Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Music for Change: Cambio

Cambio’s album title, I, Too, Sing America caught my eye for being named after a Langston Hughes poem (his answer to Walt Whitman’s work, “I Hear America Singing”). Cambio’s music caught my ear, too, thanks to a broadcast by Ignacio Palmieri on KPOO San Francisco about a year ago. With allusions to illusions, references to referendums, and tracks built on layers upon sound bites, scratch noises, and clips of speeches, Cambio’s point of view is progressive to the max, and that powerful voice is at the center of the mix.

Californian by birth, Latino by descent, Cambio is from Watsonville while belonging to Quilombo Arte, the international collective of artists, writers and musicians spearheaded by Mexico’s Bocafloja, committed to breaking down barriers and to emancipation for all people.

As a Latino influenced by hip hop, a young man in love with basketball and a speaker of “broken Spanish,” Cambio described himself as “having issues within his own community.” It was through becoming educated and learning the stories of colonization that he began to seek and find his place in the world as an artist. Beginning to record and perform locally, it was by chance that Bocafloja heard Cambio’s recordings and reached out to him. Though he records in English, Cambio has since found an audience for his music in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

An earlier album, Or Does It Explode?, also has a title borrowed from a Hughes poem (“A Dream Deferred”); a newer project, Underground Railroad, of course refers to the network built from slavery to freedom. History, poetry, social movement and music are among the themes in Cambio’s work: One minute he’ll borrow from Malcolm X, Fred Hampton or Che Guevara, the next from Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. Here’s a remix “I Need A Dollar” featuring Bocafloja originally from I, Too, Sing America.

This Saturday afternoon, Cambio and I will be making a presentation on music with a message and music  for change at the Oakland Museum of California. If you are interested in hearing more from Cambio, check his Bandcamp page and the archived broadcast of the show I heard. Please support his work and the work of other musicians for change: Positive hip hop is still marginalized but Cambio’s voice, if given a proper hearing could resound all over this land: He, too, sings America.

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Poetry, Protest Songs, San Francisco News, video, vinyl, , , , ,

For Cinco de Mayo: The Mexican American Rock y Roll Connection

It all started with Ritchie Valens and “La Bamba” and The Champs and “Tequila”  in 1958, though it would be another decade before Santana took Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” and freaked it out in 1970. Los Lobos brought Spanish language to LA punks with “Anselma” in the early ’80s and to the masses in 1987 with a remake of “La Bamba”; in 2002, they tore it up Chicano style with “Good Morning Aztlán.” Of course, these names of Latino rock royalty can twist a phrase en español—it is their birthright. But what about los gringos without Latino roots who’ve brought a Mexican vibe to their rock ‘n’ roll? And the bands that feature lesser known Mexican-American musicians, plus los otros conquistadors of south-of-the-border sound? Well, they are the subject of this Cinco de Mayo post, claro que si.

There are any number of starting points I could choose to begin the story of Latin rock and the use of Spanish language in rock ‘n’ roll, but since I’m not a scholar of the stuff and just an admiradora, I’ll apologize upfront for any mismanagement of details, mangling of the language, and my Anglo-centric survey of the music. Let’s just say for the sake of ease we start with 1948 and Don Tosti’s recording of “Pachuco Boogie”, a swingin’ tune about the rebellious zoot-suiters featuring a conversation or street rap in Caló, the urban dialect of the Pachuco subculture. The Pachucos donned the zoot suit and started a ’40s fashion and attitude riot that asserted individuality and anger in the face of having been stripped of a cultural identity. What, you are asking yourself, does this have to do with music? Well, Southwestern Chicanos adopted the baggy trouser/knee-length jacket uniform that had previously been seen on the Harlem jazz scene, and Don Tosti earned the nickname “the Godfather of Latin Rhythm and Blues.” Alongside Lalo Guerrero, “the Father of Chicano Music,” who also sang of Pachuco life as well as farm laborers’ rights, Tosti opened the door for an ethnocentric brand of music to cross into the mainstream (“Pachuco Boogie” was a massive seller), though it wouldn’t be until the late ’60s that the Chicano Movement would come to organize in the name of cultural identity. “Suavecito”, the 1972 hit by Malo (the group led by Santana’s brother Jorge), is an example of Caló y Latin rhythms coming together in one classic R&B/rock ballad. But what happened between “Pachuco Boogie” and the day when Santana threw down at Woodstock before even releasing a debut album?

