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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written October 2001



The Power of Song
Joel Mabus

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, there was a subsequent minor crisis on American radio. What music to play? A major owner of more than a thousand commercial radio stations issued a now infamous list of songs to avoid - including John Lennon's "Imagine" and Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," -- an idea that baffles my mind. After it was made public, Clear Channel was quick to distance themselves from that list. They blamed junior executives, of course.

But the list's very existence reflects the power that music wields. On FOLKDJ-L, an internet list of very independent disc jockeys who program folk and bluegrass music, the conversation in the days and weeks following the attack was consumed with the same underlying question - what to play and what not to play.

Performers are struggling with the same issue in composing set lists. One song may be stricken for being too frivolous, another for being too serious. What was a funny line before 9-11 may now be inappropriate; what was an innocent comment before may be now offensively ironic.

Of course, the mood changes day by day. A prayerful attitude yields to somber reflection, reflection yields to affirmation. A person needing solace one day may need escape the next. Anyone in the business of choosing music - whether performer or DJ - needs to keep a well-tuned ear to the ground.

And then there is the matter of message. Should one sing "God Bless America," or "With God On Our Side?" Those folksingers who came of age during the Vietnam era may find themselves in an especially awkward position as they sort out their own feelings and attitudes. Pacifism and patriotism have been coming to loggerheads in many communities, and for some there are no easy decisions.

Assumptions abound. A month after the attack, I was told by a cheery concert promoter on the night of my show, "We are asking all our acts to start their concerts with "God Bless America." I don't actively dislike Irving Berlin's song, but it has more than a little negative connotation for some of us folks who remember Vietnam - including many fans in my audience. I'd rather not make my friends squirm. I countered with "How about, 'This Land Is Your Land?'" It worked.

Old songs can resonate in new ways in these times. Consider James Taylor's "Fire And Rain." Nearly every line in that song can be taken as a commentary of "ground zero." A friend of mine recently sang an old Gershwin song in remembrance of the firefighters - "Our Love Is Here To Stay." A song of romance becomes an apt tribute to love of a different kind. Even the opening lines of the verse speak to the issue: "The more I read the papers / The less I comprehend / The world and all its capers / And how it all will end / Nothing seems to be lasting / But that isn't our affair / We've got something permanent / I mean in the way we care."

I've noticed that in the many televised remembrance services, benefits and patriotic events that it is music that makes the point more so than speeches and sermons. I have wept to "America The Beautiful" and had chills up my spine as "The Battle Hymn of The Republic" was played at the national cathedral. It is no wonder that the all-star television benefit staged just days after the attack was nearly entirely a night of song, only punctuated briefly with famous faces reminding us of the phone number to call. I noticed too, that the banned "Imagine" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" played important roles in that concert. 

In this aftermath, many of us Folk Alliance regulars have performed benefit concerts. It's what we folksingers do, even in good times. And then too, we have our "regular" gigs. In the coming months we will be writing new songs, resurrecting old songs, and making points and messages with fabric woven from the tradition. Please, folks, as we proceed into this new era, let us keep in mind the power of song, and let us not belittle the important role we play in our society as singers and musicians.

Woody Guthrie sang throughout World War Two with a slogan painted on his guitar that read "This Machine Kills Fascists." Pete Seeger carried a different slogan on his banjo in the midst of the Cold War: "This Machine Surrounds Hate And Forces It To Surrender." I have a new guitar I just bought explicitly as a road guitar. I have a big label inside the soundhole that reads, "This Machine Kills Fear." And it does!

Just a few weeks after the September 11 attack, the Midwest regional meeting of the Folk Alliance was held in Hickory Corners, Michigan. I'll long remember a late night jam session in the lobby of the auditorium. A bunch of us sang some very old songs. One just seemed to call for another. "This Land Is Your Land" - "If I Had A Hammer" - "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream" - "Down By The Riverside" - "Imagine" - and, yes "America, The Beautiful." I don't know if music can save the world, but it indeed has charms to sooth the savage breast. We all had a time of healing that night -- renewed in the belief, deep in our hearts, that "we shall overcome someday."

Yes, we already have the machines to fight fear - our guitars, our banjos, our fiddles and dulcimers, and most of all, our voices. Let's not be afraid to use them.

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