Finding my voice…

Yesterday was, well, kind of a big day.  In the morning, I went to Thomas House again and in the evening I was the designated leader for a discussion at our Wednesday Night Words class on the topic of Music and Social Justice.  I have actively resisted any type of public teaching or instruction role for most of my life.  Yesterday was a lesson in the fact that resistence is, well, as they say on Star Trek, futile.  It is now time for me to work to find this voice.  And I guess that despite my resistance, this process has begun.

Now, I will admit, as you may know if you have been reading my writings here, I am somewhat obsessed with questions like ‘Why do we sing” and “What does it mean when we sing” and “What makes music a powerful force in human culture”, etc. and so forth…in fact, much of my life has been devoted to these topics and, at least as far into the future as God has granted me vision, will continue to be.

So, I thought that I would post here the essay that I wrote to be my guide last night.  It wasn’t exactly the forum in which to read from a prepared text, so I didn’t…but here is what I planned in its entirety for those of you would like to read it on this very wet Thursday in Washington, DC.

So, my assignment for tonight was to talk to you about music as a tool for social justice.  No problem, I just took a class on that topic at Wesley Seminary, I should be ready to do this.

Wait a minute. Big problem.  I have 40 minutes to talk about a topic in which we barely scratched the surface in a 7 day long seminary class?  After I pushed the panic aside, I thought, well, I should just focus on one specific musical genre, maybe social justice themes in hymnody or something more narrow like that.

Forty minutes, at most.  What can I possibly share in 40 minutes that will be meaningful? Well, hopefully I can start a discussion about WHY music is a powerful tool for social justice and community building, and then you can go out and look for your own music of social justice.

You see, you really can’t always point a finger and say, “AHA – that is a piece of music that speaks about social justice.” So let’s talk a little bit about what makes music so powerful that it can change minds and hearts, speak to political injustice, communicate pain and suffering to us as no words only possibly can.

What do you think makes music so powerful a method of communicating?  No one has an answer really, it is as personal an answer as a description of what is faith.  Music, it seems, is a universal human language.    There have cultures without mathematics and counting, cultures with paintings, cultures that didn’t have that important invention we call the wheel, but we have yet never found a culture that did not have some kind of music.  People who cannot read or write sing; people with nothing but a tent to house them sing, and people who live in fancy houses and have everything sing. People make song in celebration, they make song in sorrow. 

Music is a thing that comes from inside of us, and it is a thing that we can do together.  It uses our life force to propel it —  whether  you know it or not, when you sing, you use your breath, you use the rhythm of your heart and the blood pumping through your veins, you use your muscles and your bones, and you use your mind, heart and soul.  And whether you know it or not, you use all of those things when you make music AND when you listen to music.

So we are human and we make music and we speak in a musical language.  Some of us think that we don’t, because modern Western culture has created a division between “performer” and “audience”, but truthfully, that is a false division.  When music plays, unless you are specifically not paying attention, everyone participates.  That is the power of music.

So when I say to you the words “music for social justice” – what do you think of?  Spirituals?  Sure.  Music of the Civil Rights movement?  Definitely.  Hymns?  Sometimes.  What if I also said to you:  Opera, Christmas Carols, disco music?  You might think that I’m crazy, but I can point you to music with themes of social justice in almost any category – even rap music (if I knew any rap music). 

Let’s take a minute and look at one example.  Would you believe me if I told you that, the carol Good King Wenceslas is not a pleasant fable but was intended as an instructive tale of social justice?  Its writer, John Neale, was a famous pastor and hymn writer in 19th century England;  he is well known for bringing many of the Latin and Greek hymns from the old church into useable English translation (such as O Come, O Come Emmanuel).  But while he wrote hymns and served as a pastor, the real, engrossing work of his life was working among the poor and the destitute that had become so common in the British cities during the industrial age.  And so, after reading the fable of King Wenceslas, he wrote this text.

Another thing to listen to when you are thinking about music and social justice:  that is the perspective of the music.  Some music grows out of the culture of the oppressed – spirituals, civil rights hymns, music written in the Nazi concentration camps.  This music pulls together the context in which the movement or the oppression exists, gives it voice, and leaves those of who come after with a reminder of the experience.  Let’s look at an example from the body of spirituals that have been handed down to us from the dark days when slavery was a political reality in our nation. 