Well, that would be the invention of Latin rock by California son, Ritchie Valens, a rocker whose “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna” are ’50s standards, but who happens to be most remembered for the music of his cultural heritage. As we know, the music died on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Valens, and the pilot died in a plane crash in Iowa, yet “La Bamba”, the el hefe of Spanish language rock songs, lives on. Starting out as a hundreds year-old Mexican folk song, Valens rocked it up and delivered a three-chord wonder that eventually any garage or punk-rock band could play. The Plugz, an LA band by way of El Paso, featuring Tito Larriva and Charlie Quintana, self-released their cranked-up version of “La Bamba” in 1981. The Plugz also recorded two long-playing rare classics, Electrify Me and Better Luck, before morphing into the Cruzados and then eventually going their separate ways, but not before their “El Clavo y La Cruz” and “Hombre Secreto” (as in “Secret Agent Man”) gave the right touch to Repo Man, the punky midnight movie about “the LA experience.” In 1987, Los Lobos were asked to re-record some Valens songs for the soundtrack to La Bamba, a Hollywood bio depiction of the Richie Valens story starring Lou Diamond Phillips. It was then the band, formed in 1973 in East LA, rose to a new level of fame (their take on “La Bamba” went to number one). Debuting in 1976 with Si Se Puede! benefitting the United Farm Workers, and inspired by music diverse as Bob Dylan and Traffic, R&B, Mexican folkloric music, Jimi Hendrix  and Marvin Gaye, Los Lobos are as American and rock’n’roll as they come, while they continue to clutch the roots of their musical  heritage, masterfully incorporating traditional corridos and norteño sounds into their alternately furious rock’n’roll and  laid back jams.

Los Lobos were also inspired by the Eastside sound of Thee Midnighters and Little Willie G (more on them in a minute), as well as Carlos Santana y Jerry Garcia, and the Sir Douglas Quintet, distinguished by Augie Meyers’ Vox Continental organ sound and the soulful singing of Doug Sahm who started their band in San Antonio, Texas. Their greatest hit, “She’s About a Mover,” as released in 1965. Sir Douglas Quintet belonged to the handful of US groups who brought the spirit of the British Invasion (English musicians doing American music), back into the hands of Americans by tricking the public into thinking they were playing British-styled music like the Beatles and the Stones, rather than American music by Americans. It was Sir Doug that officially added the Tex-Mex sound to the American music mix, while Sahm would also go on to sing of the border and other Mexican concerns (“Michoacan”). In later years, Sahm and Meyers would also join forces with Mexican-American rock and genre-straddling songwriter Freddie Fender and accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez as the Texas Tornados.

The Farfisa organ sound and the count-off uno, dos, one-two, tres cuatro would become recognized around the world that same year as the opening to “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Led by a Texas-born son of Mexican immigrants, Domingo (Sam) Samudio, the song is about nothing really and was said to be named after his cat. Domingo worked as an itinerant musician and reportedly as a carny before forming the Pharaohs, who took their name from Yul Brynner because he looked tough as the character in The Ten Commandments, one of those epic 1950s Bible movies. “Wooly Bully” became a staple of the frat-rock genre though it was more distinctive than just serving as the soundtrack to AnimalHouse-style hijinks. The song spent an incredible 18-week stand on the charts, and by the end of 1965, it was named Billboard magazine’s Number One Record of the Year and had helped dislodge singles on the charts by the aforementioned pesky British bands of the era. Sam the Sham’s “Li’l Red Riding Hood” was certainly another fine moment for the band, but it lacked the Tex-Mex organ sound that would crop up on the great singles of the ’60s made by another legendary group of Mexican-Americans: “96 Tears” by Question Mark & the Mysterians, who hailed from Michigan and were fronted by Question Mark aka Rudy Martinez and featured a teenaged organ player, Frank Rodriguez, Jr. The organ riffing would also inspire the group’s “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby.” In 1998, Smash Mouth from San Jose, California, had a hit with the song alongside their hit remake of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by War, a mixed-race funk band whose big hit “Low Rider” was a hats-off to cruisin’, Chicano style.

