Pick any demonstration in New York City and there will be a group of bedraggled old men with boom boxes, playing The Clash and The Sex Pistols as loud as they can. There may even be a black flag raised behind them, with a giant white A enclosed in a circle. Over the loud speakers, you’ll probably also discern a chorus singing 60′s folk songs for all of Union Square to hear. Most of the demonstrators can sing along to the songs, and do so, holding their hands up in a peace sign. But what exactly is the role of the protest song in the United States today?
An anti-war demonstration in New York City in 2009. The march wound it’s way from 23rd street to Folley Square, traveling down Broadway. Each group taking part walked about fifteen feet behind the one in front, making sure their separate chants could be heard. The Campus Anti-War Network (CAN) student contingency used a variety of chants that used singing and beats to strengthen their meaning. Passers-by would clap along with the chants, or else tap their feet and nod their heads. The beat of the chants were empowering, as was the stunning silence when they finished. Between the pouring rain, the sound of our feet, and the power of the voices, the march was a cultural and musical experience.
However, as I walked with the droves of people, I found my mind wandering: What is it about past protest songs that motivate demonstrators? Why has this generation (with so much to protest about) chosen to re-use protest songs of the 60′s and 70′s instead of coming up with their own? (while there are quite a few new protest songs, it only takes one look at the performers at Occupy Wall Street to illustrate this point: Crosby and Nash being the most obvious). It’s appears fairly clear that the mainstream music industry of the current decade isn’t as involved with political issues as the bands of the past were.
Pete Seeger’s music was a driving force in political activism, and his lyrics were overtly critical. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was a specific attack on Lyndon Johnson’s war policies during Vietnam, while he also wrote music that advised young radicals to “Be Kind to Parents” and not break the link between generations. As the world changed, so did Seeger’s music. He began to write about environmental issues, which play no small part in the day-to-day life of the current generation. The Sex Pistols anarchic railing against “the fascist regime” was a pretty clear message (regardless of what their own beliefs were towards the political climate of the time).
The current young-adult generation has certainly kept their generational ties alive. The similarities between current political affairs and those of the 60′s are large but not clear-cut, meaning that old political protest songs have re-emerged with striking power. It is easy to connect to a song that urges ‘the man’ to take another look at the current political and environmental situation of the world. The songs are inspirational and motivational for the thousands of young demonstrators. They make protests spiritual as well as political, and express the worries that protesters feel to a wider audience, thus publicizing goals of that protest.
In the age of the internet, with instant access to front line information via social networks, this is no longer necessary. With the current generation looking to past songs, what we have is a nostalgia for what many consider the ‘golden age’ of protest. The songs of the past heard on Occupy camp sites around the world identify spiritually with the tradition, but suggest this generation, empowered not by individuals but by democratic social engagement, has no need for new icons.
This is also a by-product of the splintered nature of contemporary problems, and over-exposure to diffuse causes. The impression it gives is of a generation of broke ‘twenty-somethings’ struggling to pay off student loans, occupying Wall Street, waxing poetic with acoustic guitars and no unifying musical movement to latch on to. If we had a galvanizing issue, would we have galvanizing songs? Probably. So, in the meanwhile, protesters are calling on Pete Seeger (and Crosby and Nash), to showing the public that we’re “Waist deep in the Big Muddy! And the big fool says to push on!” … Which big muddy are you in? Take your pick.