I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands attended Baez’s concerts—people who sought a better tomorrow or who wanted her voice to wash away their cares. She numbered among a host of folk and rock singers, whose ranks included the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, that expanded the genre of protest music and thereby aimed to spark or join in political and social activism. Even this year, when Rolling Stone asked its readers to name the nation’s greatest protest songs, nine of the 10 chosen belong to the folk and rock musicians of these decades. Two of those are the work of Young or of a band of which he was a member. Four are Dylan’s.

Though it is natural for fame to die out over time, those earlier activists possess few modern equivalents. The Vietnam-era folk singers’ sentiment of solidarity is echoed in occasional concerts to support Haiti after the 2010 earthquake or Oklahoma after tornadoes in 2013. But it seldom fills the entire oeuvre of today’s most renowned American artists. Young did produce an album protesting the Iraq War, but he—like so many who still sing for social change—belongs more to the 1970s than to the 2000s or 2010s. Bands such as the Rolling Stones, Green Day, and Pearl Jam also sang against the war, but only as transient parts of their careers. They are not known for their protest songs.

Who now stands for the “weary mothers of the earth” and imprisoned immigrants? Where are the widespread outcries against environmental concerns? Baez, Dylan, Seeger, and Odetta sang in war and sorrow, directing their songs toward particular events when compelled by them. Their message never wavered in the 1960s and did not return to normalcy between the peaks of the world’s pain and outrage. But modern songs of idealism are forgotten until another tragedy again calls them to mind. We still need champions for these causes, leaders in their tradition to remind us that the fight for equality is ongoing. We still need singers to voice the interests of the downtrodden.

Much of these singers’ popularity has not survived the generations. Baez produced eight gold albums in the United States, releasing the last in 1975. Odetta, a singer and legend of the civil rights movement, slipped out of the public eye in the late 1960s. Even then, Americans were beginning to move on from the era in which Rosa Parks had expressed faith in the meaning of Odetta’s blues, ballads, and folk music. Occidental College professor Peter Dreier names six singers among the 20th-century activists in his book The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, but just one 21st-century musician in his 2012 Huffington Post article “50 Young Progressive Activists Who Are Changing America.”

Pete Seeger, integral to protest music since the 1940s, sang at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan when Occupy Wall Street demanded economic equity there in 2011. So did Baez and others belonging to her generation of musical political activism. And so did Tom Morello, the only 21st-century singer Dreier mentioned. But although music was significant to the Occupy protestors’ efforts, its energy failed to catch hold. It did not unite activists because, as sincere as these singers were, they could not identify a single, central goal for the movement. In an interview with The New York Times, British critic Dorian Lynskey pointed out that it was much more difficult to sing about “a financial crisis where the villains are obscure and the solutions are obscure.”

Today, Baez, like Young, continues to fight for these causes but seems unable to stir a larger movement. For now, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are among America’s most renowned activist singers: “Same Love,” their single supporting gay rights, topped charts after its 2013 release. Some of the duo’s other songs, such as “Stay at Home Dad” and “White Privilege,” also possess a socially conscious, progressive bent.

Still, the absence of protest songs, and of the direct political engagement that accompanies them, has been notable. Perhaps the change is a societal one. Current movements have often migrated from the public sphere into the private, exploring, for instance, the personal pieces of gender equality that Macklemore does in “Stay at Home Dad.” An article by David Bauder of the Associated Press, for one, attributes the change to a increasingly private experience of listening to music: people spend more time wearing headphones now and less time enjoying songs together. Such an explanation might account for some part of the transition. With protest music, context matters, particularly in America’s recent decades. The singers who popularized protest songs in the 1960s and 1970s identified with folk music, a genre reliant on group engagement.

Their relationship with activism also went both ways. Harvard Kennedy School professor Timothy McCarthy pointed out in an interview with the HPR that in the 1960s and 1970s, protest achieved an “incredibly visible and public” prominence never matched before or after. He believes it is unsurprising that artists responded to this trend. Protest music was not merely a fringe effort with which a few singers engaged. It was a phenomenon integral to popular culture.

“But modern songs of idealism are forgotten until another tragedy again calls them to mind. We still need champions for these causes, leaders in their tradition to remind us that the fight for equality is ongoing. We still need singers to voice the interests of the downtrodden.”

