Songs of Social Justice

“It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.” Sam Cooke saw that change coming, and sang it, and wrote it down in indelible words for all of us to see. Nothing can ever erase his voice now. Nothing can stop that change from coming.

Commentary by Terry Messman

 

On October 1, more than 700 protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement were arrested as they marched on the Brooklyn Bridge. This amazing outburst of widespread resistance to the bankers and Wall Street financiers who have robbed and ruined the economy is a genuine populist movement.

"GLIMPSES OF THE SPIRIT." Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

It began in Manhattan as a protest against home foreclosures, staggering increases in poverty, police brutality, unjust wars, high unemployment and Wall Street bailouts. It spread like a critical mass of conscience through the Internet, social media, homemade videos, and, at last, even through the corporate media.

The corrupt practices of big corporations have been on a rampage that has crushed underfoot millions of poor people, minorities and workers. Many have wondered when a populist movement would finally fight against this behemoth.

So news of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been playing like music in my mind every day. As I listened to the accounts of so many people defying the might of an unjust empire, I literally began hearing music — songs of social justice started echoing in my mind like some playlist from far-off Planet Utopia.

People have the power

When I saw the armies of young people marching on the Brooklyn Bridge against corporate rule, I began hearing the music of Patti Smith. Her anthem, “People Have the Power,” vividly captures the spirit of this populist uprising: She was awakened by a vision of the people reclaiming their world in the name of peace and justice: “I awakened to the cry that the people have the power.”

She sang of the dawning of a new day when people would discover they had the power to overcome the corporate overlords:

“The People have the Power!

The power to dream, to rule

to wrestle the world from fools.

It’s decreed the people rule.”

That song from Patti Smith’s brilliant CD, Dream of Life, is a utopian vision of our longing for peace to break out on earth. In the light of Occupy Wall Street, it becomes a summons to believe in this movement launched by young people and join this uprising. Listen to her sing. And believe:

“I believe everything we dream

can come to pass through our union.

We can turn the world around

we can turn the earth’s revolution.

People have the power.”

Yet standing up to the powers that be has always meant enduring state repression. When I saw all the young protesters standing up to the police and being falsely jailed, when I watched scores of women being peppersprayed, I heard the echoes of another time, another movement, another song of social justice.

Young people with Occupy San Francisco march in the S.F. Financial District. Carol Harvey photo

What’s Going On?

In the midst of the carnage of the Vietnam War, Marvin Gaye, one of the finest soul singers of all, stunned his producers at Motown by bypassing his customary love songs and releasing What’s Going On, an album-long outcry against war, poverty and ecological destruction.

“What’s Going On” could be an anthem for the CODEPink activists who marched for peace over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in late September. In timeless lines, he expressed the heart of their message:

“Father, father, we don’t need to escalate

You see, war is not the answer

For only love can conquer hate.”

As I saw the coverage of young protesters brutally arrested and falsely jailed during the Occupy Wall Street protests, I realized that Marvin Gaye’s great anthem gave us an uncanny, up-to-the-minute report on the police repression they faced:

“Picket lines and picket signs…

Don’t punish me with brutality

Talk to me, so you can see

Oh what’s going on….”

Nearly every social-change movement has given rise to inspiring anthems of peace and justice. All those songs are still blowing in the wind, still inspiring us to “get up, stand up — stand up for your rights,” as Bob Marley sang. The young people leading the Wall Street occupation will undoubtedly leave behind their own legacy of songs of social justice.

Heaven help us all

Certain songs, such as “We Shall Overcome” or Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” are revered as anthems of protest that have given strength to civil rights and anti-war movements. But many songs are equally as powerful and should be much more widely heralded.

Stevie Wonder composed many eloquent songs about racism, poverty and war in his remarkable string of albums in the 1970s. Listening to those albums today — Innervisions, Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life — is still a revelatory experience.

But earlier, in the 1960s, Wonder sang “Heaven Help Us All,” one of the finest social-justice anthems of all time. In a few short, poetic phrases, he evoked the essence of the human condition, with all its heartbreak, outrage, longing and utopian dreams for justice and deliverance.

It takes a great poet to lay everything bare in a three-minute song, but it’s all there in this song — the lost cry of homeless children, the horrible way that war extinguishes the lives of the young, the suffering of black people in American, the fate of the poor at the hands of the rich.

His song is a work of art, a poem of uncommon depth, a prayer for deliverance, a piece of prophecy that condemns the rich and comforts the poor. It makes my heart race every time I hear it.

