Sunday, 20 September 2009

Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century

By Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison

Music and song are central to modern culture, social movements to cultural change. Building on their studies of sixties culture and theory of cognitive praxis, Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison examine the mobilization of cultural traditions and the formation of new collective identities through the music of activism. They combine a sophisticated theoretical argument with historical-empirical studies of nineteenth-century populists and twentieth-century labor and ethnic movements, focusing on the interrelations between music and social movements in the United States and the transfer of those experiences to Europe. Specific chapters examine folk and country music, black music, music of the 1960s movements, and music of the Swedish progressive movement. This highly readable book is among the first to link the political sociology of social movements to cultural theory.

"Eyerman and Jamison have produced a pioneering work on the role of music in social change. Insightfully interweaving theory and story, they recount the ways in which songs have sustained the collective identities and helped to mobilize the energies for protest movements. Their emphasis on the cultural significance of social movements refocuses sociologists' interpretations of their sources and meanings."
-Richard Flacks, University of California, Santa Barbara


The careers of Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton followed a different kind of trajectory, as both singers continued to mix their songwriting with political activism even after the excitement of the sixties had passed. And while they still managed to sell some records, they had largely lost their mass audience, which followed Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival back to the country, when it wasn't "flipping out" on drugs. Ochs' was an especially tragic story, ending in suicide in 1976 after a number of failed attempts to recreate the unique combination of culture and politics that he had done so much to articulate in the early 1960s. He traveled and performed in Africa, even recording a song in Swahili with a local band in Kenya before he was attacked and robbed in Tanzania; in the words of Robin Denselow, "he was discovering a whole new world of international music, way ahead of the rock field" (1989: 118). A benefit concert for Chile, which he organized after the military coup in 1973, prefigured the rock benefits of the 1980s, but musically it was apparently a fiasco, as a drunken and overweight Ochs tried to bring back the spirit of a different era, even getting his old friend Bob Dylan to put in an appearance (Eliot 1990).

Perhaps more than any other single individual, Phil Ochs epitomized the message of the sixties in both his personal and his musical life. Like Dylan, he started out by trying to reinvent the tradition of the political songwriter, which Joe Hill had played before the First World War and Woody Guthrie had played in the 1930s and 1940s (Ochs wrote songs about both Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie). When Pete Seeger introduced him at the Newport Festival in 1963, he said that Phil Ochs wrote topical songs rather than folk songs; and it became Ochs' particular identity to mix his songwriting with all of the political movements, from civil rights through the student revolts of the mid-1960s ("Oh, I am just a student, sir, and I only want to learn, but it's hard to read through the rising smoke from the books that you like to burn. So I'd like to make a promise, and I'd like to make a vow: that when I've got something to say, sir, I'm gonna say it now") on through to the antiwar movement of the late 1960s. In the early days of the civil rights movement, he sang his "The Ballad of Medger Evers," "Too Many Martyrs," "Here's to the State of Mississippi," and "In the Heat of the Summer," both in the South and at the large demonstrations in the North. But it was the Vietnam war that became his special topic, from the satirical "Draft Dodger Rag" to the later and more significant "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," "We're the Cops of the World," "Canons of Christianity," "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land," and "The War is Over." In these and several other songs, written during the second half of the 1960s, Ochs provided an understanding of American imperialism that brought the experience of the war home and into at least a certain segment of the popular consciousness. His songs offered another kind of social theory, providing political analysis mixed with his characteristic ironic observations of the inherent absurdity of the war:
Silent soldiers on a silver screen;
Framed in fantasies and drugged in dreams;
Unpaid actors of the mystery.
The mad director knows that freedom will not make you free,
And what's this got to do with me?
I declare the war is over,
It's over, it's over.
(Phil Ochs, "The War Is Over")
As with his more reflective and poetic songs, which questioned the values of American society, and perhaps especially the values of his fellow progressives - "Changes," "Flower Lady," "Outside a Small Circle of Friends," "Jim Dean of Indiana," "Pleasures of the Harbor" -- the political messages that Ochs sought to infuse into popular culture largely failed to reach a mass audience. Ochs was one of the few who criticized the drug culture -- the "smoke dreams of escaping soul . . . [that] dull the pain of living as they slowly die" -- but he himself slowly died in the late 1960s as the political movements grew more radical and extremist, and many of the musicians with whom he had shared so much in the early 1960s put politics behind them. As he reflected on the violence that he had witnessed first-hand at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968, he recorded a moving, largely forgotten testament in the form of an album, "Rehearsals for Retirement." On the cover was a gravestone, showing that Phil Ochs had died in Chicago, and the record was filled with powerful songs bemoaning the demise of the political folk song era.

At an appearance in Vancouver in late 1968, recently released as a compact disc after being discovered in an archive, he said how hard it was to keep going. The country was captured by the "media syndrome, when they fill everyone's mind by use of fairly mindless, mind-distorting distortions of the facts . . . which led all of us into the Vietnam war." He still sang protest songs, which could be defined as "a song they don't play on the radio." By 1970, however, even Phil Ochs could see that the political and cultural movements had gone separate ways:
Hello, hello, hello,
Is there anybody home?
I only called to say I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn
And all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs.
(Phil Ochs, "No More Songs")
Joan Baez, who earlier in the decade had had one of her few commercial successes by recording an Ochs songs ("There But For Fortune"), performed at the famous Woodstock Festival in 1969, but by then the political movement had largely parted company with the so-called counterculture that had taken on such prominence. Along with Ochs and Baez, it was Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton - and, with "Alice's Restaurant," his immortal tale of draft-dodging and garbage collection, Woody Guthrie's son Arlo - who tried to keep alive some of the earlier ambitions, but the music industry was moving on: into psychedelic, drug-dominated hard rock music for some, sexually suggestive soul music for others, and soothing country rural music for still others. Rather than inspiring political change, popular music seemed to be trying to provide the satisfaction that Mick Jagger couldn't get in the early, more political days.

No comments: