Tag Archives: world affairs

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:


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


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.

Leigh Anne


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In The News: Libya

I can’t decide if it’s me or Pittsburgh, and how news is covered or presented, or if the quantity of news information available reduces almost every storyline to Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame.  Outside of Queen Elizabeth II and Fidel Castro, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (and the variations of G, Q, or K in spelling) has been an eternal presence on the world stage since I was 10 years old.

Depending on your outlook and frame of reference, Qadhafi is either an arch Arab nationalist, victimized by President Reagan, who has tried to modernize his country with a unique approach to Islam and Pan-Arabism, or a previously unapologetic supporter of terrorism who has seen the error of his ways.  In either case, the idea that Libya would be the scene of a prolonged popular uprising is amazing,  and yet after two weeks of reporting, it’s all but faded from the headlines.

On the surface, Libya in and of itself doesn’t have the significance of Egypt or the dynamism of Tunisia vis-a-vis the Arab street and political upheaval, but that Kadaffi has lost that much control so rapidly is to me a barometer of where the Arab world is heading.  As we’ve seen in Iraq and post Mubarak Egypt, Democracy doesn’t necessarily translate into the Madison – Jefferson – Adams model we pride ourselves on in the US.  A philosophy and way of life isn’t so readily exportable, it isn’t something that can just be given or imparted – it’s a process.  If successful, at the end of the day it probably won’t look like what we have here and it probably shouldn’t.


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