Of course, when it comes to cruisin’ Chicano style, the band for that is East LA’s Thee Midniters. Known for their instrumental jam “Whittier Boulevard”

The band and their especially soulful singer Willie Garcia, better known as Little Willie G, was a big inspiration to the future members of Los Lobos. The song was a natural to cover for Los Straitjackets, the contemporary (mostly) all-instrumental band that performs in Mexican wrestler masks. Okay, so copping a Spanish name and wearing a mask does not make a Mexican rocker. But by virtue of using the article “los” in their names, Los Straitjackets, as well as Texas rockers Los Lonely Boys, are filed in American record stores with the other “los bands,” like Los Bravos, the rock group from Spain whose 1966 hit, “Black Is Black”, did not contain a word of Spanish. Nor to my knowledge did the Zeros, the Mexican-American band from San Diego, ever sing in Spanish, though as members of the class of ’77,
they are distinguished as first-wave punk rockers; they also sprung Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Somewhere, there exists a rare single of their anthem “I Don’t Wanna” backed with “Li’l Latin Lupe Lu”, a cover of the first Righteous Brothers hit made even more famous by Mitch Ryder.

I have only scratched the surface of the Latino influence on rock, precisely because it is inescapable and inextricable. I never got to point toward the “Spanish” sound on all those Brill Building and Phil Spector hits, or delve deep into the Afro Cuban percussive roots of rock (best exemplified by Bo Diddley borrowing the rhumba-like clave beat), nor did we open the pandora’s box of disco that partially paved the road to hip hop and other forms of dance music.  There is so much to uncover, from Devendra Banhart’s musings en español on Cripple Crow to the Mission District’s #1 son, Jerry Garcia (that is if you don’t count figure #1a, Tijuana-born Carlos Santana). I had planned to wax on about Jack White’s and Beck Hansen’s Mexican-American neighborhood origins as well as the exact definition of un perdedor as heard in Beck’s “Loser,” but I will leave that to you to explore. While were are here, let’s not forget the great Spanish-lover, Joe Strummer, whose Mexico City childhood allowed him to open his corazón to the Spanish-speaking world, and they to him. I had hoped to remind you to remember to forget U2’s lame-o uno, dos, tres, catorce countdown to “Vertigo”, but who am I to talk when all I can offer are my own gabacha sign-offs, ay, caramba y que lástima. Yo no soy una roquera, lo siento. Pero, in the hands of the Mars Volta, Ozomatli, Zack de la Rocha, La Santa Cecilia, Cambio, y todos los músicos, there is mas y mas y mas y mas musica: Rest assured, La Raza rocks on. Wishing all a safe and sane Cinco de Mayo.

The research compiled in this column was originally published some years ago in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Origin of Song, , , , ,

The King of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-eight years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”, April 4 1968, Memphis TN, Striking Sanitation Workers

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, income disparity, Keep On Pushing, Never Forget, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, , , , ,

In The Name of MLK

mlkIn one of those weird, under-reported facts, the origin of the third Monday in January when all 50 states are set to observe the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929) is not widely acknowledged, but it is in fact a musician we may largely thank for the creation of a federal holiday in the name of MLK.  Back in 1980, Stevie Wonder wrote his pointed song “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote an idea first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The city to city tour was ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures which had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring the day for MLK. Of course it took some more years, more activist effort, more songs, and more applied pressure for the idea to catch on and the day to become a reality.

“Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is the last track on Wonder’s Hotter Than July album which also features “Master Blaster,” his tribute to Bob Marley.  The reggae giant was also scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, post-humously published memoir, The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism; he retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home a US federal holiday with the help of a song.  In a a strictly horrific twist of fate, the tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, California, where they were playing in the name of King (as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana) on the night John Lennon was assassinated.  The story of the evening is better read in Scott-Heron’s book, though here’s a clip of Wonder delivering the news to the assembled crowd, back in the time before we carried our own tracking devices.

Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance. On Monday January 20, cities all across the country will attempt to honor Dr. King’s dream the best they can, given our nation’s state of economic and moral poverty.  In King’s birthplace of Atlanta, Georgia,  the King Center, has a full weekend schedule of events culminating on Monday (the King Center’s events are dedicated to discussing and teaching non-violence). In San Francisco on January 20, there is an all-day celebration of King’s life, its theme Now is the Time, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 11 a.m. — 5 p.m. Among the events scheduled are author readings sponsored by Marcus Books, America’s oldest black-owned bookstore engaged in a final push to preserve culture and community in the City’s historic Fillmore District. San Francisco is generally struggling with displacement of its African American population, as well as other issues related to the City’s techsploitation of housing and services. City of Santa Monica hosts Southern California’s largest King Day event; this year’s theme is Unity in the Community. I am permanently dumfounded by the American shame that is Skid Row LA:  Just spitting distance from the unfathomable displays of wealth that define Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the Westside, human life and dignity are compromised there everyday.

