Monday, January 16, 2017

Should Music Of The Revolution Be "Fuck You" Or "We Shall Overcome"?

This morning in church, the remarks covered a lot of territory.  A couple of things spoke out to me (change happens when you nurture community and speak to your "enemy's" humanity), but the comments about music's role to sustain and foment revolutionary fervor has me feeling confused about what I'm feeling.  Let me see if I can explain.

The minister  told a story from his days as a seminarian when he rode a roller coaster with some seminarian friends of his.  He was terrified beyond reason and found himself singing the words from a spiritual hymn (can't remember the words or the song, sadly) to help him through the first drop of the ride.  His fellow seminarians teased him henceforth, and it became a running gag to sing these lines before even the most common trials, such as an exam.  I found myself amused by the story, but the point was driven home:  music can sustain us in tough times.  Indeed, I often tell people that the Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" was my life in the tumultuous times of junior high.  It was important for me to hear my thoughts and feelings so vividly expressed; it was important for me to know I wasn't alone.

Music, the minster posited, can acknowledge our pain and/or bolster revolutionary action.  Citing Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, the minister (rightly) pointed out that music can be the soundtrack for change.  Another minister talked about her time crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  In talking to folks who had been there in 1965, one the things that the movie Selma got wrong was music.  There was music everywhere, carrying the group forward, helping them through dark times.

I felt like music was being pitched as something that can simultaneously be an instrument of sustenance, change AND reconciliation.  Music can meet you where you're at.  I agree; there's nothing objectionable about that, right?  It's true, I believe, especially with the examples cited during that service:  "We Shall Overcome" and "Amazing Grace".  So why did I feel uneasy about these sentiments?

I mean, hell:  I knew these songs in particular quite well.  My music teachers at St. Mary's in Anderson, Indiana might as well have been Wobblies, for it is there I learned not only of lefty politics, but these radical thoughts were put to music.  I can remember standing on a riser with my class singing "De Colores", "We Shall Overcome", "Abraham, Martin, and John" and "Ship Of Democracy" for people in nursing homes, for Christ's sake.  I took written tests on the likes of Woody Guthrie.  I can still remember the LP that Sister Melanie (or was it Mrs. Smith?) played of "Little Boxes" and "Rock Candy Mountain" - I fucking hated those songs, hated singing them in class.  It took me years to see them as brilliant masterpieces of social criticism. Given my intimacy with songs that inspired the movements of the past, why was I squirming in my seat?

I sorta alluded to it in a previous post.

I guess it was because what I was listening to at the time I was learning these songs:  the Minutemen, Black Flag, MDC, the Dead Kennedys - songs that gave voice to the anger I was feeling; if not in the lyrics (can't say I was harassed too much by the cops), definitely in the abrasive tone and energy.  These songs were ANGRY, these songs acknowledged futility and embraced uncertainty.  That's where I'm at - angry, unsure if my way of life is futile, but knowing no other way.  "Police Story" should be the anthem of the Trump Era.  (Fuck, it pains me to even capitalize that.)

This is where I'm at:  the U.S. is fucked.  It will be fucked long after Trump is gone.  It's time to channel my inner cockroach and scavenge to survive if it comes to that.  I am ready to take what comes next and embrace chaos as a tool, not a problem.  Disruption and discomfort will help to right the ship.  I do not believe violence will ever bring about long term, meaningful change; but I do not believe writing my congressman and singing "We Shall Overcome" will get any traction with those who write laws.  In 2017 I will seek to ally myself with the dispossessed, as any student of history knows that is where true change happens - from the bottom, not the top.  I have fantasies about destroying everything (a very punk sentiment) and rebuilding from there.  Reconciliation feels like something you do after you win the war; let reconciliation happen for me and mine in my life time.  Not to diminish its meaning, but "We Shall Overcome" is for generations before mine; it is not mine.

The question I'm left with today is this:  What, if any, is the role of anger and discontent in change?  I have this energy, this anger.  It doesn't feel like a liability to me.  Is it wrong?  Many folks who have the same values as me like that quote that goes "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."  I hate that fucking quote because it makes justice sound like a foregone conclusion.  You have to fight for justice even after it is achieved.  Do you agree?  If so, what is your soundtrack?

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