Civics For Change: Music & Movements
Music is inextricably linked to social movements. From the songs enslaved people would sing to get through each long day to modern-day protest songs and political anthems, each era is encapsulated within many melodies. For me, music was one of the primary inspirations for studying civic engagement and now working in the youth voting space. Countless songs have served as motivation or reminders when the task at hand was challenging, or have accompanied celebrations throughout achievements. Starting in the 1960s, this installment of our Civics For Change blog series offers a look, or listen, back on some of the songs that change-makers wrote, performed, and listened to throughout the decades. Listen along as you read using this playlist.
During a time of racial unrest following decades of Jim-Crow era injustices and violence, countless artists called for change. Simon & Garfunkel’s song titled He Was My Brother was written in memory of Andrew Goodman, with the lyrics:
He was my brother
Five years older than I
He was my brother
Twenty-three years old the day he died
They cursed my brother to his face
Go home outsider
This town’s gonna be your buryin’ place
He was singin’ on his knees
An angry mob trailed along
They shot my brother dead
Because he hated what was wrong
He was my brother
Tears can’t bring him back to me
He was my brother
And he died so his brothers could be free
He died so his brothers could be free
One of many songs written to honor Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, He Was My Brother pinpoints the complexities behind the tragic end to their stories– the Ku Klux Klan shot the “outsiders” because they hated what was wrong, but their deaths were not in vain. As news spread of what happened to the three young men, the nation began to see how volatile racial relations were in the South, serving as a catalyst for the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They died so their brothers and generations of voters to come could be free.
The seventies are known for its counterculture and anti-war sentiments in response to the Vietnam War. The war and its resulting draft sparked many demonstrations throughout the late sixties into the seventies, one of which was held by students at Kent State University in northeast Ohio. The day after President Nixon ordered an invasion of Cambodia, hundreds of students gathered to protest on campus. Nixon sent in the Ohio National Guard the next day due to reports of clashes between student protesters and the local police. Two days later, on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard attempted to prevent a major protest students had been planning. The crowd refused to disperse, and began throwing rocks at the guardsmen before they retreated up Blanket Hill. Once they reached the top, witnesses recall 28 guardsmen turned around and began firing their rifles. Over only thirteen seconds, over 70 shots were fired, killing four students: Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller, and Sandra Scheuer, and injuring nine others. The shooting at Kent State University was the inspiration behind the song titled Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The lyrics of the first verse read:
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been gone long ago
What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young had performed at Woodstock the year before, cementing their presence in the anti-war counterculture scene. Ohio ends with asking the question, how many more?, a call for contemplation as to how many more people will have died before the nation saw the end of the war, which did not come until April of 1975.
The eighties were a difficult time in our nation’s history during which 100,000+ people died from the AIDS epidemic. The Reagan Administration refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic, which resulted in the government neglecting the pressing needs of those who were impacted the most by the AIDS epidemic: the queer community. In the face of such neglect, Dionne Warwick joined Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder onstage to raise money for AIDS research by performing the now-classic hit song Warwick wrote titled That’s What Friends Are For. The lyrics describe much of what the queer community was called upon to do: to care for our friends in the good, and especially, the bad times. Largely due to there being little capacity to accurately diagnose and treat HIV/AIDS in the eighties, the AIDS epidemic is still not over– 600,000+ people die each year from the virus. In order to help the effort to end the epidemic by 2030, we must continue to take care of ourselves and our communities, and remain by the side of our loved ones in the good, bad, and all the times in between.
The nineties were full of various social movements, one of which being the third wave of feminism. The feminism of the nineties focused on redefining the common perceptions of what it meant to be a woman, rejecting the long-held patriarchal standards of beauty and ‘feminine’ or ‘lady-like’ behaviors and actions. Riot Grrrl, an underground sub-cultural movement sprung up in the early nineties and represented the combination of feminism, punk music, and politics. Inspired by the work of feminist artist Juliana Lueking, punk band Bikini Kill wrote the song titled Rebel Girl, with lyrics attacking sexism while celebrating queer women, self-love, and independence, all notions that were part of the third wave of feminism:
When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there’s revolution
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution
Rebel Girl became the anthem of the Riot Grrrl movement, and Bikini Kill continued on to inspire generations of feminist rock artists carrying on their message from the nineties to today.
