Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dangerous Songs

First, go here to read about how one Quaker is making herself dangerous.

Her piece reminded me of Pete Seeger's album, Dangerous Songs!? and a comment I left on a page several years ago about how dangerous singing can be.

I first heard of Pete Seeger through a right-wing Lutheran publication that complained that he had been invited to sing at a Walther League convention (the youth organization of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) in 1964 or so. I remember asking why everyone was so upset about a "former communist" singing to the Walther Leaguers. "How could singing songs hurt anybody's faith?" I asked. The insipid answer was that we should have found a good Lutheran folk-singer.

Years later -- April 22, 1971 to be precise -- I heard Pete sing "Last Train to Nuremberg" at the big pre-May Day rally in Washington, D.C. I was electrified, and began to realize how naive my question had been: Music CAN be dangerous, especially to those whose position and influence rests on violence, coercion, lies, and fear. The right wingers were exactly right to be afraid of Pete's influence on young people. Hearing him sing Malvina Reynold's "Little Boxes" and "God Bless the Grass" was like a hyper-link to the idea that the world could be a better place if only we took responsibility for making it so.
One of my small contributions to the undermining of the Empire is to sing these songs and teach them to others, to keep them alive.

Another one of my favorites on that album is this one. The song is an old one, dating back at least 200 years and perhaps to the Peasant Wars in the 1520s. It always makes me think of my older Quaker Friends, especially one who I could always count on hearing call into public radio talk programs or to write just the right letter to the editor.
Die Gedanken sind frei!
My thoughts freely flower.
Die Gedanken sind frei!
My thoughts give me power.
No scholar can map them,
No hunter can trap them,
No man can deny,
Die Gedanken sind frei!

I think as I please
And this gives me pleasure,
My conscience decrees,
This right I must treasure;
My thoughts will not cater
To duke or dictator,
No man can deny--
Die Gedanken sind frei!

And if tyrants take me
And throw me in prison
My thoughts will burst free,
Like blossoms in season.
Foundations will crumble,
The structure will tumble,
And free men will cry:
Die Gedanken sind frei!
I'm also reminded of a story about another dangerous song. My friend works for a state agency that grants clean air and water permits for construction projects. She once was feeling a lot of pressure to grant a permit for a new project even though the application wasn't quite right and didn't meet the appropriate standards. Even though the pressure was intense, she stood firm.

She says that singing this song from the Sacred Harp gave her the strength to persevere. The song is entitled "Confidence."
Away, my unbelieving fear;
Fear shall in me no more have place;
My Savior doth not yet appear;
He hides the brightness of His face;
But shall I therefore let Him go,
And basely to the tempter yield?
No, in the strength of Jesus, no!
I never will give up my shield.
One more story. In 1979 or so, the state of Indiana was preparing to execute a man convicted of murdering a mother and her children, Steven Judy. I joined a hundred or so of others in the parking lot of the state prison in Michigan City in the late afternoon and evening for a prayer vigil to protest the execution. It was a solemn assembly, mostly silent, no speeches, just a presence.

In the parking lot were a half-dozen TV trucks with their cameras, satellite dishes and bright lights, filming us for the 10 o'clock news. Not that we made for very good visuals -- all we were doing was kneeling and praying silently -- but it was something. (I remember meeting a college classmate who was then reporting as a stringer for National Public Radio's Chicago bureau that night. She actually talked to people instead of just filming them, and she ended up with a lot more material for her radio report than the TV folks did for theirs.)

All of a sudden, we heard a commotion near the fence, the sound of loud voices. Almost immediately, the cameras and the lights swung away from us and towards the fence where a little knot of five or six white men in brown uniforms and some Nazi-like insignia were holding up a bedsheet with the words "Fry Him" spray painted on it. They were chanting something, and one of them was trying to make a speech of some sort.

We were all of a sudden left in the dark, illuminated only by our candles. The tone of the voices of the guys by the fence was distrubingly ugly, but we stayed put, kneeling, and praying. After a minute or two, someone started singing "We Shall Overcome" very softly. Her voice was joined by the others and by the middle of the first verse we were all singing.

