You Say You Want a Revolution
Occupy movement in need of an anthem
By Michael Collins
From the DePaulia, the Student Newspaper of De Paul University
Published: Sunday, November 6, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Perhaps everyone was spoiled by the ‘60s. A miraculous confluence of artists such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez lent their voices to the anti-war and civil rights movements. Certain songs became anthems and rallying cries for an entire generation fed up with the inequalities that surrounded them.
Songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Give Peace a Chance,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” were widely heard at protests, marches, sit-ins and on the radio. Maybe the message was more easily grasped because it was framed literally in terms of black and white.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has been catching flack for not having a unifying theme or a specific list of demands. The times may have changed, but the universal themes of greed and selfishness are just as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. For a social movement to gather steam and really go global, history has shown it helps to have your message set to music.
In some drum circles it’s Occupy Wall Street’s lack of great protest songs that is drawing criticism. The current employment and financial crisis might not be easily summed up in verse. It is hard to find a convenient rhyme for the words “credit default swaps” or “financial derivatives” after all.
Old Town Folk School’s Resource Center manager, Colby Maddox, is the kind of guy you would never want to be up against in a music trivia game. He would destroy you, mercilessly, and with a smile. He believes that protest songs have a place our day and age, but the overriding societal issues are radically different and the stakes are nowhere near as high. “In the ‘60s, there was the danger of being drafted and dying,” he said. “That will really color your outlook on things.”
So where is the next Bob Dylan or Joan Baez? Joe Tessone of the Industrial Workers of the World points in the direction of Tom Morello, former guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, and his current work, The Nightwatchmen. Tessone also recommends Billy Bragg and Conor Oberst. There’s some good music here, but will it ever hold up against “The Times They Are a-Changin’?”
There are many musical groups out there today voicing their anger with the establishment. They run the gamut from punk to hard rock to coffee house troubadours. Bands with names like Anti-Flag and Rise Against have claimed the megaphone and the microphone.
While popular in certain circles, these angry bands still haven’t gained the acclaim and the popularity of their ‘60s predecessors. Anger can turn people off. “Folk music has a politeness to it,” Maddox says. “It’s ‘I’m angry and I’m in your living room but I might want to date your daughter so I’m reserved.'”
War certainly brings us together – whether for or against it. Artists such as Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Ben Harper and Sheryl Crow wrote anti-war songs about the Iraq War. Steve Earle even camped out at President Bush’s Crawford Ranch with guitar in hand. That war is finally set to come to an end, not due to public outrage or the actions of people in the streets, but due to politics and budget constraints. Maybe the times haven’t changed all that much.
Social media hasn’t given us our protest gurus. Instead, the internet’s crowning achievement thus far is Justin Bieber singing and longing for his “Baby.” Maddox points out a Chicago singer named Mark Dvorak and his song “I’m the 99”, which can be seen on Facebook and YouTube. It’s timely, earnest and his heart is on his sleeve. Let’s just say it lacks the seething steam of Dylan’s “Masters of War”.
Some of the folk legends are making their presence felt at the Occupy marches, as evidenced by 92-year-old Pete Seeger marching through Manhattan’s Upper West Side recently with two canes and chanting “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” Joan Baez just played at Chicago’s Symphony Center last week. As for Bob Dylan, well, he never stopped touring. He just stopped enunciating.
There are a lot of artists still fighting the good fight armed with nothing more than a guitar and a vision of the way things ought to be. They have big shoes to fill but have resources that singers of the 60’s could only dream of. For now, the drums still beat and the people still chant and sing. The overriding question is: Will everyone listen?