We need some new anthems

In my new book, Outlaw Blues; Adventures in the Counter-culture Wars, I talk about the role of the great protest song in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Songs like If I had a Hammer, Blowin in the Wind, We Shall Overcome were the basic tool of non-violent protest sit-ins. If you were going to get arrested, it was easier if everyone was singing the same anthem. I thought about that the other day in New York when I visited Occupy Wall Street. The main music of the encampment was some drum circles. That’s like a performance–full of ego. It’s the opposite of singing an anthem.

I think we need some new anthems, but it also raises a larger question. The great non-violent protest movements of the past have had at their core a leader whose core vision was of love, not anger. As Michael Shellenberger pointed out years ago, King’s most famous speech was “I have a dream” not “I have a nightmare”. The core of OWS is the concept “We are the 99%”. It is brilliant in its simplicity to distill the notion that the whole system is rigged to advantage the 1%, but without a dream—a vision of how we get out of this Interregnum—the movement will never advance beyond drum circles, witty posters and identity politics.

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30 Responses to We need some new anthems

  1. Fentex says:

    I was thinking this the other day – where are the great protest and folk songs?

    I doubt corporate media would be helpful in spreading any today, but we’ve the Net in their place.

  2. len says:

    They are being written and put on YouTube, some on Facebook, etc. Because there is no industry to promote them and folk as a genre is mostly dead industrially, and because the industry where it does pay attention heavily stereotypes the acts for marketing and their own bigotry, you won’t hear about them unless you look.

    However, check out Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, a duo who went down to play the Vermont OWS gathering. The Guthrie family, God bless ’em, always shows up. She is her Dad with a bit more sex appeal and a little less humor. Johnny has really fine chops both as a songwriter and a guitarist. They haven’t gotten around to an anthem but I suspect they will if Dad doesn’t do it first. Arlo showed up in Wisconsin. He may head down to NY but he has medical issues (from his FB page). One way or another, the northeast clans are het up for these events. The FB pages out of the Berkshires crowd are brimming. West Coast? Seems to be asleep. Now that the movement is popular, the stars will come out. Sad but so and kinda sleazy but hey, everyone should.

    As for recycling, yeah all the vintage songs such as Woody’s are being sung. The trick, in my opinion, is to do in songs what the protesters are doing with the signs: fast, cheap and deep. That means the industry won’t touch these with a barge pole but then the songs that drove these kinds of movements originally (pre-Dylan /Kingston Trio before they discovered how much money could be made) were hard to find too. We are moreorless back before the point in the cycle when the Weavers emerged.

    On the other hand, the market is ready to receive. When 75% approx of the public agrees with the protest, there is a market if they can figure out how to make it authentic. As I said, the signs are the cultural icons right now.

    It may not be anthems but wit that matters most. The scene is not on the radio. It’s on YouTube because today effectively that IS the radio for the role it once played.

  3. rhbee says:

    It’s about time . . .

    Sang A song the other day,
    Was about people and their need to say
    Was about holding things to be true
    Was about nothing but me and maybe you

    Sang a song the other day
    It wasn’t so pretty
    It wasn’t so fine
    It was just saying that it’s about time.

  4. rhbee says:

    Com’n people you can sing along.

  5. len says:

    Don’t expect the present to do more than mimic the past in part, Jon. For every Martin Luther King there was an Abbie Hoffmann. Right now they are a bit too pissed for anthems. Wit is a better medicine than a love soaked slurpy. Transformative politics are not the politics of kumbayah because they don’t need to offer targets for pundits, media and the agencies of disruption. They are having a conversation. Understand that or stay clear.

  6. Alex Bowles says:

    @len I think this is exactly right, len. There’s tremendous creative energy here, but it’s finding an outlet in the far more fragmented (and readily circulated) form of distilled insight. Unlike bumper sticker politics – which involve tremendous latency – these efforts are taking place in what amounts to a petri dish, full of fast, dense feedback loops.

    When ‘observers’ disdainfully say ‘but there’s no clear message’ it’s because they’re being too obtuse to see the message developing before their eyes. And that’s where I find the organization of the event so remarkable. It’s part of the message, of course, but not in the sense of suggesting that deliberately leaderless, self-selecting groups can ever scale to the point of providing governance in a very pluralistic society. Rather, it’s the essential structure for deliberately identifying, developing, and polishing a position with unimpeachable sovereignty, and total transparency. Like one kid said when asked if he was upset about the undercover cops roaming around the park “So? What we’re doing isn’t a secret. It’s kinda the opposite.”

    All this leads to an integrity that the Tea Party swiftly lost when it turned out that they were – perhaps unwittingly – being turned into a group of astro-turfers operating on behalf of people who clearly didn’t have the same interests at heart.

    What’s even more of-the-moment is the leverage it provides. There aren’t actually that many people there, but their structure (itself a creative act) and the messages and images coming out of it, are being duplicated on a massive scale online. In that sense, there’s enormous participation. I see it in my own facebook and twitter feeds, which are full of people adding and tweaking their own spins on the kinds of comments the occupiers place on signs. And of course, the ‘Occupy’ tag itself is incredibly portable. It even works on the the Tundra/a>. (My favorite example of creative extension has to this.)

    The important thing is that the main amplification structure is almost exclusively peer-to-peer. This stands in remarkable contrast to the Tea Party Movement, which relied heavily on Fox News for focus and development. So far, it has resisted being used in a way the Tea Party never managed.

    And within this independent, iterative explosion, people can immediately determine for themselves which messages have the most resonance, which carry the right tone, which seem to posses the greatest moral clarity. Those get the attention organically. And through the online conversations that attach themselves to the most successful, I can see a real consensus developing. Specifically, it’s target is the odious intersection of private money and public politics that a growing number of people are seeing as our primary problem.

    As Lessig is fond of pointing out, this may not be our biggest problem, or the most important problem. It’s simply the first problem, which is to say, the problem that must be solved before all others can even be considered. For a lot of people long-focused on more tangible issues (environment, policing, economy, health and so on), this shift of priorities to a purely procedural, technical problem has been major. More importantly, it’s turning a huge number of individuals previously divided by differing priorities into a single group with an proportionate increase in power.

    Clearly, it hasn’t reached the non-negotiable simplicity of “Mubarek must go”, but I think the strength of that example has not been lost. What folks are searching for now is the single shot that can do truly fatal damage. In this sense, it’s like an effort to expel an occupying army. By itself, it won’t stop anything except the abuse meted out by the invaders directly. But it will prevent that army from interfering with the peaceful and effective policies that contradict the will of the invaders.

    In that sense, it’s a counter-occupation. For all the idealism, it seems to have a considerable tactical brilliance. Specifically, it’s goaded the government into declaring an allegiance. The subsequent equivocation has made efforts to play both sides of the fence appear increasingly ridiculous. And it’s sparked the creation of sharply relevant images. Even if we don’t get something with the astonishing resonance of the Tiananmen Tank Man, the likelihood of producing something with enough resonance to mark a tipping point is very real.

    In that regard, the best thing I’ve seen so far is this. As one commentator put it, “it’s like the cop is trying to turn back time, and the only thing he’s got is fury.”

    Kind of like Captain Queeg, making a point about the missing strawberries. Moments like that are devastating and irreversible, and right now, people are searching for a way to produce one.

  7. Morgan Warstler says:

    You are the 98%, you are totally without any access to the machinery of power and worse, much worse, you plug yourselves into the machinery of media and become a slave.

    “That’s why I don’t watch television!” Well, a) you mean TV dramas, and 2) it’s because you’re not a 45 year old woman, the target demo of TV. But maybe you’re proud that you skip the commercials and avoid the “mainstream media”, you don’t want to be part of the corporate consumerist machine and good for you, yet your independence is why Whole Foods knows you’ll buy anything wrapped in brown and you already have a subscription to The New Yorker, which has a curiously large number of ads for mental institutions. If you’re reading it, it’s for you. The New Yorker is also at the checkout counter in Whole Foods, along with Rolling Stone and Psychology Today and not along with Sports Illustrated and The Weekly Standard. You think you shop at Whole Foods because it has better quality food? It’s because of those magazines. Even the neocons who shop there– they don’t shop at Acme– shop there because of the branding: liberal=organic, so the more left wing magazines and the more dred locks the more it has reinforced the “liberalism” and therefore the “quality,” and so you go, “reluctantly”, shaking your head at the crazy commies stocking the store as you hand them 3x more than anything is worth. “Would you like to donate $1 to help Ethiopian refugees?” Son of a bitch, this apple is delicious.


  8. len says:

    It doesn’t take much push to make a loaded gun go off or a much heat to burn down a forest full of tinder.

    As to love songs, in my opinion this is not about love. The 60s were because the dominant issues were race and the war. Love is a good answer to those because the right response to exclusion is inclusion.

    This is about justice. If Obama had taken even one of the banks to court and forced a revealing and congealing moment, America and the rest of the world would have looked on in admiration with the usual cat calls but really jealous admiration that we have a system that works. It stopped working somewhere in the Reagan era and this response has been building ever since.

    The economic issues are real and we need remedies. It is one of my concerns that those on the streets vent their anger and don’t begin to understand the system(s) that led to this. Here is where the synthesis and fusion of art and smart thought can and have been helping. I’ve seen a lot of charts outlining what has happened. So far no one has looked at the elite emergence the UN notes in their studies, or the private banking systems that likely hide more of the wealth siphoned out of the country that make it a global problem but that will come.

    At some point our leaders will either come clean, do the honest bit, and we’ll get through this or we get new leaders. I have a speech I give to folks I’m asked to manage at work: I will tell you what I know, I will tell you what I don’t know, I will tell you if I can’t tell you and I will never lie to you. It’s a hard and sometimes politically expensive policy for me but I’ve learned that over time and enough events, it always is the winning policy because I never find myself wishing I’d been a better person, and because I’ve found a lot of people do respect that.

    Justice. Respect. Truth. We are not children.

    @morgan: it’s not the media; it’s the content. It’s not the behavior; it’s the stimulus. Slap a kid to get them to obey and they will grow up and slap their own. The public has been abused and they are responding precisely as the abused do with this exception: they aren’t being violent. When the Tea Party showed up with guns the police did nothing. When the OWS showed up peacefully, the police kicked their ass. That is noticeable. But you have to stand back in awe of the determination of the Americans on the street not to hit back. That, Jon, is the power of love. Sing a song of joy.

    I’ll record another cheap second-rate song this weekend and push it to youtube not because I want them to sing it, but because I want them to hear it. I started that routine a couple of years ago when I realized what the financial elites and their bought power people were doing to us. I’m an artist. This is how I respond to events. I believe most of the old spirituals the 60s used started like that until the industry found people doing that
    in a way they could make a buck off of. There is nothing wrong with it. It just isn’t ripe yet.

    And some love songs. Same as ever. :)

  9. len says:

    This fellow says it. Don’t be played.

  10. len says:

    And this HuffPo article. Note the sign emphasizing Kingian principles. They understand the 60s perfectly. They are adapting this to their own unique circumstances. Right on!


  11. Amber in Albuquerque says:

    Alex—stole a snippet of your prose for amplification via FB. Len, well, you know. Morgan, I’ve seen you reduced to name calling rants before, but seldom this early in a discussion. Are we getting to you?

  12. Amber in Albuquerque says:

    P.S. Morgan, if I’m the target demo of TV we’ve got a real problem.

  13. Alex Bowles says:

    @Amber in Albuquerque Thank you. I’m flattered.

    @len A+ clip. I was actually coming here to post it myself, and was pleased to see you’d beat me to the punch.

    Dude is New York to the hilt. And he really does know what he’s talking about.

  14. len says:

    Don’t be played. It’s anthemic but antithetical. :)

  15. JTMcPhee says:

    Alex, len, Amber et al., one word that you guys did not use that seems kind of key to a whole lot of what’s happening here is “legitimacy.” A major element in that social cement without which, nothing.

    Obama and crew have kind of wasted most of theirs. There’s a reason an 18-year-old kid in a baseball cap likely plugged the captured Gaddaffyduck. And every page of every issue of Financial Times and the WSJ has at least one example of lost legitimacy, with all the goodness that goes away when that sense that things are mostly right with the world, or at least not unbearably wrong, goes away. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203752604576643093882076826.html

    Kozlowski doesn’t get it, and could not care less: “I’m in jail, but I’m not penniless.” This older guy mostly doesn’t get it, it’s gone past me and that’s great, I still have a job and loved ones. People who work for/co-conspire with Andrew Breitbart surely don’t get it, though they work pretty hard to legitimize the Kleptocracy.

    I hope that what looks a little like a nascent approach to a telepathic hive mind will do as well as the existing hive critters, ants and bees and such, in hewing to a set of centripetal attractors that lead in healthy and sustainable directions. Of course, army ants are not perticularly gentle on their neighbors or the planet, and bees, thanks to inbreeding or pollution or what-ever, appear very susceptible to many kinds of parasites and diseases…

    How do you keep the flies out of the ointment?

  16. Morgan Warstler says:

    Amber, I was just quoting TLP, who I think JTM (and others) should read and play with.

  17. Morgan Warstler says:

    “Obama has brought in more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and other financial service companies than all of the GOP candidates combined, according to a Washington Post analysis of contribution data.”



    It takes a special kind of liar to lie to yourself like this Jon.

  18. len says:

    So they want to get together a general assembly and discuss the following. Here are the yakables.


  19. Amber in Albuquerque says:

    Frankly, I think they could shorten their list: Repeal CU, public financing of elections, term limits, the bit about not being allowed to go to work where you used to regulate, reinstate Glass-Steagall. Those few things, in and of themselves, if passed could go a long way to making all the rest of what they are asking for a reality. Or at least a possibility to be voted on by the people. Imagine—a healthcare reform debate NOT clouded by hours of misinfomercials sponsored by big Pharma.

    Maybe something needs to be in there not only about public financing of elections, but of private interference in the legislative process as well. Not sure repealing CU would entirely cover that.

  20. Amber in Albuquerque says:

    I mean, for me, ensuring the safety of our food supply ranks right up there w/rebuilding infrastructure. There would be more will and more money to do this if the influence of the big food producers were removed from our legislative process.

  21. len says:

    They put up a set of proposals they can cull in general assembly. You have to admit, that’s chutzpah. Maybe you should run for one of the delegate positions in your district.

    And the Dean of Protest and His Zanies are showing. It’s official now!


  22. Anonymous says:

    @JTMcPhee You’re completely right about this being a crisis of legitimacy in the making. Indeed, that seems to be the point. We’ve seen that an economic crisis won’t lead to political reform, even when obviously necessary. For that, you need an actual political crisis.

    From what I can tell, people are absolutely primed. Were BofA to get in trouble (for instance) and need another bail out, I suspect the “53%” would turn into 5.3% justlikethat.

  23. Alex Bowles says:

    Whoops – I hit ‘submit’ before filling in details. Nothing intentionally anonymous about that last remark.

    Incidentally, I like this new blog format, and the separate columns for names and comments.

  24. len says:

    Asked about Occupy Wall Street on WOR Radio on Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the protesters’ leaderless structure has made it difficult to negotiate with them.



  25. Alex Bowles says:

    @len “Do you expect me to talk?”
    “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

  26. Amber in Albuquerque says:

    OWS sez “We don’t negotiate w/terrorists.”

  27. len says:

    A protest anthem for your consideration! 😉

    America, the proud pirate democracy knew well how to deal when economic inequality became social injustice: FIRE THEM ALL!!

  28. len says:

    “The main music of the encampment was drum circles….”


    For those people cold in their tents, for the wonderful Egyptians who marched in solidarity with the people of Oakland, for all the people with cardboard signs, for all the speakers, the conversation is beautiful.

    After all, banjo is an African Instrument and drum circles know it.. :)

    Occupy the World (The Circle)

    We can occupy the world
    And fill it with our love
    We can raise our voices to the skies
    And praise the stars above
    We can beat the drums in darkness
    Or let the lanterns shine
    The world we have is big enough
    We’re occupied by love

    The circles grow with every hand
    Added to our cause
    The men who run this sacred land
    Have broken all its laws
    Our fists are raised for justice
    Our common cause is strong
    Our messges on cardboard
    Our truth is in this song

    Don’t let the lies distract our eyes
    We see the simple truth
    Everyone can hear the drums
    Of the sacrifice of youth

    The monsters in the canyon walls
    Are only cowards in the halls
    And while the wind is bitter cold
    We hold this ground ‘cause we all know

    Hold the line! Hold the line!
    Link arms and plant your feet
    Their smoky greed may win this day
    But not the day delete
    When the people see the violent way
    They make their children run
    The good awake from slumber
    To join us here as one

    len bullard

    oct 29 2011

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