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The Politics Of Music

The Politics Of Music image The Politics Of Music image
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Pete Seeger is the well known activist folk-singer, whose compositions includesuch standaards as "Guantanamara, " "Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy, " and Turn, Turn, Turn," first made popular by the Byrds. During the 1950's Seeger was offwially blacklisted by the music industry for his outspoken socialist views. In this "letter to young people" he talks about the politics of popular music. i am wnting this letter for young people who love music and are strongly attracted by the folk and popular music of the U.S. A. I have met you in sophisticated big city universities, and in smal! towns and small countries. I have also seen you tapping your foot in pleasure to the latest popular recordings of jazz or rock and roll. I hope you don't like all of our music. Some of it represents the lives of black and white working people striving and struggling to survive. But some of it represents the U.S. "Establishment" trying to distract people and make them forget their problems. Some of it is such a subtle combination of the above two elements that it is impossible to untangle them. I'd like to persuade you to listen to the music of all the world, not just the U.S.A. In your eagerness to learn new styles of music from outside your own experience, there is the real danger that you will forget the music within our own lives, old as well as new. It should be possible to learn new things without completely forgetting old things. Let me go into the above points in more detail. Stick with me. This is a matter of cultural life-or-death. The music of North America is more hybrid than most. Of course, practically all music shows evidence of ancient mixing. However, the mixing in the U.S.A. has been extreme. West África rhythms and Irish melodies are two obvious elements. But we got a lot more than rhythm from África. The customs of one voice answering another ("antiphony") is typically African. We hear it in the blues when a guitar 'answers' a singer's cry. In addition, basic U.S. attitudes toward music, songs, and dancing are now much more African than most white residents of the U.S.A. realize. Of course, our music also contains European melodies, European harmonie traditions and other European elements. Some of our musical mixt ures simmered slow and long the way mountain folk musicians mixed the English ballads and the African banjo. Sometimes the cookpot has a lot thrown in it all at once, and the result was only half-cooked (and half-digested, one might say). Pop music has a tendency to do this. "Anti-establishment" pop music exists in the U.S.A., buttill recently, it never received commercial distribution. The labor unión struggles of the 19th century produced songs, as did the movement for the abblition of slavery. In the 1930's when I was a teenager, popular music was rapidly obliterating many local and regional forms of U.S. music through films and radio, as well as recordings. After being briefly infatuated with pop music (I played tenor banjo in a high school band) I discovered that there was some good music in my country which I never heard on the radio. My father, a musicologist, took me to a mountain dance festival, and I feil in love with the idea of homemade music. I liked the strident vocal tone of the singers, the vigorous dancing. The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them. Their humor had a bite. It was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental. In comparison, most of the pop music of the 1930's seemed to me weak and soft, with its endless variations on "Baby, baby, I need you." Much of it seemed part and parcel of the ancient attempt to keep the masses satisfied with their lot. In the middle of the severest economie depression, a hit song said, "Wrap your troubles in dreams, and dream your troubles away." In the 1940's Woodie Guthrie (Oklahoma bailad maker, now dead) and many othërs set out consciously to fight this kind of music. We set out to sing for working people, for students,anywhere we could sing our songs of struggle. The radio would not hire us, but we didn't expect it to. We held our 'hootenannies',democrat songfests in which we sang songs of labour, anti-fascism, as well as ancient ballads, songs of pioneer days, of working people, black and white, male and female. We underestimated our opponent. Our songs reached a few thousands, while the 'Hit Parade' reached tens of millions. As the Cold War closed in we were even blacklisted out of the trade unions. In desperation, we then tried to sing our songs in theatres and nightclubs. An oíd American folk saying is, "If you can't lick ern join 'em." To our own surprise, we started succeeding with songs which do not attack the establishment. The Weaver's cording of the Afro-American love song "Goodnight Irene" sold two million copies in 1950. And so we too discovered how the establishment of the USA culturally as well as politically,, has developed expertly the ability to 'co-opt' (absorb and disarm) its opposition. Long playing records in the 1950's began making money f rom many minority art forms. The tight monopoly of Broadway and Hollywood was broken. Hit records came out of Detroit and Nashville as well. Since 1965 a large market has developed in what one might term 'underground pop music'. Like folk music of old, it is anti-establishment' but the highly professional young musicians often draw larger youth audiences than the diluted 'rock' music of such accepted stars as Torn Jones. But their music is often not allowed