Essential voices: VA book fest panel looks at music as a change agent

Jesse Jarnow, Imani Perry, and Tim Mohr will discuss the influence of music on social movements during a Virginia Festival of the Book panel moderated by A.D. Carson. Jesse Jarnow, Imani Perry, and Tim Mohr will discuss the influence of music on social movements during a Virginia Festival of the Book panel moderated by A.D. Carson.

About 100 miles outside of Berlin, Germany, author Tim Mohr stood in a snowy field gripping an axe in his hands. He’d borrowed a friend’s car to get there, and, anticipating neither the sub-zero cold snap nor the fact that he’d have to chop frozen wood in exchange for an interview with a former member of the East German punk rock scene, he wore fingerless gloves. Once Mohr had cut enough timber, the punk rocker spoke with him for the entire day and into the night.

That bit of hard labor was well worth the contribution to Mohr’s book, Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Friday afternoon, Mohr, along with Imani Perry (May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem) and Jesse Jarnow (Wasn’t That A Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America), will discuss the influence of music as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book’s Political (Dis)harmony: Music & Social Movements panel moderated by rapper and scholar A.D. Carson.

But this isn’t a panel about protest songs. Protest is part of it, says Jarnow, but, “to boil socially conscious music down to protest songs is a disservice to the power of music.”

Jarnow’s Wasn’t That A Time is a biography of folk-pop band The Weavers, whose music was the soundtrack to Jarnow’s childhood in a politically progressive household. The Weavers were “the first huge left-wing pop stars of the 1950s,” says Jarnow, and the members of the band—Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger—“were subsequently blacklisted and had their careers destroyed,” during the red scare of the early 1950s.

The Weavers’ songs, “Goodnight Irene,” “If I Had A Hammer,” and “On Top of Old Smokey,” were enormously popular for past generations. David Crosby, whose father was a blacklisted cinematographer, told Jarnow that he didn’t think about politics while listening to The Weavers—it was the harmonies that got him.

And that’s the point, says Jarnow: The Weavers’ goal “was to code all of these beliefs about race and social justice, and fold them into these musical arrangements,” says Jarnow. “The message just kind of sinks in.”

The power of people singing together is what Imani Perry looks at in May We Forever Stand, a cultural history of a single song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Written in 1900 by brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became a major “part of the history of the cultural and social institutions that flourished in the segregated South,” says Perry. Sung during formal rituals in black schools, churches, and meetings of social and political organizations, the song eventually became known as the “black national anthem,” and held particular significance for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

Martin Luther King, Jr. discussed the song in his first public speech, delivered when he was just 14 years old, and continued doing so throughout his political career. Maya Angelou described singing the song in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Perry says she aimed “to distill a story from the meaning of the song, the function of the song,” how it was used to deliberately unite people in community, thereby showing “what the conditions were that allowed for the civil rights movement to happen.”

Similarly, the East German punks of the 1970s and ’80s profiled in Mohr’s Burning Down the Haus knew that in order for change to happen, they had to make it happen as they spray-painted “don’t die in the waiting room of the future” all over the walls of East Berlin.

Dissatisfied with the Socialist Unity Party of Germany’s authoritarian rule over the German Democratic Republic, the East German punks sought to resist by writing and performing music, influencing people “to get off the beaten path” and think for themselves, says Mohr.

The Stasi (the GDR secret police) saw this influence and tried to stop it, throwing punks in prison for the lyrics they sang, for the music they played. A punk would go to prison for two years, then sing the lyrics again as soon as he got out, to the same end, says Mohr. But once people saw it was possible to resist and survive, protests and dissident movements spilled out of the music venues and into the streets, he says.

The music more or less disappeared as soon as the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, says Mohr. There was a show that night, and when one of the bands came off stage to the news that the border between East and West Berlin had opened, its members broke up the band that night. The East German punks hadn’t wanted a dictatorship, but they didn’t want reunification, either—they wanted an independent state. But all was not lost. “These kids created a blueprint for resisting authoritarianism,” says Mohr.

Art, and music in particular, “bolsters courage, deepens your sense of trust and connection to the people who are singing along with you,” says Perry. It builds community and begets change, “and is an essential piece to building a new society, or transforming the society in which you live.” All of this, through music.

The Political (Dis)harmony panel takes place on Friday, March 22 from 2–3:30pm at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

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