Much like Dr. King’s vision, justice and equality in our democracy remain very much a dream. But wherever we go, whatever we do that day, let us not only continue to dream of love and peace, but to take an action toward eradicating poverty, eliminating racial injustice, and loving our fellows, in the name of MLK.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, income disparity, Origin of Song, , , , , , ,

Graham Nash: Wild Tales of a Protest Singer

“We need people like Bradley Manning,” said singer Graham Nash on Friday night at the Nourse Auditorium in San Francisco, in conversation about his new book, Wild Tales:  A Rock & Roll Life.  The evening ended with questions from the crowd, a convention that in lieu of any interesting questions coming from the stage often provides the most interesting parts of these so-called public discussions.

“Where is the anger?” someone from the audience asked. “Why aren’t we rising up?”

“Do you think they really want protest songs on the airwaves? Do you think they want people singing about these things on TV?” answered Nash with more questions, while further noting the media has largely turned its back on free speech matters.  Though he suggested our first and fifth amendment rights were our country’s greatest assets, his questions were perhaps an acknowledgement that we can no longer rely on a free press to help us protect those rights to speech, a fair trail, or to keep us truly free.

Advocating for truth-speaking and against torture, as well as for solar power and ending world hunger, Nash isn’t just a one-size-fits-all protest singer; rather, he’s one who’s consistently stood strong against nuclear power, supports the science behind climate change, and was on the side of the Occupiers on Wall Street. The musician of conscience has consistently weighed in with songs of resistance since the dawn of his career, as a solo artist, as a member of the duo, Crosby & Nash, and the supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Last week I posted Nash and James Raymond’s song for Bradley Manning; his earlier works like “Chicago” and “Immigration Man,” among others, bear his mark of vocal excellence combined with pointed, topical concerns.

Among his known charitable activities, Nash co-founded the Musicians United for Safe Energy in 1978; he participated in 1985’s Live Aid, spotlighting famine in Africa and he toured with CSNY in 2006 on the Freedom of Speech tour, a traveling protest roadshow.  “We knew what we had to say, especially about George Bush,” Nash said, though the message was not entirely popular, particularly as they crossed the red states.  “I’d never been on a tour where there were bomb-sniffing dogs.  I’d never been on a tour where people walked out. You bought a ticket to a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert…what did you expect?”

On Friday, the crowd was comprised largely of freethinkers, baby-boomers, and progressives in accordance with Nash’s views, clued-in enough to ask: Had he ever requested his FBI files? Born in Blackpool, England but a citizen here since 1978 Nash answered with yet another question: “Why would I care if they have papers on me?” He shouldn’t.  But rest assured, they do. And had I held a mic that night, I would’ve first and foremost thanked Graham Nash—bold enough to sing the contents of his heart and mind for over 50 years—no questions asked.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Environmental Justice, Folk, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Occupy Wall Street, Protest Songs, San Francisco News, Songs for the Occupation, ,

Free Marcus Books

June 2013

Western San Francisco, June 2013

GOOD OL’ USA–June has been quite a month so far:  Bradley Manning’s trial kick-off was the first troubling thing, while jury selection for the George Zimmerman case must’ve been way more than just troubling for the family of Trayvon Martin. For those strung out on the injustice of the young man’s  killing in 2012, it is post-traumatic revisitation time.  Then there was the terrible mass shooting in Santa Monica. Just as my heart broke in two, thinking of friends and old neighbors we’d left behind there, we got the news (?) the N.S.A. is surveilling just plain folks on the regular. I thought we knew this already and so I just figure time is going backwards now. Incidentally, while all this was going down,  I saw a defaced billboard/piece of street art that seemed to fit the mood ’round these parts.

“I have so much trouble on my mind,” I told my husband, not even counting the day to day personal challenges of survival.  “I know,”  he said, though at least we could laugh at me quoting Chuck D accidentally without irony. Meanwhile, a national historic landmark, located in San Francisco, was moving into jeopardy.

The Richardson-Johnson family,  proprietors of the Marcus Book Store in the Fillmoreslider-2 district, have been on a course of change for over 50 years here and have survived those changes royally. Founders Julian and Raye Richardson were directly invested in the struggle for civil rights and equality, first with their Success printing company, followed by the opening of their bookstore.  To cite just one example: During the historic student strike at SF State in 1968, they used their home as collateral, to pay the bail for those arrested in the demonstration. They also printed the student paper when no one else would touch it. The result of the student action, by the way, are today’s multicultural studies departments and diversity programs  enjoyed on college campuses from here to Timbuktu (and when I say Timbuktu I do mean Timbuktu, quite literally).