Then, just as suddenly, the lights and the microphones swept our way again leaving the Nazis looking almost naked and alone and even more stupid standing in the dark again by the fence. Then the guy who was giving the speech started screaming, "They're singing that song again! I hate that song! Whenever we do anything they sing this goddamn song!"

He was right, you know. Singing "We Shall Overcome" in a parking lot of a prison is dangerous.


Peggy Senger Parsons said...

So there I was...
teaching traumatology in Bujumbura Burundi, Central Africa

I am driven out to the "suburb" of Kenosha to teaching 15 Trauma students. This is one of the areas that had the worst fighting in July and you can see bullet holes and bomb damage everywhere. We are in a compound owned by the Swedish Pentecostals, who rent the place out for meetings, I have been trying to explain all week why I think the concept of Swedish Pentecostals is funny, but no one has gotten it. The compound is large and has many flowering trees and shrubs and lawns, it is the prettiest place I have seen so far. There I am fed lunch (their cooks are really good) and then I teach all afternoon.

My traumatology students are amazing - they have come from great distances and at great sacrifice to study with me. In the first week we do the physiology of the brain, the brain under trauma, and create a Kirundi assessment tool for PTSD, which is IRIIUGI in Kirundi. Felicity has been my translator, and she has worked HARD. A couple of my students are trying English and I throw in all the French and Kiswahili that I can. We are creating a traumatology glossary in Kirundi - many of the terms I need to use have no equivalent - I have learned the face that Felicity makes when I give her a hard one. She signals for me to stop, and the students confer and when a consensus is reached about a newly coined phrase someone shouts Voila! and we have a new psychological term. They ask lots of questions - lots of hard questions. When I explain functional brain imagining machinery to them, which they understand just fine, Gideon asks "Teacher, why are all these great things discovered in America?" I feel convicted by the Spirit and decide to tell them the truth. I say to Felicity, “I am going to answer this truthfully, and I want you to translate EXACTLY what I say – ok?” She gives me a worried look – one I will see again, and says – “Be careful”. I answer, "It is not because we are smarter, we are not. or because we are better, we are not – these things come to us because we have more money to spend on research, and we have more money because we have stolen it from the developing nations, including Africa". Stunned silence. You should see the looks on their faces! I am not sure for a minute if I am going to be kissed or killed! Then one of them shouts "Our teacher tells us the truth! Teach us more!"

I was not prepared for the fact that my trauma and torture class students would be such recent victims. Ernest has a bandaged hand - he was tortured recently by his town leadership for learning English and talking to the wrong people; a suspicious behavior in his small town. They bent his thumb backwards and burned him between his fingers. Then what does Ernest the Brave do? He walks for miles, and rides the bus of 18 places many more miles to come to a class taught by an English speaking muzungu! Jerson has only one ear - he lost the left one to a machete. God please don’t let me disappoint these women and men.

Wednesday, after a long morning of brain physiology and learning about right and left brain functions - Felicity stops and says - "Peggy, have mercy on them - they say their left brains are full and they need to sing" This is great because it tells me that they understand the material. I have been working their left-brains very hard, and singing is just the right-brained balance to that! And so we stop and sing - long and loud, drumming on the tables and dancing. All their songs are Christian songs, my students are catholic and protestant. Jerson of One Ear, is a great song leader. They ask me to teach them a song - so I teach them "We shall overcome" and tell them a little about Dr. King and we marched around the room singing that "I do believe - deep in my heart - that Burundi will have peace one day"

Thursday there is a little bit of shooting outside of the teaching compound - I have to be told what it is - a 'thump' (hand grenade) and then a tat,tat,tat (automatic rifle fire). I just notice fifteen people get suddenly very still, and I watch their eyes glaze over – a classic trauma reaction. I ask if there is a problem, and my charge'd'affairs Daniela says that there is a little fighting going on, but not too close. We proceed. Later, on break, she tells me that the students quietly said to each other "Oh no, we have come here to die!"

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for this witness, Paul and Peggy.

I find myself wondering if conservative Americans have songs that tout their beliefs... None come to mind, but I am not as well-versed as the two of you are/might be.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Liz Opp asked if there are songs conservative Americans have that tout their beliefs. Indeed there are. I was walking through a tiny Iowa town a few days ago on my way to Virginia, and a church carillon started playing, "America the Beautiful".

