Music is Power
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Music is Power

Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change

Brad Schreiber

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eBook - ePub

Music is Power

Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change

Brad Schreiber

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About This Book

Popular music has long been a powerful force for social change. Protest songs have served as anthems regarding war, racism, sexism, ecological destruction and so many other crucial issues. Music Is Power takes us on a guided tour through the past 100 years of politically-conscious music, from Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to Green Day and NWA. Covering a wide variety of genres, including reggae, country, metal, psychedelia, rap, punk, folk and soul, Brad Schreiber demonstrates how musicians can take a variety of approaches— angry rallying cries, mournful elegies to the victims of injustice, or even humorous mockeries of authority—to fight for a fairer world. While shining a spotlight on Phil Ochs, Gil Scott-Heron, The Dead Kennedys and other seminal, politicized artists, he also gives readers a new appreciation of classic acts such as Lesley Gore, James Brown, and Black Sabbath, who overcame limitations in their industry to create politically potent music Music Is Power tells fascinating stories about the origins and the impact of dozens of world-changing songs, while revealing political context and the personal challenges of legendary artists from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley.

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Musical Workers of the World Unite

Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger

Like any other performer, a singer-musician has a public persona and a private world. If fans knew every detail of the artist’s private life, as they so often seem to crave, their devotion might not be as ardent. The hero (and heroine) worship of major acts in popular music can never reconcile this schism because, as the Eric Berne aphorism goes, “No man is a hero to his wife’s psychiatrist.”
Some followers are more forgiving than others when they learn their idols are guilty of domestic abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, sexual debauchery, or the inability to open their mouths without something transgressive and offensive tumbling out of it. Apparently, modern society generally tolerates these supposed by-products of success. The music fan typically yearns to commune with and be a part of the life of the artist out of an appreciation for how the music has made him or her feel and think.
So when the established artist writes songs that address social issues, the public is compelled to ask questions: Do we agree with your political and social views? Do we feel uncomfortable being reminded of the issue in your song? Do we perceive the work to be a momentary departure from your previous music? And what is this—some kind of protest song?
In a way, the performer of a socially conscious song is judged with a new set of criteria. By taking a stand, the performer is examined in a new light, and any perceived contradictions to his or her status as a musical herald can be met with ridicule never flung at the singer who simply implores, “Ooh, I need you.”
It should be no great surprise that many in the music world who have shown a commitment to addressing the ills of the world must contend with a thinner membrane between what they do onstage and what they do off of it. Myth becomes a part of the definition of the artist, whether that myth is self-created or imposed by external forces. Unlike those who write and perform songs about sexuality and love, the socially minded musician is evaluated on the basis of the song, the life lived, and the effectiveness of the work on the world at large.
Joe Hill is as appropriate a place to start as any, because despite being a mythic figure in political music, Joe Hill wasn’t even his real name. Joel Hägglund, a young Lutheran family boy in a small Swedish town, was playing the violin before he was nine and writing charming, satirical songs about members of his family.
As an adult, Hill became an American icon, a symbol of union organizing and speaking truth to power. The shocking, mysterious, and unjust end of his life was preceded by his own noble urging, “Don’t mourn for me. Organize,” that sealed his legacy. So many major musical figures committed to the pursuit of human rights sang his songs or performed new ones dedicated to him. He touched the lives and careers of distinctive songwriters/performers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen.
In the years that Hill organized and sang, there were few regulations for worker safety. There were no child labor laws. In fact, there was no legislative relief for workers until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. In 1915, one-third to one-half of all Americans earned wages that barely kept them fed. Echoing the Occupy movement of 2011 and its attack on income inequality using the phrase “We are the 99 percent,” in Hill’s America, 2 percent of the country owned 60 percent of the wealth.
Hill’s life of hard knocks only added to his burnished image. Both of his parents died before he reached his midtwenties, and after receiving treatment for skin and glandular tuberculosis, he, as the newly named Joseph Hillstrom, and his brother entered the United States.
By joining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known in common parlance as the Wobblies, Hill dedicated himself to supporting the rights of workers, especially those performing the most strenuous jobs in mining, construction, and lumber yards. His own lack of employment did not stop him from traveling the country, even spending six weeks with rebels in Baja California, before they were trounced by the Mexican government.
It was not his poems, essays, letters, or whimsical political cartoons that set him apart from other creative organizers. It was his ability to write songs and display a sly wit while condemning poverty and the mistreatment of workers.
“A pamphlet, no matter how good,” Hill declared, “is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over; and I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them up . . . in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial in economic science.”
The emphasis in IWW circles was on emotionally powerful songs, even if the music was derivative. Thus one of Hill’s most renowned works was a direct parody of the Christian hymn, “The Sweet By-and-By,” first published in 1868. His 1911 anthem was known as “The Preacher and the Slave.” The title was in keeping with the popular term wage slavery and redolent of Hill’s rejection of religiosity in lieu of activism. He referred to the Salvation Army as “the Starvation Army” in the song, and further, he coined a phrase still used today: “pie in the sky.”
We now consider “pie in the sky” to refer to any promise or plan that is unlikely to come to fruition, but Hill was urging direct action in “The Preacher and the Slave” by poking fun at religion’s inability to effect social change.
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land, above the sky,
Work and pray, live on hay.
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
Apparently, the greatest wits of the day all reviled the original hymn. A dozen years before Hill’s sendup, Mark Twain, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, had his time traveler protagonist lambast the same song via a description of a lavish court dinner: “In a gallery, a band with cymbals, horns and harps and other horrors opened the proceedings with what seemed to be the crude first-draft or original agony of the wail known to later centuries as ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye.’ It was new and ought to have been rehearsed a little more. For some reason or other, the queen had the composer hanged after dinner.”
A song that approached the popularity of “The Preacher and the Slave” was Hill’s broadside of the popular 1909 tune about train driver Casey Jones. Historically, songs had honored the real Jones, who was killed in an April 30, 1900, collision in Vaughan, Mississippi, but saved the lives of all others on board with his quick braking. But in Hill’s “Casey Jones—Union Scab,” written in 1911, Jones got his comeuppance for refusing to join the strike against the Southern Pacific Railroad. Jones died in a crash due to his poorly maintained engine. In the lyrics, he goes to Heaven, tries to break up a strike of celestial musicians, fails, and is forced to seek digs elsewhere:
Casey Jones went to Hell a-flying.
“Casey Jones,” the Devil said, “Oh, fine;
Casey Jones, get busy shoveling sulphur.
That’s what you get for scabbing on the S. P. Line.”
The song was a well-timed response to the September 30, 1911, national walkout by railway workers that the IWW supported. In California alone, 1,300 railroaders struck against Southern Pacific. They had been the largest employer and landowner in the state for decades and could have afforded to be accommodating.
The strike sadly failed due to a lack of support from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL divided workers by skill rather than uniting them by industry. Craft unions who worked the nation’s rail lines were fearful that they would lose their jobs and put passengers at risk due to strike-breaking scabs.
Hill gained great recognition at IWW rallies with his song “Mister Block,” based on a cartoon character in the Industrial Worker newspaper in Spokane, Washington. In the same year the song was released (1913), Walker C. Smith wrote, “Mr. Block owns nothing, yet he speaks from the standpoint of the millionaire.”
The lyrics by Hill depicted a gullible and complacent worker “whose head is made of lumber and [is] solid as a rock.” But in one stanza, Hill referenced an additional horror facing the unemployed of that period. Desperate men gave their remaining savings to scam artists who promised to take the men to jobs out of state. The victims were abandoned, sometimes with their families in tow, with no work and their guide to a promised land gone in the wind.
Yes, Mr. Block is lucky; he found a job, by gee!
The sharks got seven dollars, for job and fare and fee.
They shipped him to a desert and dumped him with his truck.
But when he tried to find a job, he sure was out of luck.
Hill himself had little luck finding work. Finally, he became an important part of Local 245 in San Pedro, California, but his circumstances took a serious turn for the worse in 1913. On June 4, he was arrested on the charge of robbing a streetcar. The only evidence was a pile of black clothing left near the scene, and no witness could place him there. Hill was released, but five weeks later, his arresting officer, San Pedro Police commander J. A. Smith, busted Hill for a charge that defined scores of hungry citizens: vagrancy. His new sentence was thirty days in jail. “I was secretary of the strike committee,” Hill analyzed, “and I supposed I was a little too active to suit the chief of the burg.”
