Saturday, October 22, 2011

Protest Songs

Woody Guthrie, ca. 1943. Photo by Eric Schaal.

Being both a folk music fan and an amateur labor historian, it's been interesting charting the frustrations expressed in OccupySTL's protestors' signs, statements and discussions back to older expressions and older movements. The amount of songs that tie right into the problems we're facing is staggering, but hopefully I can effectively highlight a few here.

Woody Guthrie was no stranger to social causes. Bumming and busking across the country on freight trains as a young man, he was able to see firsthand the plight of farmers and workers thrown out of town by the Dust Bowl and poor economic conditions. In his tune "Jolly Banker," he casts a wry and satirical look at the banking practices which robbed many workers of their homes and property.

Take a look at these lines:
If you show me you need it, I'll let you have credit,
I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.
Just bring me back two for the one I lend you,
Singin' I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.

When your car you're losin', and sadly you're cruisin',
I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.
I'll come and foreclose, get your car and your clothes,
Singin' I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.


When the landlords abuse you, or sadly misuse you,
I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.
I'll send down the police chief to keep you from mischief,
Singin' I'm a jolly banker, jolly banker am I.

Similarly, his song "Jesus Christ" keys into an integral, but criminally overlooked Christian teaching. It definitely seems accurate to me, and likely isn't something you'll find noted in a study bible or see Osteen preaching about in his megalith.
Again, anything I could do to describe it would pale in comparison to the lines:
Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
A hard-working man and brave
He said to the rich, "Give your goods to the poor,"
So they laid Jesus Christ in His grave


He went to the preacher, He went to the sheriff
He told them all the same
"Sell all of your jewelry and give it to the poor,"
And they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.

When Jesus come to town, all the working folks around
Believed what he did say
But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on the cross,
And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.


This song was written in New York City
Of rich man, preacher, and slave
If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee,
They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.

Les Rice's "Banks of Marble" is a real treat for those in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Though he was a modest apple farmer living in New York in the 1940s, his words have been a great help to many of us trying to find words for the disillusionment we feel for the vision of society fed to us. His song is simple in structure, and seems to expose a simple fact of society, but has in it true and revolutionary depth.

Be sure to read the last chorus carefully:

I've traveled round this country
From shore to shining shore
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer
Plowing sod and loam
l heard the auction hammer
A knocking down his home

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmer sweated for


I've seen my people working
Throughout this mighty land
l prayed we'd get together
And together make a stand

Then we'd own those banks of marble
With a guard at every door
And we'd share those vaults of silver
That we have sweated for

Thankfully, one doesn't always have to delve into history books to find a song that resonates with our protestors' sentiment. David Rovics, who I was lucky enough to see and meet at a concert on Friday sponsored by Autonomy Alliance, has written an excellent song that gets to the core of my reasons for being involved in the movement. Many thanks to him for also driving down to Kiener with David F. from the IWW and me to give a small, four-song set after the show. Dubbed "Occupy Wall Street (We're Gonna Stay Right Here)", the lyrics are good enough to merit significant quoting here:

Because this is where they buy the politicians
Because this is where power has its seat
Because ninety-nine percent of us are suffering
At the mercy of the madmen on this street
Because all of us are victims of class warfare
Being waged on us by the one percent
Because these greedy banksters rob the country
Leaving us without the means to pay the rent
Because the last time that we had a decent government
Was about 1932
Because we the people are supposed to run the country
But instead it's all run by and for the few
Because now we know the rich do not pay taxes
But when they need a hand it's us who bail them out
Because we suspected we lived in a plutocracy
But suddenly of late there is no doubt

And so we're gonna stay right here


Because it has been demonstrated amply
That the winners are the ones who stick around
Because this world should belong to everyone
Not just the banksters who would smash it to the ground
Because we've noticed voting doesn't change things
When the politicians are mostly millionaires
Because we're learning how to stand up like Tunisians
Like they did in Tahrir Square
Where a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi
Struck a match that lit up all the Earth
And all around the world the spell was broken
And a movement for the future was in birth
Because there's only so much shit the rich can feed us
Before we figure out which side we're on
Because we've learned if we want our liberation
It will come only if we stay here til the rising of the dawn

And so we're gonna stay right here

Because corporations are not people
And we can't just let them choose
Because if we leave our fate to them
Then all of us will surely lose
Because the climate clock is ticking
And we can't just leave our world behind
Because corporate rule isn't working
And it's time for humans' hearts and minds
Because you can't take it with you
Because the rich just do not care
Because it doesn't matter how much you make
But how much you can share
Because these moments don't come often
Because we want truly to be free
Because we know what really matters
Something called society

And so we're gonna stay right here.

The great labor activist and folk singer Utah Phillips often said that the long memory was the most radical idea in America. As is the case with most old protest songs, relics of a progressive movement now invisible, and uprisings against the 1% such as the 1877 general strike in St. Louis, only a few become aware of their historical value and significance. It's left to us to learn these songs, and write our own, if we're going to make any progress. It's left to us to know these movements inside and out, so we can succeed with our own.

1 comment:

  1. One interesting thing about growing older is observing how history cycles itself. I recall some of these songs from my own younger years. Then, as now, we banded together to push great social change -- civil rights for people of color, women's liberation, the environmental movement, the end of the war in Vietnam. I see you doing the same. This time, some of my generation are pushing back against change. However, some of us stand with you. As Bob Dylan once wrote:

    "Your old road is
    Rapidly agin'.
    Please get out of the new one
    If you can't lend your hand
    For the times they are a-changin'."