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:
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…
The library is a great place to learn more about the power of music in history and culture. Some representative samples:
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.
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
The People Speak / A&E Television
Soundtrack for a Revolution / Docurama Films
A Night of Ferocious Joy / Artists Network of Refuse & Resist
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.