Marcus Books, named after Marcus Garvey, specializes in books about Africa and African Americans, books by and about black people, among other things.  The authors they’ve hosted are those great writers, thinkers, poets, and humanitarians of the 2oth Century: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Ishmael Reed, and those are just a few of them. Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, Wanda Coleman, Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Walter Mosely and Oprah Winfrey have also passed through the doors at one of their two locations (the other is in Oakland). In San Francisco, the purple building stands near the corner of Post,  at the former location of Jimbo’s Bop City, the Fillmore’s premier jazz spot, back in the day.  I mention all this on the first day of what I expect will be a long hot summer here in our chilly little town, because some of us are concerned about such things. Yes, it’s for some of the usual reasons small businesses and booksellers have been struggling in the Amazonian jungle for a decade, exacerbated by the economy’s mess, but the wages of income disparity have also come to bear, the way it makes some people in town go boom while the rest of us go bust are also mixed up in it. You can read more about the store’s situation; as these circumstances do not resolve overnight, the fight to save Marcus Books has really only just begun.

As a native daughter of western San Francisco, I’ve recently returned home following some years in Atlanta, Los Angeles and on another side of town, and Marcus Books has since became my new favorite old place here. There are only a handful of places like that here, where I find it harder and harder to recognize the people and places I used to know as uniquely San Francisco. But some of what I remember best about our town’s openness, and willingness, I re-found at Marcus. There, if you are so inclined, you might talk to Karen Johnson about James Jamerson. Or Charles Mingus, Soul Train and Don Cornelius; Fillmore Street’s jazz heritage, quantum physics, Marvin Gaye and the beginning of all life in Africa. Self-reliance, self-knowledge, the rise and fall of Egypt, astrology, numerology; Harry Belafonte, Smokey and Stevie may come up, depending how you go. I don’t know about you but there aren’t too many places in town where people are conversant in the things I want to talk about and that’s just my own personal reason for wanting Marcus to hang around. The other is that I care about Karen, her family, and of course the general community in the Sucka Free City, served by the book store.

It has been said that the Fillmore is the heart and soul of San Francisco; certainly I have been witness to those flavors at work at Marcus Books in the hands of the Richardson-Johnson family. And because there is hardly any other place on earth I’d rather be than in a friendly neighborhood book or record store, chances are if you’ve read this far, I suspect you feel the same way too. So please, if you will, sign the petition to help Marcus Books, the oldest African American Bookstore in the United States stay around not only to educate the young and curious, the avid reader and casual seeker, but to stand as one of the longest standing community safe places for black authors and black people, and all folks, even those who are white, like me.

A gathering of concerned customers and citizens will convene at the store on Saturday June 22 at noon. Marcus Books is located at 1712 Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

Filed under: Book news, Harry Belafonte, income disparity, , , , , ,

We Shall Overcome (Again)

This piece is adapted from an column that appeared in Paste in late 2011.

Alongside organizers, activists and orators, music people of all orientations have long brought the soul, sound, and heart to social and political movements. During 2011’s income disparity protests, the lionhearts of contemporary music  turned out for the Occupation: Ever-ready artist/activist Michael Franti showed up to “Yell Fire.” Talib Kweli, longtime resident in the trenches of conscious hip hop, dropped some rhymes, weighing in with a powerful piece called “Distraction”: “Skip the religion and the politics and head straight for the compassion, everything else is a distraction,” he rapped. Tom Morello, who as The Nightwatchman, shows up with his ax wherever injustice is served, came out to lead a chorus of “This Land is Your Land,” the old Woody Guthrie song that’s easy enough to sing along to, even if you don’t know the words. And the generally apolitical Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel delivered a rare, impromptu set of songs to the delight of Occupiers. In particular, the line “we know who are enemies are” from the fan favorite, “Oh Comely,” drew cheers from the crowd. Mangum’s appearance, if not his topically unspecific songs, provided the people with entertainment and support, the kind of unique companionship that only a song can provide in the cold, cold night.

“Our idea was to go down and raise their spirits,” said David Crosby, who with Graham Nash sang for the Zuccotti Park crowd. “What music is doing is unifying the people, bringing them together,” Nash told Rolling Stone.

“Everybody has a point, everybody has an idea everybody has a perspective on the world,” said rapper Lupe Fiasco when asked about musician participation in OWS. Stressing that celebrities are just like the rest of the occupiers, except in a higher tax bracket, he noted, “The leader is Occupy; it is the movement.”

