Whenever we think of socially conscious music, the folk music of the 1960s instantly comes to mind for many people. Along with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary participated in many civil rights martches and anti-war events. Recently, Mary Travers died after battling leukemia for 3 years. They sang the Pete Seeger song “If I Had A Hammer” at the March on Washington in 1963 and they popularized many of Bob Dylans songs. Here is a performance of the trio singing the Dylan song “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”.
My school years were during the 1980s and though it doesn’t have the same reputation as being a political time as the 1960s, I remember a lot of political movements during that time. It was the time of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and there was a lot of opposition to their policies of military buildup and cutbacks on government social programs. The AIDs epidemic was killing many of the gay population. People were working to fight apartheid in South Africa and fighting to stop aid to the Contras in El Salvador. Average Americans in the rustbelt and in farming communities were suffering from declining economies. I remember many people being involved to try to fight for just causes.
The punk, new wave, ska and reggae music during that time had many political messages. I used to borrow friends’ tapes and when I listened to musicians like the Specials and the Clash, the lyrics protested against Margaret Thatcher and the struggles of British working class people. In my math class, I sat next to a really nice girl who dressed in punk outfits and talked to me about the different bands and their messages of subversion and protest. One of the most memorable political songs of that time was “Free Nelson Mandela” by the British ska group, the Specials. The Specials were formed specifically to fight racism, and its members integrated black and white musicians. The anti-apartheid cause fight nicely with their political stances and the song became popular with activists in South Africa.
Two really great musicians who wrote songs for working class people were Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp. I came about admiring Bruce Springsteen rather late, not listening to anything by him until his “Born in the U.S.A.” album. I really liked John Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow” album and it’s still one of my favorite albums to listen to. When I listened to both albums, I noticed that Springsteen and Mellencamp are singing about slightly different subjects: Springsteen seems to be singing about blue collar workers while Mellencamp seems to be singing about rural farm communities. Both groups of people suffered heavily during the Reagan years, as the economy seemed to be moving away from the products that these two communities relied upon for their economic livelihoods. Both Springsteen and Mellencamp are still active in social causes, as Springsteen is currently helping out with World Hunger Year to help fight hunger and Mellencamp regularly participates in FarmAid.
Many of the best social conscious music were coming from musicians with a decidedly folk tinge. In 1988 Tracy Chapman released the album “Tracy Chapman” with songs about unemployment lines and poverty and she toured that year in the Amnesty International Human Rights tour. The Indigo Girls came out of Atlanta, Georgia, and have fought for gay rights, the rights of Native Americans, for the environment and to abolish the death penalty. They are continuing the folk tradition of political activism that was forged by Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie.
I have never really been a fan of rap music, but I’ve learned that rap music has had some of the most trenchant political commentary in music in the past 20 years. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, rap had its most political phase, as it commented on the poverty of the African American poor and the tribulations of people trapped in the inner cities. One of the most influential rap groups was Public Enemy, whose albums “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet” had strong social stances. Public Enemy and the more political rap groups influenced later activists and artists like Boondocks cartoonist Aaron McGruder. In an interview with R.C. Harvey for the September 2003 Comics Journal, McGruder noted:
“My political perspectives as a young adult was shaped by hip hop’s political era, which was 1987 to 1992, roughly when I was in junior high and high school. We had Public Enemy, KRS-One, X-Clan, Brand Nubian and all of those very overtly political groups… It was actually Black Nationalism; it was radical socialism. There was no black leadership supplying these political ideals to the next generation, and what few people there were, a lot of us- discovered that through hip hop.”
After the mid 1990s, I no longer kept in touch with what is popular in music. So sometimes I feel like an old fogie because I don’t know what the latest group or top ten song. So my wife and my nieces and nephew sometimes let me listen to their CDs and I find out the newest songs. I think there is probably great music being made by socially conscious musicians today. I end this blog with a quote from Howard Zinn’s book “Conversations on History and Politics”. Zinn wrote:
“It was people in the arts who perhaps had the greatest emotional effect on me. Singers such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Paul Robeson. Writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London. I was reading the newspapers and Karl Marx. I was reading all sorts of subversive matter. But there was something special about the effect of what artists did.
And by artists I mean not only singers and musicians but poets, novelists, people in the theater. It always seemed to me that there was a special power that artists had when they commented, either in their own work or outside their work, on what was going on in the world. There was a kind of force that they brought into the discussion that mere rose could not match. Part of it had to do with a passion and an emotion which comes with poetry, which comes with music, that comes with drama, which is rarely equaled in prose, even if it is beautiful prose. I was struck by that at an early age.”