I might also remind you of Lee Greenwood's song, "God Bless the USA", written in support of the Bushes' war.

And now that I've mentioned these two, I imagine many others will come to mind. How about "The Old Rugged Cross", for example?

Paul L said...

Wow, Peggy. What a beautiful and horrifying story. What a wonderful place to sing a song of hope and faithful assurance. We shall overcome. . . . Indeed.

If loving to sing America the Beautiful is a sign of being a conservative American, sign me up. I refuse to believe that loving my country can be assigned partisian political adjectives.

The Lee Greenwood song Marshall mentions has been like a pebble in my shoe for years. Ever since September 11th, it was played in the Metrodome during the 7th Inning Stretch, after Take me out to the ballgame. My son and my friends always made it a point to sit down during that song as a small gesture to which no one ever said a word to us about. (This year, though, they've dropped it for Louis Armstrong's It's a wonderful world, which is a nice enough song, but I don't get what it has to do with baseball, unless it is with the passing of Kirby Puckett.)

And there's the blasphemous God bless America (written by Irving Berlin, in response to which Woody Guthrie wrote This land is your land.) But these are commercial, composed songs. They are pretend songs, cheap trickery consciously designed to create emotion responses of puffed chests and empty heads. (A few years ago, there was a Tim Robbins movie about a politically conservative Dylanesque folk singer who wrote songs like, The times they are a changin' back.)

These songs are dangerous like lead in your drinking water is dangerous; they are essentially designed put you to sleep, to create a temporary good feeling, but they don't give you any long-term sustanance like, say, Wasn't that a time? or Once to every soul and nation or any of a thousand others that have real power because they tell the truth and call you to action. That's what makes singing dangerous.

Paul L said...

Sorry about the bad link to Wasn't that a time? See if it works now.

earthfreak said...

Paul - I would have to heartily agree that if "America the Beautiful" is conservative, I have a serious internal conflict.

That is interseting, isnt' it?? Perhaps it's only that liberals are more grass-rootsy folks, power to the people and all. Conservatives are about power to the powerful, so the songs are handed down by the powerful, and not adopted by the (excuse me) proletariat in the same way (I think of a country song I heard too many times with the refrain of "we'll put a boot in your ass" - in response to 9/11 - it was a song popular with many regular folks, but it wasn't THEIR song. I doubt they sang it to their children at night, I hope not!)

I have never been a conservative, so I couldn't rightly tell you. What do conservatives sing to their kids at night? (my dad voted for reagan when I was 12, and had generally sung me songs about people dying gruesome deaths - like "anne boelyn" and "clementine")

I think that conservatives generally think they're doing something other than what I think they're doing - so their "rallying cries" might be something as simple as "home on the range" (or even the nonthreatening verses of "this land is your land") - rather than anything that explicitly says "go out and expoit your fellow human - yay!" - but maybe that's just me


Lorcan said...

Oh my... I was playing at a retirement home, my mother in law had told everyone her son in law was a famouse folk singer... well, as much as I am known, I am known for songs which some might say are dangerous... but, there I was, on my best behavior, singing old traditional Irish songs... rather than the ones I write... and... a woman in her nineties askes me to sing God Bless America.
I explain as a Quaker, I don't outwardly pray, make oaths, and so, to sing God Bless America would not be in conformity with my faith as a Quaker.
She looked daggers at me and said... "Well you BETTER learn to sing it!"
The other elderly folks calmed her down and were very kind... but I always smile and think of her when I hear that song... the one I had better learn to sing!
Thine in the light

PS for one or two of my dangerous songs, check out the thrid back Beppe Podcast, Joe (beppe) is in my links...

Paul L said...

I applaud your witness, Lorcan.

As a professional, you probably know that Woody Guthrie was so exercised by GBA that he penned This Land is Your Land as a full-frontal attack on it. His first draft refrain, in fact, was "God Blessed this Land for You & Me." He must of thought better of it and shifted it to the more ambiguous, passive voice.

Liz Opp said...

So, any ideas on how to go about changing the U.S. national anthem from the Star Spangled Banner to, say, A Song of Peace?

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Paul L said...

Yes. A complete spiritual revolution.