A telling moment came during the annual Eugene V. Debs award banquet late last month, when the career protest singer and songwriter, Anne Feeney, implored a huge Hulman Center audience to join her for the refrain of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” An anemic murmur came in response, building only slightly on each repetition.
The weak singing likely had little to do with the politics of the crowd: Every Lefty and union sympathizer within a 200-mile radius of Terre Haute flocks to the autumn Debs dinner. This year’s award winner, actor and activist Danny Glover, was an especially strong magnet.
Complicated lyrics couldn’t have been the cause of the subdued singing, either. Written in the 1930s for struggling laborers, and adapted over the years for civil rights and anti-war movements, “We Shall Not Be Moved” has a simple refrain: We shall, we shall not be moved/ We shall, we shall not be moved/ Like a tree that’s standing by the water/ We shall not be moved.
Some other force must have muffled the throats of the throng. My theory: What worked powerfully for decades on Americans with burning causes doesn’t resonate today. Lord knows, plenty of causes still burn; it’s hard to find a U.S. citizen who isn’t incensed about something. But contemporary causes don’t seem to inspire compelling music and lyrics.
Some of the greatest protest music comes from the black-and-white, good-guys vs. baddies world of early 20th century union organizing. Working conditions were horrendous. Unions were nascent or non-existent. OSHA was lifetimes from creation (in 1970). Owners of factories and mines were accustomed to using people as if they were horses or oxen. Human capital was dirt-cheap, and the Great Depression made it shamefully expendable.
One prime example of that era is “Which Side Are You On?” A Harlan County, Ky., coal miner’s wife, Florence Reece, wrote it in 1931. Like other union organizers, her husband, Sam, had to hide out in the mountains for fear of his life during a mine strike. Deputies of Sheriff J.H. Blair tore up the Reeces’ home, looking for Sam, and stood guard outside with guns ready.
Workers, can you stand it? Tell me how you can?/ Will you be a lousy scab or will you be a man?/ Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?/ Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?
Labor unions today face a host of challenges, but they don’t look like Blair’s “thugs,” as Florence dubbed them. They look like complicated legislation around membership sign-up cards, jobs shipped overseas, dismantled pension plans, no-strike contract clauses and widespread disenchantment with unions, themselves, by many U.S. workers.
In 1983, organized labor represented more than 20 percent of the workforce. Today, it’s about 11.9 percent. Less than 7 percent of private sector workers are union. Where membership gains have been made, women make up the majority of the organized. (Which side are you on, girls?)
Among public-sector unions, more than 37 percent of members are teachers, trainers and library workers. While merit pay, charter schools and lawmakers’ obsession with test scores can make a teacher’s life miserable, such demons don’t lend themselves to searing song lyrics.
The landscapes also have changed in civil rights and anti-war activism, two traditionally fertile areas for protest music. Racism is far from extinct, but its evidence is subtler — a black man is in the White House; Oprah Winfrey has her own network — and is often combined with anti-immigrant sentiments that can be as much about misguided economic fear as about deep-seated racism.
Afghanistan and Iraq are two highly unpopular wars, but Americans’ disgust with those astronomically costly campaigns seems to inspire depression and paralysis, not rallies in Washington and rounds of “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” or “Give Peace a Chance.” That the wars are being fought by a small, volunteer segment of our society, no doubt, also helps tamp down the fires of anti-war passion.
Feeney, who hails from Pittsburgh and has managed to stay angry and ultra-Left for four decades, does her best to provide up-to-date lyrics for modern causes. Her many CDs feature such songs as, “The Corporate Welfare Polka,” “Capitalism Sucks,” “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back,” a scolding of Barack Obama titled, “The Man I Voted For,” and a rousing labor fight song, “A War on the Workers.” The first verse:
Listen up/ We’ve got a war zone here today/ Right here in our heartland and across the USA/ These multinational bastards don’t use tanks and guns, it’s true/ But they’ve declared a war on us/ Fight back! It’s up to you.
The refrain is simply an echo of “Oh, it’s a war on the workers.” Feeney performed the song at the Debs gathering; it elicited an even punier sung response than did “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
The easy answer is that the Left just isn’t what it used to be, but that explanation excludes today’s protest juggernaut. If angry people, agitating for change and threatening to dismantle the power structure, still sang about their ire and their intentions, the Tea Party would be on its 15th compilation of greatest hits. Instead, protesters of today – Left and Right – tweet, blog, email en masse, Like on Facebook and do their keening in cyberspace.
Maybe if we could find one song that nearly every faction could agree upon, protest music might find new life in the 21st century. I nominate an old Jim Garland number that originated during the Great Depression. You can hear its essential refrain spoken in almost every corner of contemporary American life:
I don’t want your millions, Mister/ I don’t want your diamond ring/ All I want is the right to live, Mister/ Give me back my job again.