“But modern songs of idealism are forgotten until another tragedy again calls them to mind. We still need champions for these causes, leaders in their tradition to remind us that the fight for equality is ongoing. We still need singers to voice the interests of the downtrodden.”

In other words, Baez, Dylan, and Odetta were able to perform at the March on Washington in part because, well, the March on Washington existed. Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, an iconic folk group of the 1960s that also performed on that day, later noted the event as the moment when she herself realized the power of song. The protest music that became the group’s focus grew out of that opportunity. “Now music began to inspire America, tweak its conscience,” she recalled in a 2014 PBS Documentary. “I remember being up on the steps of the Lincoln monument and I truly believed at that moment that it was possible, proof-positive possible, that human beings could join together for their greater good … It changed the way we saw the world and our role in it.”

The music industry deserves some blame for protest songs’ devolving potency. In the 1970s, it exploited protest anthems’ popularity, encouraging their decline into folk rock and psychedelic music’s meaninglessly general complaints about life, said contemporary historian Jerome Rodnitzky in Essays on Radicalism in Contemporary America. Watching the fade into hazy frustration, he commented that such a shift “destroys specific political protest. By saying everything, it must in effect say nothing.” In the 21st century, the music industry creates an equally great and entirely opposite obstacle to protest music’s fame. At least in the opinion of Peter, Paul and Mary’s Peter Yarrow, it now rejects the radical messages it once helped popularize. “The bean counters took over,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “The bottom line is music has been destroyed by the all-mighty dollar.”

If the collapse in protest music’s popularity did not result from changes in society, however, it did reflect them. In the 1960s, folk music was the music of college students. Rodnitzky notes that the genre was central to young people’s lives on politically active campuses. As those students aged, the Vietnam War drew to a close, the civil rights movement lost Martin Luther King, Jr.’s powerful leadership, and protest music felt less relevant.

To some degree, the hip-hop revolution of the 1970s and 1980s took folk music’s place. Though much of the revolution’s beginnings gave way to less politically motivated music, that influence has lasted. It is capable, still, of sparking social change. In McCarthy’s words, hip-hop is a “sharp, in-your-face representation of protest.”

Yet rap’s politically active side has been hidden in recent years, dwelling in the shade of the genre’s most prominent songs, which frequently focus more on “sex, partying, consumerism, violence, and self-promotion,” as Forbes’ Ruth Blatt phrased it. And the American audience has shown little interest in rap musicians who devote themselves to protest songs. Jessica Disu, or FM Supreme, is a rapper and peace activist known in Chicago for her efforts to curb gun violence, but she lacks nationwide fame. Awkword is another socially conscious rapper with scant support; to his disappointment, his 2014 release of World View, an album whose proceeds went entirely to charity, went relatively unnoticed.

The outcry following the events in Ferguson, Missouri this year may be reigniting musical political activism that draws on both the hip-hop and folk traditions. Tom Morello is one of a group of artists responding to the August shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. He released his protest song “Marching on Ferguson” this October, its title hearkening back to the March on Washington. Folk singer Ezra Furman’s “Ferguson’s Burning” draws evident inspiration, in terms of sound and message, from the legacy that Dylan built. Musician Questlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) urged fellow hip-hop singers to create protest anthems addressing the events in Ferguson, and many rose to the challenge. D’Angelo, also a hip-hop artist, dedicated his December 2014 album Black Messiah to “the people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.”

This variety in musical forms fits with McCarthy’s understanding of a striking aspect of the #BlackLivesMatter protests following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others at the hands of law enforcement officials. This is a “movement that is far more democratic” than past movements, McCarthy remarked: because it represents more than “one voice,” its music “may itself have a kind of democratic ethos.” He expects that, as the movement continues, its musical force will grow but will not claim a single figurehead in the style of hip-hop’s Tupac or folk’s Baez.

Events like Garner and Brown’s deaths recreate the anguish of the 1960s and
the sense of injustice that drove the civil rights movement. But today’s responses have the potential to unite music with protest and recall the aspirations that pushed society closer to equity. Such movements provide an energy that has been too often lacking in the last decades, an opportunity to demand change of the magnitude that the 1960s and 1970s activists effected.

Image Credit: Flickr / Heinrich Klaffs

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