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The new Smithsonian Folkways archival compilation The Social Power of Music is weighty (and delightful) in more ways than one. With selections culled from over 60,000 live and studio recordings, this four-CD set reminds us how much music made both in and outside of America has historically been dedicated to community uplift or speaking truth to power. Loosely separated into thematic categories like "Songs of Struggle", "Sacred Sounds", "Social Songs", and "Global Movements": the diverse tracks here were chosen in part to promote the upcoming 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual free concert that has been celebrating the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage on the National Mall of Washington D.C. since its founding in 1967. Curated by Jeff Place and Meredith Holmgren, The Social Power of Music cherry-picks songs from UNESCO projects -- as well as the Folkways, Cook, Monitor, Arhoolie, Paradon, Collector, and Smithsonian Folkways labels -- to brilliantly showcase the ways protest music can be deployed to educate and organize communities for the greater good. But let's not forget production values. Even the live cuts have clean track separation, leaving vocals and instrumentation sounding clear as a bell. To quote Anthony Seeger's essay on protest music: "A song's impact derives not only from its text and melody, but from the sound quality of the performer's voice, its relationship to silence and instruments, and the interaction of multiple voices with each other."
Packaged like an oversized coffee table book that's as long and wide as an old-fashioned vinyl album, this hefty collection is prefaced by copious liner notes contextualized by vivid photographs and historical essays that give equal attention to a wide range of material. Irony and humor -- distilled from the blues, and other folk traditions -- enhance the songs of Disc 1 in which wry anti-war songs like Pete Seeger's "Where Have all the Flowers Gone" and Country Joe MacDonald's sardonic "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die," blend seamlessly into earnest pleas for economic justice like Andrés Jiménez's " El Pobre Sigue Sufriendo," and the Christian spiritual "I Woke Up This Morning" sung at a rally by the fearless black voting-rights activist Fanny Lou Hamer.
There are memorable feminist tracks here too -- surprising to me mostly because I had not heard them before. Bobby McGee's sassy rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid" features killer couplets ("There once was a union maid/ who never was afraid/ of the goons and ginks, and company finks/ and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid"), as does Peggy Seeger's "Reclaim the Night" recorded in the 1970s to oppose sexual predators together with the patriarchal social and legal conventions that protect them. Seeger declaims harrowing verses about rampant abuse of women and children with a cappella female backup: "And if a man should rape a child/ it's not because his spirit's wild/ our system gives the prize to all/ who trample on the weak and small/ When fathers rape, they surely know/ their kids have nowhere else to go." Tunes this lyrically harsh are few and far between here, because most songwriters follow G.B. Shaw's edict to make people laugh if you insist on telling them the truth. The jolly bite of Scotsman Ewan MacColl's "Legal/Illegal" is the perfect example of this. "It's illegal to rip off a payroll," he chirps alongside his wife Peggy Seeger, "it's illegal to hold up a train/ But it's legal to rip off a million or two, that comes from the labor that other folk do, /To plunder the many, on behalf of the few, is a thing that is perfectly legal."
Throughout these recordings, people sing to express joy, sadness, anger, ideas and unity. Accordingly, there is music here for dancing, for praying, for marching, for learning, and for throwing bricks. Multiple religions (including atheism) are represented; you can listen to the Navajo ceremonial "Night Chant," Buddhist prayers from Vietnam, UNESCO recordings of Sufi chants from Kosovo, black gospel quartets, or the Polish cantor and holocaust survivor Abraham Brun, who delivers a gorgeous version of "Kol Nidre" for the high holy day of atonement.
Far from the politically divisive tactics of pitting one set of beliefs or creeds against another, these songs make no false distinctions between believers and non-believers. The equality of Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Animist, and Atheist is taken for granted in each of these hymns, because they never try to elevate one group by putting another down. Zuni, Navajo, and Plains Indian spirituality is represented too, even though these tribes are usually reluctant to expose their religious traditions to outsiders.
Many of the performers represented not only sang against oppression, but marched and organized against it as well. In some cases this led to both physical and economic reprisals that ended careers, marriages, and even lives. Paul Robeson's classic rendition of "Joe Hill" (done for a British label) is particularly moving in light of how Robeson -- actor, singer, linguist, lawyer, star athlete, and political activist -- was persecuted by the U.S. government for being a vocal supporter of Black civil rights, anti-colonial agitation, Stalinist Russia, and the American Communist Party. Message material collected from South American, Caribbean, and African artists may recall American interventions on the wrong side of specific labor and electoral disputes, but this is not all they talk about. Lilly Tchiumba of Angola is captured singing for Angolan women's rights during her country's war for independence from Portugal. The Nicaraguan nueva cancion bands who were also prolific composers during wartime, wrote of the common people's hope for social justice in the wake of a Sandinista victory.
But of course the struggle for a more perfect world never ends, and it would be naive to believe the featured artists on this compilation didn't understand this. That may be why the party music on Disc 3 is so important. To dance . . . to play, romance, or even drink your troubles away, is how most of us relax and get strong before the next round of obstacles and battles come our way. The struggle indeed continues. Fortunately, what also continues are the "second line" jazz parades, the banjo pickers, the polka rhythms, the Pow Wow dancers, the carnival sambas, and the funky blues combos. Through every era and every war, musicians march and sing beside us to help us survive. At their best, they bring joy to every cause by offering fresh insight and resilience that reinvigorates our own.
One might be forgiven for wishing The Social Power of Music had come out in time to be gifted over Christmas. After November's midterm elections brought America a raft of new congressional representatives ready and willing to fight the negative policies of the current administration, this is the soundtrack for the revolution they have already begun to lead. For if the pen is mightier than the sword, then a song might ultimately be an even more powerful form of persuasion than either -- even in the age of viral Tweets. For as the IWW songwriter and union martyr Joe Hill pointed out in 1914: "A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over."
Published in: First of the Month, March 1, 2019
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