The Cultural Worker:

The notion of the Cultural Worker, the artist-activist, walking among the ranks of radicals, is an idea that has been well-developed over many years.

During times of strife, revolutionary music, poetry, prose, theater, dance, and visual art seem to develop organically. Each and every movement of a people’s fight for justice has its legacy of art, often outlasting the cultural workers who created it, if not the movement itself. In a perfect world, the radical artform would outlast the need for continued actions in that movement.

So, if people’s movements have always made such great use of its artworks, why then is the cultural worker so often relegated to the role of entertainer, passing point of interest or mere filler?

Even the Industrial Workers of the World, that which came closest to producing a “singing Labor movement,” used their musicians as organizers (or worse, organizing aids), while their speakers stood among the leadership. We may recall Joe Hill as one of the foremost Wobblies, but in his time, Hill’s role was much smaller than one might assume. While his legend had always loomed large, it was most fueled by the 1940 song, “Joe Hill,” a creation of two cultural workers: composer Earl Robinson and lyricist Alfred Hayes. Once again, it falls on the artists to mark our history.

All too often, it is a great challenge to secure a spot for music and/or cultural work among speakers and dignitaries at many events. Next time you see a performer at a rally, fundraiser or some other event, remember that he or she probably got the call just before the event, arrived early to set up, is responsible for an opening set while guests socialize, will be asked to stay to perform a piece or two midway, and may also be asked to close the evening with yet another. And, of course, he or she will rarely, if ever, be paid.

So why do we keep coming back? Gallantly noble or simply insane, we are here to stay. Our calling is from two irresistible forces – art and the movement. We are the product of art beyond art’s sake. So the next time you’re planning such an event, why not give extra consideration to the artists who might make that occasion truly memorable?

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