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Political movements and political songs potency

Throughout human history, people have used music to express their feelings, concerns, views, among other things. The political arena has not been an exception; it has actually been one of the fields that have motivated a lot of artistes to produce songs. Political songs express a wide range of feelings ranging from great joy to extreme anger. In turbulent political times, such during war or the great depression, political songs or political ideas are woven together with everyday activities and feelings such as of love and affection.

It is commonplace at such times to find a musician writing a song to his or her lover and expressing his/her feelings and at the same time protesting about the present day political predicaments. During this time almost all genres of songs acquire some political connotations while songs composed entirely for political purposes gain new life and are very popular among the people. Political movement is a political social movement organized on a single issue such as war or a set of issues or a number of shared concerns within one or different social groups.

Political movements are not organized as political parties with the aim of electing individuals in the government but seek to convince the people or government officials to take action on the issues raised by the movement. The movements, which mainly posses expression of struggle characters, are presented by non state groups led by their elites. They may take local, regional, national or international scope. Examples of political movements include Anti-globalization movement, anti-war movement, abolitionism movement, feminism movement, disability rights movement, labor movements among others.

I will tackle this paper by giving a historical account of political movements and political songs and how their relevance has alternated in different times throughout American history. In my view, political songs do not lose potency but rather the political environment dictates whether political songs and movements are the ideal way of voicing the concerns of the citizens. Political movements and political songs potency There has always existed a deep connection between politics and music especially the expression of political ideas in music.

Political songs have different objectives and take many forms such as national anthems, political campaign songs, patriotic songs, anti-establishment, and anti war songs. Some of the main objectives of political songs include: ? To point out an existing problem in the society that needs to be rectified by the existing government, administration or the relevant authorities. ? To gain or recruit members in a particular movement by arousing support or sympathy to non members. ? Giving a solution to the existing problem or directing the course of action to be taken so as to achieve the desired results.

? Relaying the values held by members of a certain political movement. Members sing about their beliefs and in a way justify the while at the same time wooing others to join them in their endeavor for a certain goal(s). ? A political song aims at making a unique and moral view of the course it is fighting for. Songs sung in response to social injustices and political issues in American history can be traced just before the American Revolutionary War with songs such as ‘American taxation’ and ‘the cruel lords of Britain’ setting the stage.

‘God save George Washington’ is the earliest election campaign song known in America. This era was generally characterized by political songs based on already popularized songs most of the time published with broadside and newspaper lyrics. The nineteenth century political songs focused on three major issues namely war, the abolition of slavery, and women’s suffrage. Most of the songs during this era focused on issues relating to abolition, idealism, temperance, patriotism, social reform, moral improvement, politics and women’s suffrage with the last topic attracting both proponents and opponents of the issue.

Black slaves sung songs referred to as Negro spirituals that incorporated religious imagery and called for the abolition of African Americans slavery and oppression. In the twentieth century, America experienced a lot of issues that motivated numerous political songs mainly focused on the great depression, the union movement, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movements (Taruskin 2005). From 1900 up to early 80s, America had numerous issues that motivated political songs, after that there has been a significant decline, albeit slow, of political movements and political songs.

This may not be attributed to the fact that political songs and political movements have lost their significance as a medium of expression, but rather due to the fact of the changing political climate of not only the American society but also most parts of the world (I will address this issue later in the paper). In the first half of the twentieth century, majority of political songs were formed to demand for fair wages and reduction of working hours for the American working class. Another objective these songs intended to meet was to unionize the American working class.

Many of the American workforce opposed to the American Federation of labor policies used music as a very powerful form of protest. The First World War also resulted to a big number of songs, maybe the biggest number compared to other twentieth century political events. (Taylor 1968) The songs mainly protested America’s decision to join the largely European war. Musicians mainly took a family perspective when composing their songs focusing on issues such as abandonment of children and women by the men who went to war.

The labor movements and their songs gained momentum again during the great depression in the 20s and30s as a result of widespread poverty which motivated unionists and musicians to express the terrible predicaments facing them. This period also witnessed a significant rise of music in protest against racial discrimination. African American blues singers such as Louis Armstrong and Leadbelly became popular across America during this period with songs protesting against discrimination they faced on daily basis. (Tilly 2003)

The first half of the twentieth century never saw the decline of political movements and political songs but rather the growth and adaptation to emerging social concerns. In the forties and the fifties, people through movements and music continued to protest class, labor, and race issues. One peculiarity during this period was that political songs especially protest songs faced severe opposition from several quarters. This opposition mainly came at the period of McCarthyism, a term used to refer to the deep anti-communist suspicion that existed from late forties to the late fifties in the United States.