The years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks marked another dark time in our nation’s history, with the War on Terror that followed claiming the lives of over 7,000 United States soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The song titled Travelin’ Soldier was originally written by Bruce Robinson in the early nineties when one of his coworkers was being called up to active duty, which led him to contemplate dying young in war. In the early 2000s, as the United States got closer to warring with Iraq, The Chicks recorded their version of the song, with heartbreaking lyrics:
Never gonna hold the hand of another guy
“Too young for him,” they told her
Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier
Our love will never end
Waitin’ for the soldier to come back again
Nevermore to be alone
When the letter said, “A soldier’s comin’ home”
For the thousands of families and loved ones waiting to hear from soldiers abroad, Travelin’ Soldier deeply resonated, and The Chicks took the song to the number one spot on the Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart in 2003.
Following the 2008 economic recession, times were tough for all but the ultra-wealthy. The Occupy Wall Street movement began in September of 2011 to protest income inequality and corporate corruption. Known to be where the 1-percenter terminology gained momentum, the week-long demonstration took place in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, forcing those who worked on Wall Street to acknowledge the calls for change being shouted on the streets below their offices. The movement led to demonstrations popping up in cities across the nation, one of which I attended in Syracuse, NY, at ten years old (pictured below), holding a sign that read: “when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
Stark income equality and corporate corruption has resulted in numerous societal issues, nearly all mentioned in the lyrics to a powerful song titled We Can’t Make It Here Anymore by James McMurtry. The song describes the issues of inadequate treatment for Vietnam War veterans, Americans losing their jobs due to overseas labor outsourcing, business failing due to the recession, folks working three or more jobs just to get by, the lack of sex education which led to young people choosing parenthood over an education or career, racial injustice, the military targeting low-income youth in recruitment, and the class struggle between the ultra-wealthy 1% and the rest of us, the 99%. McMurtry was praised for his work, and he decided to make the song free to listen to on all existing platforms in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Two major events in 2020 have shaped our nation’s recent history: the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. The Black Lives Matter movement gained significant traction in response to continued racially-motivated acts of police brutality, George Floyd’s death being the tipping point. Protests broke out across the nation, some in cities where COVID-19 was spreading, which presented many obstacles to the movement’s growth. People were frustrated with quarantine lockdowns and curfews during a time when many felt called to protest police brutality and the general disregard for Black people’s lives. Protester’s frustration continued as police officers used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds at protests that began peacefully. The song titled Lockdown by the talented rapper and drummer Anderson. Paak offers a first-hand perspective of the protesters on the ground:
You should’ve been downtown
The people are risin’
We thought it was a lockdown
They opened the fire
Them bullets was flyin’
Who said it was a lockdown? Goddamn lie
Oh my, time heals all but you outta time now
Judge gotta watch us from the clock tower
Lil’ tear gas cleared the whole place out
I’ll be back with the hazmat for the next round
We was tryin’ to protest, then the fires broke out
Look out for the secret agents, they be planted in the crowd
Said, “It’s civil unrest” but you sleep so sound
Like you don’t hear the screams when we catchin’ beatdowns
Stayin’ quiet when they killin’ n****s, but you speak loud
When we ride, got opinions comin’ from a place of privilege
Sicker than the COVID, how they did him on the ground
Speakin’ of the COVID, is it still goin’ around?
Oh, won’t you tell me ’bout the lootin’, what’s that really all about?
‘Cause they throw away Black lives like paper towels
Plus unemployment rate, what, forty million now?
Killed a man in broad day, might never see a trial
We just wanna break chains like slaves in the South
Started in the North End but we in the downtown
Riot cops try to block, now we gotta show down
Lockdown has become a modern political anthem among people young and old, and it even earned a spot on President Obama’s 2020 Summer Playlist.
Music has always been and will continue to be a powerful force for unity and understanding in the best and worst of times. These and many other songs serve as reminders of how far we have come, and the work we still have yet to do. At live music events today, the intersection of music and movements continues on with organizations promoting voter registration and environmental action, such as HeadCount and REVERB. Stay tuned for an episode of our Live The Legacy Podcast where we will go further in-depth on the many intersections of music and social movements.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mia Matthews is the Program and Communications Manager at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. In her position, she works with student leaders and in communications and storytelling surrounding their work. She currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts.