Throughout history cultural workers in general, and musicians describing themselves as “protest singers” in particular, have been integral components in the people’s various struggles for justice. Though armies have always marched to the throbbing pulse of drums and the fanfare of nationalistic flurries, the offerings of musicians of conscience have a very different scope.

Far pre-dating the rise of Vietnam-era protest songs, one can look to the irony in “Yankee Doodle,” of Revolutionary War vintage. “Yankee Doodle” was a figure the Brits lampooned as a sort of wannabe slick – a bumpkin who aspired to be a dandy. Instead of recoiling at the caricature and its accompanying tune, the colonists chose to turn this barroom ditty into a proud marching song. This was perhaps the earliest example of an oppressed people’s decision to claim and control the epithet hurled their way by their oppressor. It satirized not only the British government’s imperialism and its army’s flagrant wastefulness of resources, but also the fear factor that many colonists experienced during the “time that tried men’s [and women’s!] souls.”

Another of our nation’s anthemic pieces, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is a song born of protest, later made official by the powers that be, ultimately evolving back into radicalism. During times of slavery there were many insurrections and revolts; while the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans was deemed a mere economic factor by our government, many individuals, Black and white, saw the practice for the barbarism it was. John Brown, the acclaimed abolitionist who led an armed rebellion seeking to overthrow slavery, was ultimately executed for his efforts. However, his followers remained true to the cause and sang, “John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave, but his truth goes marching on / Glory, glory, halleluia,” borrowing the melody from a familiar hymn that was easily remembered by all.

Oddly enough, once the U.S. government declared slavery illegal, in opposition to the Confederacy, the tune and the chorus’ lyric was “resurrected” as a “Battle Hymn” for Union Army maneuvers. Ironically, the song, with its language associating military action with God’s will in the fight to end the brutal inhumanity of slavery, later became used as an expression of the manifest destiny philosophy of imperialism. Used this way, it became a soundtrack to wars of aggression, military parades and White House black-tie events.

Radicals, however, reclaimed this song during the raging battles for workers’ rights at the turn of the last century. Ralph Chaplin, International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer and songwriter, in 1911 re-wrote the famed tune as “Solidarity Forever.” The labor movement was then seen as a radical threat, if not illegal. So ironically this song, with “the union makes us strong” at the end of each chorus, was again a song of revolution. Continuing the irony is the civil rights era reclamation of the “Battle Hymn,” with a powerful connection to the unifying power of faith, in this latter-day struggle for freedom and peace. Indeed, union makes us strong.

The author can be reached at Leftmus@aol.com

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