music as social action ::
A speaker is visiting campus this week who may be of great interest to us. Favianna Rodriguez is an artist and activist in Oakland — chiefly a visual artist, however the posted description of her talk asks questions that parallel our work in this course:
Culture is power. Culture surrounds us all the time. It shapes our identity and forges our collective imagination. How does art inspire new ways of thinking? How can art support social justice movements?
Her talk is at 2 p.m. Thursday at The Loft in the Price Center. There are snacks! Register to attend here — it's free — and I may see you there.
Participation! If you attend, tell us about it. How does her perspective align with ours? How does it differ — what can her art and activism add to our discussions?
Our class discussion was cut short before I could share this bit about another Woody Guthrie song important to transmitting information about certain social groups as well as ritualizing the maintenance of those identities: "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos," known colloquially as "Deportee."
A recording by Woody is not available to stream, but here's a version by his pal Pete Seeger.
The song tells the story of a plane crash near Los Gatos, Calif., on Jan. 28, 1948. Woody was living in New York City at the time, and he read in The New York Times about the crash that killed 32 people. Only a few of those people, however, were named in the story: the white flight crew and a white security guard on board. The others were migrant workers from Mexico, who on the plane because they were being deported. Because their names were not listed, their families were not identified.
Wood was moved to write a song about their plight, not just on the plane but in the culture. Without names to sing, he takes some poetic license and gives them symbolic ones: Juan, Rosalita, Jesus, Maria, etc. Listen to Seeger's recording of the song — think about what exactly is being protested here, and how?
Fast forward to 2009: Tim Hernandez, an author/poet/professor, was in a Fresno library researching a book, and he spotted an original newspaper article about the crash. "Who were the people on that plane?" he wondered. "Did anyone ever tell their loved ones why they didn't come home?” A marker for the anonymous bodies was erected in a Fresno cemetery that read simply: “28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident … RIP.” Hernandez decided to do the detective work to identify all 28 people. He found many of their survivors, learned their stories, and wrote a book celebrating their lives. He still speaks around the country, sometimes performing with other musicians, and when he talks about this story he reads the list of all 28 names. Watch that here (can skip to about 4:12):
This week, you read your first selections from Dorian Lynskey’s 2011 book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. Here's a fairly recent interview with Lynskey — a Q&A that deals with many questions relevant not only to your reading of her work but to the overall arc of the course. (Pay particular attention to a question midway through about the history of culture wars, which is a topic next week!)
Participation!: The general question being considered in this interview is whether or not the increased activism of the Trump presidency thus far has revived the spirit of protest music. Have you heard new protest songs in, say, the last year or so? Tell us about them, and include links!
In our first class discussion today, we brought up the concept of culture and how it can be divided into different levels, which can then be claimed (ideologically) by certain social groups. In other UCSD comm courses, you've likely encountered the work of Stuart Hall, who was instrumental in creating the scholarly field of cultural studies — one of the first academics to suggest that the study of popular culture was as important as examining so-called "high" culture.
Consider that (alleged) difference between "high" and "low" culture, how those delineations have been presented to you, and where you straddle that line in your daily experience.
Previously, on my personal blog, I looked back at a 1915 essay that was influential in establishing that binary — and the lasting effect it has on America's view of itself and its culture.
Participation! Read the Van Wyck Brooks essay linked there (or here). What do you think about his perspective on American culture? Do we still divide the culture between this binary? For what purpose — what work is that doing, and for whom?
In our first class, we began considering our initial conceptions of what a few foundational terms mean:
socially conscious song
What's similar about those terms? What's different? Are they applied within certain contexts?
A chief goal of this course will be to carry forward these preconceived notions and begin applying them to the music and theory we will encounter — and to see what changes, if anything, about them. Will they work the way we think they will? Will they require updating?
Participation! Assist in creating that record by posting the definitions you wrote down during or after class, in the comments here (before class on Wednesday).
A few recent releases point in different directions along the spectrum of social and political music we'll be examining in this class ...
First, Smithsonian Folkways — a record label with a rich history of making political recordings available to the public — has issued a new, nicely curated box set featuring more than 80 songs, with a title that aims at the heart of this class: The Social Power of Music. The selections draw from the mid-20th century folk music we'll examine at the beginning of our discussions, as well as reaching farther than our mostly American focus. Sample the tracks here.
Secondly, just last Friday a new album from Marvin Gaye was released. Not "new," of course — Gaye has been dead since 1984 (exactly 35 years ago tomorrow). The music itself, as well as the reasons it hasn't been heard until now, are central to some of the concepts we'll explore in this course. The album is on Spotify now, and it's a master class in communicating overtly political messages over a danceable, even sexy groove. The title track begins by considering the very act of doing so — "Talkin', talkin' to the people, tryin' to get 'em to go your way" — before praising an unnamed political candidate for having "a master plan" for society. We'll listen to some of Gaye's popular material from this era midway through the course, but checking in with this new/old set of songs makes for a nice dip into the conversations to come.
Also recently, here's a new protest ballad by pop band The Killers, "Land of the Free."
The lyrics address a litany of issues, from President Trump's border wall to gun violence ("How many daughters, tell me how many sons, do we have to put in the ground before we just break down and face it? We’ve got a problem with guns"). The Killers hail from Las Vegas, site of one of the country's deadliest mass shootings, where they recently headlined a charity concert for the victims.
Participation!: If Brandon Flowers, singer for The Killers, is angry about an issue in society, why doesn't his song — a tender piano ballad — sound angry? What is the effect of using different types of music (hear the wide variety on the Smithsonian box set above) to channel political messaging?
Welcome! As mentioned here and in the syllabus, this blog will be run as an off-site place to continue and expand our discussions of protest songs, propaganda music, and the social movements with which each interacts and acts through.
Looking forward to meeting all of you next Monday — in the meantime, the following short video from Vox is a good scene-setter for our explorations along a similar scope of history and genres.
There's also an interesting recent podcast on NPR that tries to round up some of the best political pop music from 2018. The episode was sparked by a comment by an NPR commentator: "You can't find good political music." Oh yeah...? But focus on the various definitions these podcasters apply to what makes effective political music (and — effective at what?). Hear it here.
Bring to class any thoughts or questions spurred by this, especially in relation to the assigned readings!