After nine days in jail, Hill was served with a federal warrant. The Immigration Act of 1907 had been amended in 1910, and its language was applied to Hill as an alleged “anarchist or person who believed in or advocated the overthrow by force or violence” of the U.S. government. Yet the six weeks Hill spent in Baja California with a rebel army was not reason enough to accuse him of being an anarchist, according to a regional supervising inspector of the Immigration Service. On July 8, 1912, Hill’s arrest warrant was revoked. However, tragically, one year later to the day, Hill received a death warrant in Salt Lake City.
Hill was accused of the shooting deaths of a grocer, John G. Morrison, and his son Arling, a seventeen-year-old. While there was no evidence to link Hill to the shooting, he had been shot in a separate incident in the left lung and hand. Hill divulged to the authorities that he and a friend had had an argument over their affections for the same woman, but he did not confess to murder. Regardless, his refusal to name the woman who could provide an alibi—an effort to chivalrously protect her name—contributed to his twenty-two months in jail and a highly controversial death sentence.
Frank Z. Wilson is generally accepted as the perpetrator of the Morrison murders. While he was never tried, Wilson was almost surely responsible. In 1903, he had engaged in a gunfight with Morrison at the grocery. He was wanted in two other towns, had used sixteen aliases, had gone on a crime spree six weeks before, and just ninety minutes after the shooting, had been seen near the grocery. Eyewitnesses described Morrison as “acting strangely,” laying on the snow-dusted sidewalk, moaning as if he were drunk or injured.
Biographer William M. Adler, author of The Man Who Never Died, proved conclusively that a young woman named Hilda Erickson unintentionally prompted the exchange of gunfire between Hill and a former friend, Otto Appelquist. Adler found a letter in a Michigan attic that Erickson had written in 1949 regarding breaking off her engagement with Appelquist. When Hill professed his love for her, the resultant injuries from Appelquist’s gun were used by Utah’s court, government, and media to condemn Hill. Like the incidents in San Pedro, Hill, who had been organizing miners in nearby Park City, was framed once again.
Certainly, his refusal to allow Erickson to testify was an example of noble behavior we would not likely see today. But the legend of Joe Hill grew largely because of how stacked the deck was against him. Perhaps, in his mind, he saw how futile it would have been to protest. In San Pedro, J. A. Smith had wired Salt Lake City police chief Brigham Grant, claiming falsely that Hill had held up a street car. A local paper, the Herald-Republican, concocted a Hill confession to the nonexistent crime. And the Deseret Evening News reported a “trail of crimes” that had no bearing on reality.
When a young son of the slain grocer misidentified Hill in court, Hill’s lawyers did not aggressively question the boy. Hill’s angry outburst in court, atypical of his quiet introversion, confirmed in the minds of jurors that he had committed the crime as charged. After the trial, two jurors went on record to state that Hill’s outrage toward his incompetent counsel was an “uncalled-for outbreak” and also “had all the earmarks of guilt.” The prosecution never established a motive.
Hill knew his activism was the real offense, and he demonstrated an almost otherworldly equanimity and humor in dealing with his death sentence. In Utah, a condemned man had the choice of being either hanged or shot. Hill told the judge, “I’ll take shooting. I’m used to that. I have been shot a few times in the past and I guess I can stand it again.” He was aware that his death as a martyr would serve the righteous aims of organized labor. When reporters asked Hill what purpose his death would serve, his candid, wisecrack reply was, “Well, it won’t do the IWW any harm, and it won’t do the state of Utah any good.”
Appeals for a commutation or a new trial besieged Governor William Spry. Hill received 40,000 letters, and support came from the Swedish government and its citizens, from respected blind and deaf union activist Helen Keller, the AFL, and even the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. In his telegram, President Wilson formally stated, albeit stiffly and without urgency or threat, “With unaffected hesitation, but with a very earnest conviction of the importance of the case, I again venture to urge upon your excellency the justice and advisability of a thorough reconsideration of the case of Joseph Hillstrom.”
Even at the young age of twenty-five, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the most respected woman in the IWW ranks. Her visits to Hill in jail were intended to lend him moral strength and to urge him to testify to all he knew about the shooting that had wounded him. But Hill told Flynn, a future organizer of the American Civil Liberties Union, “I never licked the hand that held the whip, yet, and I don’t see why I should have to start it now.” Showing his continued commitment to a cause, Hill composed a feminist labor song, “The Rebel Girl,” in one of his later acts of creativity. Unlike others in the IWW, Hill, even as a condemned man, was concerned with expand...

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