Yesterday I found an old playlist on Spotify that I created two years ago for some students. These songs, all "oldies," describe moments of injustice in 20th century America. Troublingly, they have gained a new relevance in recent weeks. Although all of these songs share a critique of power--manifested in white skin privilege, capital, and the government--they differ in approach and intention. Some of these songs speak truth to power as an act of resistance, while others lament tragedy. Some cast blame, and others plead for justice.
In Woody Guthrie's "Blowin' Down This Road," the singer-narrator details the hardships faced by poor Americans. After each, he protests "I ain't a-gonna be treated this a-way." Bob Dylan wrote "Oxford Town" in the wake of the violent backlash against James Merediths' integration of the University of Mississippi. Graham Nash and David Crosby's "Immigration Man" tells the story of Nash--a British citizen--being stopped at U.S. customs and denied entry despite having the proper papers. The assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers inspired Nina Simone to write "Mississippi Goddam," a powerful indictment of whites' reluctance to relinquish their power and grant blacks' legal equality.
One of the most famous protest songs of all time, "Strange Fruit," condemns the lynching of black men and women--an occurrence as prevalent as a "bitter crop." Pete Seeger wrote "Last Train to Nuremberg" to condemn the Vietnam War, drawing a parallel between German civilians' cooperation in the Holocaust with Americans' complicity in the deaths of young soldiers drafted to fight communism in Southeast Asia.
"War" likewise critiques America's military intervention in Vietnam, by implying that the cost of the "fight to keep our freedom," for those who fight, is freedom itself. And finally, in Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," the singer-narrator describes the unfree freedom of northern cities for black men and women who thought they were escaping Jim Crow segregation, only to find systemic racism, discrimination, and persecution. The song's last phrase, "stop giving just enough for the city," implores those with power to stop caring "just enough" to ensure their own survival.
In our current political moment, these songs offer several insights. They inspire resistance, certainly, but they also reveal that the nativism, xenophobia, and racism we see reflected in recent Executive Orders are deeply rooted in American history. These songs remind the listener that they have agency and can take action against injustice, but several also point to white Americans' complicity in maintaining hierarchies of race, class, and national origin.
Listening to them, I am reminded that I have trusted and supported an American government that has long condoned extralegal violence, persecuted "aliens," policed its borders, and sent its citizens to die in defense of their freedom. I too am guilty of having cared "just enough" about myself and not enough for others. Even though I was not alive during the Depression, or the Civil Rights movement, or the Vietnam War, my personal history is captured in these songs. Now it's my responsibility to listen, to remember, and to speak new truths--not alternative facts--to power.