Do You Hear the People Sing?

Chinese poet Liao Yiwu‘s most recent memoir, For A Song and a Hundred Songs, takes its title from a particularly fiendish torture imposed on him during a prison stint: caught singing by a guard, Liao was forced to squat against a wall and sing non-stop for about eight hours, until his voice completely conked out. It’s a horrible story, but the wondrous part about it is that it didn’t stop Liao from singing again. Or writing. Or escaping to Germany so that he could share his story with the world.

There’s a power in words and music, a power that makes some people nervous, and others celebrate. History and culture are filled with moments that highlight this power, like this iconic scene from Casablanca:

Or the time Elvis Costello bit the hand that fed him on network television, which you can watch here and learn more about below:

We could write a whole separate blog post about “We Shall Overcome” and other freedom songs:

And, of course, the power of music is a world-wide phenomenon, as can be seen in Algerian rai

…the protest songs of Filipino musicians…

…and countless other examples.

The library is a great place to learn more about the power of music in history and culture. Some representative samples:

Books

33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs From Billie Holiday to Green Day / Dorian Lynskey

Story Behind the Protest Song / Hardeep Phull

Protest Song in East and West Germany Since the 1960s / David Robb, et. al.

Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song / David Margolick

Rockin’ the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements / Reebee Garofolo, ed.

Recorded Music

Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Songs of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement / The Cultural Center for Social Change

The Best of Fela Kuti, Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Classic Protest Songs, Smithsonian Folkways

Rolas de Aztlan: Songs of the Chicano Movement / Smithsonian Folkways

Songs of Conscience and Concern / Peter, Paul & Mary

DVDs

The People Speak / A&E Television

Soundtrack for a Revolution / Docurama Films

A Night of Ferocious Joy / Artists Network of Refuse & Resist

Scores

Songs That Changed the World / Wanda Wilson Whitman, ed.

The People United Will Never Be Defeated: 36 Variations / Frederic Rzewski

The Big Red Songbook / Mal Collins, et. al.

Songs of Protest and Civil Rights / Jerry Silverman

As ever, you can get more materials and information by asking a librarian. But right now, it’s your turn: has there been a particular song, or type of song, that raised your awareness of the world around you? Did you live through an era where music played a significant role in political / historical / cultural  events? Tell us about it.

Leigh Anne

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Do You Hear the People Sing?

  1. I love the subject of Civil Rights freedom songs so much, I wrote a book about it!
    Sanger, Kerran L. When the Spirit Says Sing! : The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement (Garland Studies in American Popular History and Culture) published by Routledge, (1995)

  2. Don

    I’ve lived over what seems many eras, at least in the world of music – and 3 such moments jump out – the first worldwide satellite broadcast ever was of the Beatles performing “All You Need is Love,” the instant writing, recording and releasing of “Ohio” by Crosby Stills Nash and Young, in reaction to the Kent State killings and U2′s song “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

    I could go on and on but then you’d really know how old I am.

  3. lizzy

    Love this post. Music speaks to us in a different way. Hoping for a ‘moment’ tomorrow when we’ll be in DC for the 50th Anniversary march!

  4. The original French version of the song mentioned in the title. Exponentially more powerful and definitely worth a listen.

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