on TV because it is töo frank in the areas of sex, marijuana, and the general anti-establishment politics but it is probably the most exciting and talented music in America today. Anti-war rock songs have been an important feature of all the big recent antiwar demonstrations. But note also: these recordings (Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Elton John, Jefferson Airplane et al.) add millions of dollars to the US music industry. Overall, the power of the music industry has increased hugely. Many young people of Western Europe have fallen hook-line-and-sinker (as a fish swallows bait) for American pop music. The talented pop musicians of much of the world now compete to get a foothold in the US'Top Forty' (this term replaced 'Hit Parade') Four working class youths of Liverpool became the biggest musical stars in history. Now the music industry of Western Europe and North America is technically equipped to promote anything it wants from Indian sitars, to Russian gypsy melodies, or the latest electronic invention, and stands poised to provide the music for all 3.6 billion beings ' on this globe to listen to. There are blisinessmen in USA who are preparing a cultural blitz. World Coca-Colonization. And it won't take fifty years as it once took to wipe out our cowboy music, but only fifty weeks to push aside the national music of Ceylon, Costa Rica, Madagascar and in a generation to erase them. No thinking person loóles forward to the hundreds of national musics of the world being erased, forgotten. Compare the situation to biology. If some species of bird or fish becomes extinct, the ecological web of life is torn. In cultural forms, as in biological forms, there is constant warfare. But as with biological forms, cultural forms need each other even while they compete. One reason that the folk and' popular music of the U.S.A. is rich, is because of the varied musics that found themselves competing side by side. But what is happening now is not competition. A flood of U.S. imported music is swamping, inundating its "competition" throughout the world. So part of the job of musicians in every corner of the globe now is to rediscover the rich strength and subtlety of their own music, and bring it to the attention of masses of people in their own land. We know now that it is necessary to do this with recordings, film and TV, as well as live performances. We must not do it with the printed page. Transcribing an African song with European music notation means to partially Europeanize that song. We must preserve the free improvisatory quality of so much non-European music and folk music. In Japan I was told, "We just want to be modern" - but some young Japanese assume that every fashion from the U.S.A. is modern. The recent Saigon "rock festival" does not represent the internationalization of South Vietnamese youth, but simply their Americanization, the result of U.S. imperialism. And these young people who want to hear the latest American song, do not even hear the best pop songs. They hear what the industry promotes. How many youths outside the U.S. know that the number one pop hit in 1970 was never played on radio or TV, or listed in thecharts of the Top Forty? It was sarcastic, jazzy satire for the Vietnam War. It had been an underground hit for several years, then it got into the movie "Woodstock." Although unknown on TV, every person under age 25 learned i the song and could roar out the chorus with me even when I sang in small towns: i One, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn; Next stop is Vietnam... (by Country Joe McDonald, etc.) Today one can see happening throughout the world what happened within the U.S.A. fifty years ago. Then, the culture marketed from the city was new and spectacular. It portrayed a glamorous and wealthier. and therefor apparently more successful group. Country persons, out of shyness or shame, reacted to inhibit their own culture. Just as today, in a hundred nations of the world, people will tend to feel ashamed of their own local music. It seems backwards to them. As once the young girls in American small towns tried to keep up with the fashions - raising hemlines or lowering them according to the dictates of the clothing industry -- so today young people try to keep up with'the "latest" pop music. Consider this, before you sneer at your own local brand of music. If it is lost or forgotten, it can probably never be recreated, not from books, recordings, or even films. It need not be the only music you like, but it is part of your heritage. And if in distant centuriesto come there is one musical language, it will be richer for adding to itself the best for many other languages. Piek and choose from anywhere. There are many wonderful forms of music in the world which American pop music has not yet discovered. Why don't you discover them first? Why do you have to wait for ; the U.S.A. to officially approve it? For example, the choral music of South África (the people of South África, not the government!) is one of the great choral traditions in the world, rivalling that of Northern Europe, Polynesia, or the Afro-American churches. A powerful bass section serves as foundation, a rhythmically inventive soloist does exciting work in the tenor or falsetto. And the gamalan orchestras of Java and Bali have a delicate charm which is unique. They have a way of gradually slowing down the tempo at the end of a piece of music, but at the same time increasing the number of notes played per second. Are you going to wait for some group like the Beatles to discover them for you, to place their stamp of approval on it before you sample it? From Sunrise -Edited by Ellen Hoffman