Street Spirit has documented the tragic loss of homeless people who suffer and die on the cruel streets of our inhumane society. How can a mere song ever hope to express that inexpressible tragedy? Yet Wonder’s song tears me apart.

“Heaven help the child

who never had a home,

Heaven help the girl

who walks the street alone

Heaven help the roses

if the bombs begin to fall,

Heaven help us all.”

His beautifully melodic singing and heart-stopping lyrics strike so deeply in our conscience, that his song has the power to awaken us from the sleep that blinds us to the suffering in our society.

We see in our mind’s eye the child who never had a home. He sings the story of nearly a million homeless children in our nation, and countless more abandoned to foster homes. We see that girl walk the street alone, and we realize how vulnerable homeless women are on the streets.

Wonder reminds us of another threat that hangs over the head of all children: “Heaven help the roses if the bombs begin to fall.” Nuclear bombs not only threaten their lives, but Pentagon spending is a key reason why children are left destitute.

“Heaven help the roses” is such a powerful line of poetry. It reminds us that people need more than bread. They need bread and roses. Roses have always been the symbol of beauty and love, and the bomb will not just end human lives, it will utterly destroy beauty and love. But then we realize with a start that Wonder is indicating, with poetic economy, that the homeless child and the lonely girl are themselves the beautiful, fragile roses that will be turned to ash if the “bombs begin to fall.”

And Wonder’s song has only begun to lay bare the human condition.

“Heaven help the boy

who won’t reach twenty-one,

Heaven help the man

who gave that boy a gun.

Heaven help the people

with their backs against the wall.”

He sings that verse as such an electric outcry that is shocking to hear. The boy who won’t reach 21 has been shipped off to die in Iraq — and heaven help the generals who gave that boy a gun, and ended his life. Wonder’s outrage is palpable.

And heaven help “the people with their backs against the wall.” The war machine has indeed put our backs against the wall, in the slang phrase that signifies oppression, but Wonder conjures up an even more frightful image of people executed against a wall by wartime firing squads.

Then he takes his song one step farther and turns it into a prayer for deliverance.

“Now I lay me down

before I go to sleep.

In a troubled world,

I pray the Lord to keep —

keep hatred from the mighty,

and the mighty from the small.”

I love those words and wait for them every time I hear this song. They lay bare everything that is wrong about the way the rich prey on the poor. Wonder exposes the same oppression that the prophets of old condemned in Biblical times and the young prophets today are condemning by marching on Wall Street.

He starts with the familiar childhood prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep.” But the desperation in his prayer is clear. He asks the Lord to “keep hatred from the mighty,” because he knows it will take nothing short of divine intervention to keep the rich from persecuting the poor.

In the next breath, even though he has prayed that the mighty will not hate, he knows full well that the rich will always trample the poor under their merciless rule, so he prays that the mighty will be kept away from the small. It is a chilling moment for me every time I hear his heartfelt appeal that the meek will not be destroyed by the powerful, but will somehow be protected. It is a last-gasp appeal, born of desperation: “Heaven help us all.”

Talking ‘Bout a Revolution

In the late 1980s, Tracy Chapman released a glorious shout of hope and liberation. Her song is an updated and radicalized version of “We Shall Overcome” for all the homeless people standing in “unemployment lines” and “those armies of salvation.” Many people doubt that homeless people can ever become organized enough to resist the laws that criminalize and banish them — let alone overcome the all-powerful system of economic injustice that subjugates them.

Chapman’s powerful song was a wonderful shot in the arm for a newly emerging homeless movement that was struggling to even stay alive. She sang “Talking ‘Bout a Revolution” with the fervor of Gospel, and her song carried forward the best folk traditions of Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.

Her song is more relevant than ever, given how much homelessness has increased since she wrote it in the late 1980s, and how much more repressive the anti-homeless laws are now. Chapman’s lyrics paint an utterly haunting picture:

“They’re standing in the welfare lines

Crying at the doorsteps of those

armies of salvation

Wasting time in unemployment lines

Sitting around waiting for a promotion.

Don’t you know they’re talking about a

revolution. It sounds like a whisper.”

Then she sings: “Poor people are gonna rise up and get their share.” I think her expression of faith in the power of poor people comes from something as elemental as the human dignity she observed standing “at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation.” She saw a level of human dignity which cannot ever be extinguished by the powers that be.

