Social protest

Reaching back to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and through the folk music scene of the early 1960s with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, a lineage of pop-protest balladeers (folk musicians with electric guitars) can be traced, including Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Billy Bragg, The Pretenders, The Police, Suzanne Vega, REM, U2, and Joe Strummer. The pop-protest song bears one of the most direct debts of rock music to the black churches through the civil rights movement. Its roots are in the music sung on picket lines and aboard freedom buses, and, as Jon Michael Spencer points out, these songs "were often original or modified hymns, spirituals, and the blues ... new lyrics were occasionally given to known religious tunes."19 As Dylan admitted, he borrowed the tune and the inspiration for his first big hit, "Blowin' in the Wind" from the old spiritual, "No More Auction Block."20 Protest songs use musical hooks to convey timely prophetic utterances like Dylan's cold war query: "How many times must the cannon balls fly/Before they're forever banned?/How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn't see?" to which the chorus replies ambiguously, "The answer is blowing in the wind";21 or Strummer's more recent:

You gotta get down Moses, once we were free;

The recipe for living is lost in memory.

You gotta get down Moses from the eagle's eyrie,

You gotta make new friends out of old enemies...

You gotta get down Moses, down in the pit.

No matter what the question the gun will answer it.

You gotta get down Moses - in between the biggest opposites that a magnet ever seen.

You gotta get down Moses - electrify;

Remind us of the past, remind us of the sky.22

Or, take U2's anthem, "Where the Streets Have No Name": Bono sings of his longing to break apart the walls that close him in, to reach beyond them and touch a flame that burns in a place where streets have no name.23 Originally written in 1987 as a commentary on the painted curbs that demarcate Republican from Unionist neighborhoods in Belfast, the band offered a remarkable performance of it during the half-time show at the 2002 Superbowl, pressing the edges of its meaning beyond the rivalries of Northern Ireland. Presented in tribute to the victims of September 11, as Bono sang of being buffeted by winds and "trampled in dust," vacillating between building love up and then burning it down, a titanic vertical curtain ascended behind the band with the names of those who died that day shimmering on it, rising to the heavens. At the song's crescendo, the by then towering curtain was released, and gravity brought it tumbling to the ground, each illumined name crumpling into darkness. In this bit of stagecraft, the September 11 victims were fittingly remembered, but coming as it did from an Irish band with a reputation for its criticisms of the exploitative excesses of American hegemony, a subtext was joined to the picture of a clash of civilizations that the terrorist attack had exacerbated in the popular imagination - that beyond the ruins of our clannish hatreds, there is a flame that illuminates a place where streets have no name, where divisions of politics, economics, geography and religion have been left behind. Joining the image of the collapsing tower with this image of a common human destiny was an innovative moment of mythmaking. And it transpired at the Superbowl, no less, the high holy day of so many things American.

In pop-protest music, hope is envisioned in the wind, in the sky, in the flame, in nameless streets where human differences have been relinquished - in those poetic regions where an elusive transcendence is still allowed to be conceived. Protest music can serve as a kind of soundtrack to social reform, drawing on the combined force of its snarling or exhilarating sound and its semiotically rich lyrics. It does as spirituals and gospel music have always done: it elicits powerful emotions and harnesses them simultaneously to a criticism of human sinfulness and to a source of hope, often symbolized, as it is in these examples, in perennial, if oblique and often unconscious, metaphors of the spirit and reign of God.

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