At an impressionable age in the 1960s and into the 1970s, I longed to be a folk singer. I was too young to be in Washington for The March and I was certainly not old enough to head to the Haight. But I saw at an early age that through singing one could stand up for the rights of the many and also the few. What I realize now is that I longed to do something for the greater good through singing and that this was a part of what the folk movement and protest song genre accomplished.
Last night I watched a documentary on PBS about Peter, Paul and Mary. I got emotional just watching the old clips and hearing the music. Why? Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Phil Ochs, and others, were symbols of a generation that still exists but seem to have different priorities. These artists not only performed and sometimes wrote the words they sang but they also stood by them and believed them. It is as though they never sang a piece that did not hold true. Moreover they lived their beliefs by attending protests and practiced civil disobedience for the causes of which they sang. They appeared at civil rights marches, United Farm Workers rallies, and antiwar protests.
But there is more. As Pete Seeger so often said, having the audience join in singing made a movement even more powerful and helped unite us. The songs of these artists were all singable. One need not always have an instrument at hand as the music was easily transferable to acappella. The tunes were easy but not trite and the words rang true with us. These were not just wealthy performers who plied their talents to sold out performances in order to sell records. These artists were spreading their beliefs and their causes. In the marches for racial equality "We shall Overcome" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing" were songs that anyone could sing while walking peacefully in protest. The injustices of the world were represented and expressed through song.
I think of today and how this is missing. There are celebrities like Sting and Bono, Madonna and more who generously and tirelessly use their names and money to help causes greater than any of us but how often do we see them on the front lines of protest? There are rap and hip hop artists who perform protest songs of a sort but few are visibly appearing at events that uphold their beliefs and incite their fans to peacefully use their voices in unity for a cause. Some even unwittingly or intentionally incite violence. God forbid there is a lull in song sales. (On another note -- no pun intended -- many athletes have been showing unity with the people of Ferguson at professional sporting events. Nice statement but where is the followup? Are we now at a time when wearing a ribbon or a color for awareness is enough?)
The tight harmonies of Peter, Paul and Mary and the idea of three voices could blend so tightly -- a woman and two men (unlike the three women or three men model of Motown and pop music) is in itself is a subtle message. Who did not admire Mary Travers holding her own in a vocal range as low as her fellow singers? Who did not love the unperfected singing voice of Peter Seeger? None of these artists, by the way, fit any particular visual mold that today's artists seem to have. There was an unadulterated aspect.
Quite often as a classical singer I have struggled with the detachment from the greater problems of the world. That inner folk singer is still living inside me. At one time I put my energies into producing a benefit concert for 11 years in Chicago for a residence for homeless people with AIDS. I was able help by raising money. But I never raised my voice out on the protest lines or in the communities that were struggling. As a result of writing about my experience with domestic abuse I will perform on a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall in January sponsored by Music4Lifeinternational.org for The United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women.
These events, as financially beneficial as they are, still keep me safe and sound above the fray. I need to be better at this. I am on the younger end of the Boomer Generation but I wonder what has become of those like myself whose fire was lit but were swept up into a more comfortable existence with all the trappings. We send a message sometimes that if there is enough money raised then that is enough, but it is not. Because of the overwhelming amounts of money poured into political campaigns and the hand-over-fist conglomerate and shareholder mentality, our society is getting swallowed by money instead of activism.
At the Met this week I saw the phenomenally sung and produced Shostakovich opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk based on a short story by Nikolai Lezkov. It was banned and censored by the Communist Party in Russia for almost 30 years and did not please the Russian Orthodox Church with its send up. Earlier this season I saw John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer which also, though controversial, was powerful. For that matter, many operas have a root in political and social protest. Even the Marriage of Figaro is taken from a Beaumarchais play that was about the class struggle in France. It was set in Spain partly to avoid the overtness. World AIDS Day is upon us. A new recording on the AIDS Quilt Songbook theme is soon to be released. All this is fine and good but how many opera singers, myself included, walk out the stage door to lend their voice and physical presence to a larger cause?
There is a need right now for music and, moreover, for unified singing in close harmony both musically and metaphorically. Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and many others put their money where their mouths were. They risked arrest, and stood by their beliefs even if it cost them sales or cancellations of tours. Where is that "Hammer of Justice, Bell of Freedom, and Song to Sing with my Brothers and my Sisters" today? Lord knows there are plenty of causes right now.