The famous inscription Woody Guthrie placed on his guitar in 1943 says something profound about how many artists and musicians view their work: while art entertains us, it also can enlighten and liberate us as well. Unfortunately, the history of America often taught in schools focuses largely on names, dates, and other facts pieced together in an effort to tell a particular kind of story about America—one that does little to help us appreciate the struggle that runs like a swift current just beneath the surface of daily life. In this seminar we will revisit some of that history, focusing on the way musicians—from 19th century slaves to 20th century bluesmen, from turn-of-the-century labor activists to Depression-era balladeers to Civil Rights marchers, and from war protesters of forty years ago to war protesters today—have attempted to right wrongs, educate sensibilities, and awaken the consciences of people in an effort to make America a place that lives up to its promise.
Structured as a seminar, FYS 143-2 is a discussion-centered course where songs of protest serve as the primary texts. Th first question we ask is the obvious one: What makes a song a protest song? In this class, we take our cue from Woody Guthrie, one of the fathers of political folk music. Guthrie once defined a folk song as “what’s wrong and how to fix it,” and the same could be said for any piece of music that offers a perspective on a problem and suggests a solution to it. Guthrie’s explanation expands the definition of “folk music” beyond a particular musical form and focuses instead on the content of a song–what it says, and the response it’s intended to arouse in the people who hear it. To us, then, a protest song is a folk song. It’s a song that offers listeners a chance to experience something from someone else’s perspective, while simultaneously inviting them to share their own experiences with others. A protest song offers us a sense of what’s wrong and how to fix it, and then encourages us to share that with others. In some ways, it’s that simple.
In other ways, it isn’t. Not all protest songs offer a straightforward diagnosis of a problem; others don’t offer clear solutions. If they did, a class on the subject probably wouldn’t be very interesting. To help make our interpretation of protest songs meaningful, we take great care to put them in context. This means understanding where they came from: for nearly every song we listen to we’ll ask who wrote it, and why? What problem did the author of the song see? What compelled the artist to give voice to this problem? We deal with political questions in this class, but that doesn’t mean it’s partisan; our goal is to understand the promise of America, as expressed first in the Declaration of Independence, and augmented many times since, and use our ability to interpret the past to assess how close we’ve come to fulfilling it. To do that well we have to grapple with questions about power—who has it and who doesn’t, where it comes from and how it’s used to shape political, social, and economic life. Those are big questions, and they don’t always have easy answers. That’s one reason we turn to artists to help us figure them out.
In short, expect, in this class, to have your ideas about the past—about who we are, and who we could be—challenged, and expect to challenge the ideas of others as well. Expect to listen to lots of music you’ve never heard before, and expect to be surprised and moved by the intimacy of listening to a recorded song and the effect it can have on you. Expect, especially, to see things in a new way. That is, after all, the most important thing any educational experience can provide.
TEXTS & OTHER RESOURCES
Four texts serve as the backbone of our course. They are:
- Hayes, Nick. Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads. New York: Abrams, 2016.
- Lynskey, Dorian. 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.
- McNally, Dennis. On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom. Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint Press, 2014.
- Petrus, Stephen & Ronald D. Cohen. Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Supplemental readings can be found by following this link. Bookmark it. The password is available to enrolled students.
But the most important texts are the playlists I’ve created to guide you through your investigation of protest music in American life. These are available to anyone who wants to listen to them (but if you’re on Apple Music you’ve got to be a subscriber!), and can be found by navigating to the FYS Playlists page.