Folk Music, Occupy Wall Street and Social Justice

Almost everyone over the age of four will be familiar with the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land”. Almost none will ever have heard the 5th and 6th verses:

“As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?”

These words and several similar songs were, not surprisingly, written by someone who had lived through both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. At the time, they were seen as dangerously subversive and Guthrie often clashed with censors over his “radical” politics.

Are sentiments such as these still relevant in today’s United States? It certainly seems that they are: in fact, many of the issues folk singers addressed in the 50’s and 60’s are still musical talking points today; environmentalism, minority rights and a dangerously authoritarian government being some examples.

The Meaning and Music of Occupy Wall Street

Economic disenfranchisement is, of course, yet another social concern that has turned up in music over the decades. There is plenty of reason to be concerned: the average wage for non-management workers in the U.S.A, adjusted for inflation, has remained effectively unchanged since the 60’s while real GDP has grown by over 400%. Of course, the population also grew by about 170% during that time, but these figures are still well out of whack.

At the same time, there’s a reasonable case to be made that the cost of maintaining a socially acceptable, comfortable lifestyle has increased. Kids are no longer satisfied with bicycles; they want a board with electrical drive for Christmas. Consumers are more “financially educated” and in consequence assume higher levels of debt, meaning that it becomes that much more difficult for them to build up any savings. People need to buy a $600 cellphone to replace a still-working, functionally similar one just to fit in with the crowd, and so on.

The Occupy movement drew together a whole range of people who realized that something is wrong with the system, whether they could define what it is or not. Numerous musicians of all stripes joined them in spirit if not physically. These include pop names such as Moby and Katy Perry, rappers like Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, while Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello performed the song quoted above.

Of course, OWS inevitably failed due to having no clear ideology, no real leadership and no political platform. What it did do, much like folk music did in the 60’s, is raise awareness of certain issues that threaten society as a whole and serve as a focal point for a whole range of already disaffected people.

Modern Folk Music and the Open Society

Whether the debate is about bombing a jungle on the other side of the world is really necessary or whether beat cops should carry machine guns, protest music most definitely still has a job to do. Musicians using their art to challenge prevailing views, inform their fans or simply bring some issue to the forefront offers a counterpoint to what consumer-citizens are constantly exposed to.

For almost a century now, there has been a political concept called the “silent majority”, implying that people who don’t speak out are basically satisfied with their situation. This quite conveniently ignores the fact that many people may be afraid of raising their voices, unsure that they would be heard or unwilling to be the first to do so. Protest music is certainly not dead if it can appeal to individuals such as these.