The Role of Music in Social Change

A few weeks ago I was watching a report on the unrest on college campuses over the Israel-Hamas War and heard a student leader respond to an interviewer’s question of what he wanted from the opposing side as “see me, feel me, hear me,” paraphrasing the line from the Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy. It was a compelling conclusion to the interview, and a reminder of the role music plays in times like these, that is, of societal upheaval and demands for social change.

Consider “We Shall Overcome” and its part in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Or Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” protesting America’s involvement in the war between North and South Vietnam (though at its first performance, Dylan denied it was a protest song, saying “I don’t write protest songs”). Or the most chilling complaint against that war, Edwin Starr’s 1970 Billboard chart-topper “War.”

Because they are accompanied by melodies and rhythms, words set to music carry more meaning and seem to endure longer than those simply spoken. Certainly there are parts of speeches, those of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s appeal to Mikhail Gorbachev come to mind, that have endured and likely will be remembered and quoted forever. But the earworms of social expression of the past that live on are far more numerous and complete, from Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” to Woody Guthrie’s 1944 “This Land is Your Land” to CSNY’s “Ohio” decrying the 1970 Kent State shootings to the 2021 Grammys Song of the Year H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe.”

I can’t say for sure that that student protester was recalling the Who’s Tommy, but his intonation included a rhythm that suggested that this young man born sometime after the year 2000 was inspired and compelled by that recording of the mid-20th century.

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