Dead End Streets

Ray Davies, the masterful songwriter of the Kinks, is one of the most sensitive, thoughtful lyricists of all. In the rock arena, where virtually no one writes songs about lives destroyed by poverty, Davies writes with rare understanding of the underdogs, the poor, the little people, the desperate middle class, the people growing old whose dreams are fading away unrealized.

In “Dead End Streets,” he describes the quiet desperation of poverty, the way it strips people of humanity. Yet his deeply sensitive account of these dead-end streets somehow ends up as a roaring rock-and-roll tribute to the dignity and pride of the inner-city poor.

First, the songwriter takes us into a shabby apartment on the dead-end streets and confronts us with the everyday scenes of misery many would rather not see.

“There’s a crack up in the ceiling,

And the kitchen sink is leaking.

Out of work and got no money,

A Sunday (meal) of bread and honey.”

Many affluent people blame the poor and homeless for their own poverty, accusing them of not wanting to work. Davies demolishes that belief born of prejudice by describing the challenges faced by this poverty-stricken couple who “are deep in debt.” He writes: “We both want to work so hard, / We can’t get the chance, / Dead End!”

This desperate couple fears every knock on the door in the same way that thousands of people in Oakland fear hearing the knock that brings eviction.

“What are we living for?

Two-roomed apartment

on the second floor.

No money coming in,

The rent collector’s knocking,

trying to get in.”

Then Davies does something magnificent, something that can scarcely be put into words. After carefully drawing this picture of lives driven into despair by poverty, he rejects their dehumanization with a great shout of rebellion.

“We are strictly second class,

We don’t understand, (Dead end!)

Why we should be on dead end street.

(Dead end!)

People are living on dead end street.

(Dead end!)

Gonna die on dead end street.”

But what can’t be read in the lyrics, what must be heard in the music, is the jubilant shout of resistance and defiance when they sing “Dead end!” over and over. Instead of surrendering to their fate on dead-end streets, this song depicts people on the verge of rebellion.

Ray Davies and his brother Dave Davies are extraordinarily gifted singers, and they somehow convey a wild and exultant sense of pride that even though they may live on dead end streets, they will never surrender nor succumb.

The Kinks’ song is pure, melodic rock and roll, but its attitude comes straight from the heart of the blues. Singing about sorrows and hardships somehow enables people to transcend bleak circumstances and affirm their life in the very shadow of death. You can see that same dynamic in some of the best blues songs.

Why I Sing the Blues

B.B. King is one of the finest blues guitarists of all time. In 2010, Guitarist magazine published Blues Guitar Heroes, and named B.B. King as the top blues musician in history, calling him “the true living embodiment of electric blues.”

King’s fluid guitar lines grace an outrageously funny, yet tragically down-and-out song, “Why I Sing the Blues.” It is a brilliant example of how the blues enables people to expose horrible conditions, while at the same time rebelling against injustice, and even overcoming hardships with laughter. King describes scenes of harrowing, yet hilarious poverty:

“I’ve laid in a ghetto flat

Cold and numb

I heard the rats tell the bedbugs

To give the roaches some.”

In a scene that is all too familiar to anyone who has ever tried to get low-income families into subsidized housing, King visits the County housing department, and is reassured by some utterly untrustworthy bureaucrat that, “We’re gonna build some new apartments for y’all.” Then he goes to the welfare office and meets the same dismal dismissal.

“I thought I’d go down to the welfare

To get myself some grits and stuff

But a lady stand up and she said

‘You haven’t been around long enough’

That’s why I got the blues.”

If those encounters are described with sardonic humor, the most staggering verse describes in cruel detail how the police treat homeless people. He describes in a few utterly heartbreaking lines how the cops treat blind, disabled homeless people who ask for help. It happens every day in America’s cities. That’s why B.B. King’s song should be claimed as an anthem for all poor and oppressed Americans.

“Blind man on the corner

Begging for a dime

The rollers come and caught him

And throw him in the jail for a crime!

Mm, I’m singing my blues,

I’ve been around a long time

I’ve really paid some dues.”

Love and Mercy

There is an antidote to that kind of heartless injustice, and Brian Wilson, one of the most brilliant composers of our era, described what our society needs in two words: love and mercy. It is a profoundly beautiful experience to hear Wilson sing “Love and Mercy,” as he often does at the end of his amazing concerts.

Wilson has written many incredibly complex and lovely compositions, yet this song is so simple, and when he sings it, it seems to come straight from his heart. He’s like an innocent child, and simultaneously a wise, heartbroken, old soul, reflecting on how violent and cruel and lonely life is for too many people.

