Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Come Together, Right NOW! Music on the March

Yeah, Dylan was cool. But today we have marchin’ music that would burn his protestin’ butt.

Last Saturday Salon published an article by Stephen Deusner on protest music: Will a new Dylan emerge from Occupy Wall Street? For better or worse it struck me as a bit of a lament for the Good Old Days when they had Good Old/New Protest songs, but, alas, kids today don’t write ‘em like they used to:
As Occupy Wall Street has gained momentum, it has been compared to the anti-war and civil rights protests of the 1960s by commentators as diverse as comedian Dick Gregory, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and scores of newspaper columnists. Yet, as Mangum’s performance demonstrates, they are very different in at least one regard, however minor: Music is not quite the central force today that it was 40 and 50 years ago, when a song like “We Shall Overcome” or “Fixin’ to Die Rag” could communicate certain motivating ideals and reinforce solidarity among a great throng of participants. Instead, it remains peripheral.
Things get moderated toward the end:
The lesson of the 2000s seems to be to approach politics obliquely instead of head-on, to make it one concern among many. If protest songs are largely absent from Occupy Wall Street, it’s not that they aren’t being written. It’s that they no longer serve the same purpose they once did — and are so spread out across genres and audiences that they don’t register as broadly as they once did. ...

On the other hand, protests inspire music, not vice versa. Perhaps the artists participating in or even just witnessing the Occupy Wall Street gatherings will be moved to write about their experiences. Perhaps the next great wave of radicalized pop is just a few months or years away.
Well, maybe.

People’s Music

But I have a somewhat different take on the whole business. Back in the day the most important music was the music sung in black churches, mostly traditional hymns and gospel. That’s the music that summoned, organized and energized the civil rights movement. The anti-war movement was a different group of people and, of course, a different issue, but it emerged in a public arena that had been activated by the civil rights movement.

What’s important about that church music is that it is music people sang with for and among themselves, not music sung at them by star musicians. Then, of course, coffee houses across the nation had singers strumming away on Dylan songs and singing them in a better voice than Dylan ever had. But what they didn’t have back in the day, and what we DO have now, is slammin’ music on the marches themselves. These days any sizeable march will have people playing drums and horns, lifting people's energy.

Music on the March

About two weeks ago, on Wednesday 5 Oct, I participated in a march to support Occupy Wall Street. I met up with some musician buddies at Washington Square in the West Village where we jointed a contingent of people from New York University. While we played percussion on this first stage of the march, the real action started when we reached the main staging area in Foley Square just North of City Hall.

There the three of us, me on trumpet, Steve Swell on trombone, and Ras Moshe on tenor sax, met up with thirty or forty musicians from wherever, including a slammin’ band from Seattle, the Titanium Sporkestra, that had, I’d say, two tubas, two or three trombones, three or four trumpets, at least one sax, and a handful of percussion, including a young woman who was absolutely fierce on parade toms. The music we all made, first in Foley Square and then on the march to Liberty Park, ranged from awesome to, well, eh?

The thing is, we had to make it up on the fly, because we’d never played together, not all thirty or forty of us. So we played some traditional tunes we all knew—“Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, a traditional New Orleans tune, first slow and bluesy then up and funky; “Joshua at the Battle of Jericho” and the walls came tumbling down Oh Yeah!; “Blue Monk”; and of course “Make It Up Loose #1”, “Funk Anthem #2”, “Pull it Out of Your Posterior #3”, “Liza Jane”, “Parade Bop #4” and so on. Sometimes 30 or 40 musicians were all playing more or less one tune, sometimes we drifted into two or three different groups, and then drifted back. Drifting and shifting, that was the name of the game, and every once in awhile someone or three or five cranked it up and burn baby burn!

I figure we’ll get better at this as we do more of it. And, yeah, it was annoying to have a camera or a smart phone in your face every minute or two. But I figure there’s a future in this make it up on parade music. Like maybe one day we’ll get to Occupy Carnegie Hall.

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