Those in the political movements and in the music arena suffered a great deal when they were subjected to aggressive grilling, investigations, and questioning by government agencies or private industry panels. Social reformers are easily labeled as communists or leftists since their concerns tend to be similar or overlap. This factor made those in the entertainment industry be a primary target with some of them having their careers ruined or even imprisoned.

(Tilly 2003) Some of the political musicians who fell victim to McCarthyism, blacklists or some other form of persecution include composer Elmer Bernstein, composer Aaron Copland, folk singer Pete Seeger, and jazz musician Artie Shaw. One of the important moments in the black civil rights movements took place in the forties and involved Joshua White. Josh White established a close relationship with Frank Delano Roosevelt’s family and in the process becoming the closest black to the United States president. His controversial Joshua White chain gang Columbia records album was the first race record to be forced on white radio.

He composed many political and protest songs and had the privilege of performing in a historic event (Washington DC concert) held to commemorate the seventy fifth anniversary of the 13th amendment of the United States constitution which among other things abolished slavery. (Taruskin 2005) The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings resulted to songs made in protest against nuclear warfare. (Denisoff 2000) The 1960s was a fertile era of political movements and political songs due to the war of Vietnam, peace and revolution but mainly because of the civil rights movement.

Labor activism assumed a new and broader agenda commonly referred to as social reforms. Its objectives included promoting the concept of peace and acquisition of equal rights. The American civil rights movement at many occasions used the Negro spirituals, slightly changing the religious lyrics to blend with the political mood. Use of religious music emphasized the peaceful nature of their political protests. Vietnam War protest songs continued to gain popularity through the seventies with protest movements even being formed by veterans themselves such as the Vietnam Veterans against the War.

Other issues that were addressed in songs during the seventies included women’s liberation and their feminist agenda. (Denisoff 2000) The contemporary period of political movements and political songs can be traced back in the 1980s. Although the eighties had their fair share of political songs, there was a considerable decline compared to earlier years. The civil rights movements’ rallies and marches were not by now almost a thing of the past. Some of the protest songs formed in the eighties focused on opposition against President Ronald Reagan’s policies such as the Iran Contra affair and Nicaragua contras.

The eighties also saw the of hip-hop and rap music, a genre of music that initially was almost exclusively used to protest against oppression of the African American people. Punk music was also used as political music during the eighties. Major decline in the use of songs as a means of political expression took lace in the 1990s. In my view, as indicated earlier, the surrounding political environment dictates the most relevant medium for people to voice their concerns. It is important to note that throughout American history, the nation has experienced very delicate issues that have through time eventually faded away.

The living conditions of American citizens have dramatically improved over the years. Technology has improved a great deal over the years and many people have also accumulated considerable amount of wealth. Deep pressing problems such as widespread poverty experienced during the great depression are stuff people read in history books. Formalized racial segregation is a thing of the past and even racism itself has decreased at an impressive rate. Pressing problems give rise to powerful expression of emotions, and since music and is used to express emotions; numerous songs are formed when times are really hard.

It is hard to have political or protest songs when the scale of measure indicates that majority of citizens are by and large comfortable with the status quo. Political movements and political songs also reflect the general feeling of citizens towards a certain event. For instance, when majority of citizens oppose a certain war, you are bound to hear protest songs. This explains why the twenty first century has experienced the revival of the protest song due to the war in Iraq and the September 9/11 attacks. The gulf war, which a good number of Americans supported, hardly had political songs formed against it.

The Iraq war though faced fierce resistance even before it started. This explains why musicians such as Neil Young have returned to the forefront of protest song with his album ‘living with war’. It will be fair to say that criticism songs directed towards President George Bush have far outnumbered those leveled against President Bill Clinton. Perhaps if George Bush continued to rule the United States and the current financial crisis got worse, America could witness the revival of full blown political movements and political songs as experienced during the great depression.

References Denisoff, R 2000. Serge, Song’s of Protest, War and Peace – A Bibliography and discography, Rev. Ed pp 5-11 Fanning, David. (1995) Shostakovich Studies New York: Columbia University Taruskin, Richard. (2005) The Oxford History of Western Music, vol 4 Taylor, Peter 1968 “Protest Movements: Class Consciousness and the Propaganda Song”, Sociological Quarterly, vol. 9, Spring, pp. 228-247 Tilly, Ch. 2003 The Politics of Collective Violence, New York: Columbia University,. pp 44-50

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