I think at this point in our lives, we have all heard that spirituals were a way that slaves could send messages to one another without detection.  Probably the most famous of these songs is the spiritual Steal Away, but instead of that one, I want to play one of my favorites called, I Got Shoes.     Anybody know what they are talking about?  Well, slaves almost never had shoes.  They were considered to expensive to waste on anyone except possibly the house servants.  So, paradise (or across the border to freedom in the North), meant having shoes.  But my favorite part of this song is the line “Everybody talkin’ bout heaven ain’t goin’ there.”  Know who that refers to?  Yes, that’s right – the plantation owners who were using talk of heaven and religion to keep the slaves in their place.

So, there is the perspective of the oppressed that grows out of their pain and suffering, and communicates to us their plight.  But then, there is also the perspective of the outside looking inward – and probably the greatest majority of social justice music falls into this category.  The hymns written and sung by abolitionists to point out the injustice of slavery, operas such as Giancarlo Menotti’s The Consul, that tells the story of a desperate woman in a nameless fascist country desperately trying to get papers to emigrate to freedom, who is moved to sing these words:

To this we’ve come:
that men withhold the world from me.
No ship nor shore for him who drowns at sea.
No home nor grave for him who dies on land.
To this we’ve come:
that man be born a stranger upon God’s earth,
that he be chosen without a chance for choice,
that he be hunted without the hope of refuge.
To this we’ve come:
(to the Secretary)
and you, you too, shall weep.
If to men, not to God, we now must pray,
tell me, Secretary, tell me,
who are these men?
If to them, not to God, we now must pray,
tell me, Secretary, tell me!
Who are these dark archangels?
Will they be conquered?  Will they be doomed?
Is there one –  anyone behind those doors
to whom the heart can still be explained?


The writer of the abolitionist hymns had not been slaves; they had not even lived among people who “owned” slaves. The composer of that music and those words knew nothing about that kind of pain:  he had come from a decent Italian family and had emigrated to the United States in his childhood.   But as an act of compassion and understanding, and in an attempt to show the world the plight of the oppressed, they made music.

Okay, stop me – I can gab on and on about the power of making music.  But to close this discussion, I thought I would illustrate to you the power of one musical idea that has moved and been shaped by many contexts and that is, without a doubt the best possible illustration of the power of music to bring people together for a cause, and the power to give people the strength to come together and make change in the world around them.

I’m talking about the music we know as “We Shall Overcome.”  You all know it, right?  What do you know about it?  Where do you think it came from?

Well, let me tell you.  The song that we know as “We Shall Overcome” really didn’t take the form that we know until the 1960’s, when Pete Seeger picked it up and recorded it.  The original tune is a slave melody that in it’s day was called “No More Auction Block for Me”.  The first version of the lyrics were written down by the Rev. Charles Tindley of Philadelphia, as “I’ll Overcome Someday”, in the early 20th century.  But the first attention that the song really attracted was when it was picked up by the Tobacco Workers Union in the 1940’s and became the anthem of a series of work actions in the south.  A woman named Lucille Simmons began singing slowly, “Deep in my heart I do believe we’ll overcome some day.”

Zilphia Horton, whose husband was the co-founder of the Highlander Folk School (aka Highlander Research and Education Center), learned the song from Simmons and, a year later, taught it to folk singer Pete Seeger. And from there, it has been picked up and adapted by the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the immigration reform movement, and anti-AIDS movements around the world.  At last count, it was believed to have been translated into more than 40 languages, with people adding new verses.  Here it is in Hindi…

To end, I leave you with the words of that immortal sage, Bruce Springsteen, on the topic of making music:  “The act of making music is like putting on someone else’s clothes”.  Music with social justice themes does just that, it allows us the chance to put on other peoples clothes, to walk a mile in our brother’s shoes, in a way that we feel and experience in both a spiritual and a physical manner.  Look for it – its everywhere if you just pay attention.

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