He sings these words for all of us who are trapped in this culture of violence.

“I was sitting in a crummy movie

with my hands on my chin.

Oh, the violence that occurs —

seems like we never win.

Love and mercy

that’s what you need tonight

So, love and mercy

to you and your friends tonight.”

Of all the brilliant songs that Wilson has written, this one is becoming his anthem. He sings in such a compassionate voice about how life is so unfair, violent and lonely for too many people. Then he offers his hope for love and mercy, just like God would, if God were a broken-down and glued-back-together songwriter. Wilson, the founder of the Beach Boys, endured three decades of psychological devastation, before emerging from this nearly endless “dark night of the soul.”

It makes me feel blessed to hear him sing “Love and Mercy” in an era when so many musicians are too cynical, or “sophisticated,” or in love with lyrics of darkness and despair, to offer us something as sentimental as love and mercy.

He feels the joys and cruelties of life as intensely and simply as a child, then writes like an angel. He’s channeling the same deep feelings as the Beatles when they wrote “Eleanor Rigby,” and asked, “All the lonely people — where do they all come from?” Except that Wilson is not willing to leave the people he cares about in such loneliness and despair, and offers them love and mercy from the bottom of his soul.

A Change Is Gonna Come

Young people have been the mainstay of Occupy Wall Street, and they are inspiring people all over the land. One problem they will soon confront is the intransigence of powerful systems of injustice. That discovery can be deeply disheartening. When the initial flash of inspiration wears off, will many of them remain on the long march to freedom?

So let’s consider one of the most moving reflections ever written about the perseverance necessary to keep believing that change is possible. “A Change Is Gonna Come” was written by Sam Cooke as an anthem to equal rights at the height of the civil rights movement; yet tragically, he died just before it was released.

As lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke was one of the finest gospel singers of all. He went on to fuse gospel with pop and rock music in his breakthrough creation of soul music. Music historians credit Cooke with laying the foundation for soul music, along with Ray Charles.

In his anguished and eloquently soaring voice on “A Change Is Gonna Come,” we can hear the hopes and dreams and bitter suffering of generations of African Americans who held fast to the dream of freedom for hundreds of years. Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, two of the finest vocalists of the 20th century, each recorded beautiful versions of this song, out of their great respect for Cooke. But his version outshines everything.

This deeply touching song is a testament to the human spirit that never gives up, no matter how great the obstacles. Listen closely as Sam Cooke sings the secret of all social-change movements — a hope that will never die, never give up.

Listen to the great pain and suffering in his voice, and, in the very same breath, the deep humanity and evergreen hope as he sings about the long road to freedom. His song begins in poverty, and the singer is born facing a life of hardship and exile.

“I was born by the river in a little tent,

Oh, and just like the river

I’ve been running ever since.

It’s been a long time coming,

But I know a change is gonna come.”

As he grows up, the singer encounters hatred and the twisted racism that gave birth to hundreds of segregation laws that prevented African Americans from eating in restaurants, voting, riding in buses and frequenting downtown areas. He sings about it so simply, but it burns like fire.

“I go to the movie, and I go downtown

Somebody keep telling me

‘Don’t hang around.’

It’s been a long, a long time coming,

But I know a change gonna come.”

Then, he goes to his brother and appeals for help, just as Black Americans went to their government and their fellow citizens and asked for help in the civil rights era. But in answer to his urgent plea, “brother help me please,” his brother just “winds up knocking me back down on my knees.”

The singer is tempted so many times to just give up. The oppression he faces is unendurable and the road to freedom is far too long. But in the midst of despair, he finds a newfound hope that a change will truly come. As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

Even though it’s a long, long time coming, we must have faith that a change is gonna come. Sam Cooke did.

“There been times that I thought

I couldn’t last for long

Now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, a long time coming

B ut I know a change gonna come,

Oh, yes it will.”

Oh yes it will. Cooke’s voice is packed with the sorrow and anguish of a people forced too wait far too long for human dignity and freedom. A people who launched the most courageous struggle for human rights our country has ever seen. A people who had all the odds against them, yet who kept organizing and going to jail and enduring police brutality until they triumphed over the evils of segregation.

Now, we face a long struggle against the forces that have plunged millions into poverty, and have sent millions into unjust wars. We know one thing well: It’s a long time coming, but a change is gonna come.

A change is gonna come. Sam Cooke saw it and sang it and wrote it down in indelible words for all of us to see. Nothing can erase his voice now. Nothing can stop that change from coming.

 

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