Inside the Capitol

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Can occupiers survive without a song?

112111 Protest Songs

SANTA FE – My wife and I were watching the Country Music Awards last week when we realized that country music has gone the way of almost all other forms of music – single octave shouting, with the same words yelled over and over.
We wondered what students do on bus trips these days. They can't sing popular songs because there are few words and no melodies. Guess they just vegetate while listening to their smart phones play music.
That led to a discussion of what all the kids, camped out in parks these days do for songs. We remember the 60s and all the great songs of that protest movement, recorded by top stars on top labels. It was easy to sing those.
Can a movement survive without songs? Maybe it can. The tea partiers did a good job. We never went to a rally. Maybe they sang patriotic songs. But they were more organized and mature.
We didn't participate in the 1960s protests either. We were out of college, had jobs and I was in the New Mexico Air National Guard. But we certainly heard the music and could see how it would make a young person want to get up and march.
Maybe it will happen but there isn't much to work with. Television networks no longer carry musical and variety shows. Many bands or individuals have recorded protest music and many are available to play for the occupy gatherings.
But these groups don't record for big labels. They don't get much publicity and although their music carries strong messages, it isn't the sing-along sort of thing.
In the past week, I have become aware of groups promoting social issues that are teaching old protest songs to their members. Some are writing new lyrics to the old songs. And there are plenty of old songs.
How far back do protest songs and marching songs go? They are at least as old as our nation. Our revolutionary troops had many songs. Americans have always been musical. It drew notice from foreigners even in colonial days.
The most inspiring of all fight songs is "Battle Hymn of the Republic" from the Civil War period. It was the Union Army's marching song, penned by Julia Ward Howe to the tune of "John Brown's Body."
Howe improved on the words dramatically and produced a song that has endured for 150 years and should continue for much longer.
"Battle Hymn of the Republic" has become a standard in church hymnals and patriotic observances. Phrases from the lyrics have been lifted for speeches, sermons and book titles.
And with different words it is used for college fight songs, by athletic teams of all types worldwide and by labor movements as Solidarity Forever.
I recently saw a version written for a labor group that could become the anthem for the occupy movement simply because of the familiarity and stirring nature of the melody.
But musicians of the protest movement won't like it. This isn't 1960; it is 2011, they say. Musical tastes have changed.
They have, but it will take a toe-tapper to keep them going. There's no need to write a new melody. In the early days, the tunes of protest songs were taken from popular beer-drinking songs.
Of course, the marching songs of military troops had to be considerably sanitized before they could hit the pop charts. And, of course, our national anthem was once a British beer drinking song with very bawdy words.
Roswell historian Dave Clary helped me with the marching (or walking) songs from other wars we have fought. The anthem of the Texas war for independence was "Green Grow the Violets."
I seem to remember that song title is one of the theories about how the term "gringo" came about.
Clary has a feeling that the movement will never get anywhere as long as they call themselves "occupiers." He thinks "99ers" has a much better ring to it.


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