Hip hop organizer and mogul Russell Simmons was among those on the street with the 99 percent; part of his role there was shepherding visitors like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Kanye West through the New York encampment.

The historic Occupy moment for social and economic equality was called by scholar Cornel West a “democratic awakening,” while throughout history, every freedom movement has had its own soundtrack or anthem for the long march home. And yet, there was not one dominant or lead song to emerge from the throng, an echo perhaps of the mass chorus of a movement without one soloist. Back in the high days of student organizations, protest and topical songs—the ’60s civil rights, free speech, anti-war and black power movements—marchers relied on folk tradition (reviving the old songs with the intention of forging something new). Rewriting spirituals for the secular world—or at least a world in which all faiths and traditions get equal respect—was an area mined by Pete Seeger, who along with Joan Baez, helped to turn “We Shall Overcome,” into an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement (most memorably, Baez sang it at the 1963 historic March on Washington; Seeger sang it at OWS).

Originally based on the gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” composed by the Rev. Charles Albert Tinley and dating back to the African American Methodist Episcopal Church of the early 1900s, “We Shall Overcome” has changed shape through the years; also contributing to the version as we know it were elements of the spiritual “We’ll Overcome (I’ll Be All Right)”, another hymn from the immediate post-slavery period. But it wasn’t long after its arrival in church hymnals that “I’ll Overcome Some Day” was picked up by striking miners and laborers who went on to use it throughout their organizing fights in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Sung by miners in the North as well as tobacco workers in the South, “We Shall Overcome” became a staple at the Highlander Folk School, the training ground for civil rights workers. Highlander teacher Guy Carawan helped to popularize the song among the forming Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and the song was spread far and wide by Seeger who changed up the verses a bit. By and by, the melody to “We Shall Overcome” came closer to echoing another slave time spiritual, “No More Auction Block” (once sung by Paul Robeson and Odetta and used by Bob Dylan as the tune for “Blowin’ in the Wind”) than Tinley’s “I Shall Overcome” did. In essence, two folk standards emerged from one spiritual.

But more than its fairly tame melody, the strength of “We Shall Overcome” lies in its extraordinarily bold lyrical affirmations: We are not afraid/the truth shall make us free/we shall live in peace. These sentiments are as ripe for the current moment, as they were when the United Farm Workers used it in their fight for their rights, as when South Africans sang it in their struggle against Apartheid, and when Czechs sang it during the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism. “We Shall Overcome” has been deployed in struggles in India and Ireland. It’s been sung by Bruce Springsteen and was recorded for his Seeger Sessions; Seeger, now in his ’90s, is still singing it. Though I’d say it’s time for someone from the youngest generation of American singers, songwriters and activists to adopt and adapt it, and lead the singalong. “We Shall Overcome” needn’t be consigned to folk’s moldy or buttoned-up past; rather, it’s protest gold, a song that hasn’t lost its value for over 50 years and counting. If it seems strange, update it. If it seems square, give it a beat. But traditional songs need to get sung and sung loud, as if your life depended on them because in fact there are people whose do: Overseas wars cost not only money but lives; poverty is killing people here at home. Workplace and housing discrimination, poor schools, environmental degradation, job disintegration—these are just some of the grievances that will end up in songs as the movement keeps moving on.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew what music could bring to a non-violent protest effort: he asked gospel great Mahalia Jackson to accompany him and Harry Belafonte to help organize his efforts. Belafonte’s life is a demonstration of just how important a role a singer can play in effecting change as well as how education in the arts can save young lives Nina Simone; Curtis Mayfield; Bob Marley; Peter, Paul and Mary; Sam Cooke; and many, many more singers and musicians contributed to positive social change and quite possibly political change with their music. You may laugh at this notion of change, but people from all walks of life, all genders, all religious backgrounds, colors and sexual orientation, here and elsewhere in the world, are standing up to the indignities served up to their communities.

So here’s to you, activists and musicians: To Michael Franti, Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, Talib Kweli, Boots Riley, Ozomatli and Ben Harper:  Every movement, from abolition to women’s suffrage to labor and civil rights has its songs, and this moment in time has its songs too. Thank you—to the singers and your songs—songs that one night might be the only thing between the darkness, cold, tear gas and rubber bullets raining on someone’s soul. Thank you for singing, so that we shall all overcome, someday.

Origin of Song columnist Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop.

Filed under: anti-war, Hip Hop, income disparity, Occupy Wall Street, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, Songs for the Occupation

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