One of the most interesting facets of American music throughout the country’s history has been its passionate role in social and political activism. From the tea party protests (the original tea party, that is!) in Boston, to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, music has been the grease on the wheels of democracy.
In 1854, Joshua McCarter Simpson (a “free black” from Ohio who became one of the leading voices in the abolitionist movement) created and published an abolitionist song book. His reasoning in doing so was, he said, because “you can sing what would be death to speak.” His words have proven true over and over throughout American history.
Perhaps the very first such example was My Country ‘Tis of Thee, itself. The tune, God Save the King, was used subversively to defy England and rally the population of the new nation. The words we use now - My Country ‘Tis of Thee – weren’t written until 1831; however, there were many sets of alternate lyrics used throughout the revolutionary war. One set of proposed alternate lyrics, published in 1777, in the Boston Chronicle, begins with this verse:
FAME, let they Trumpet sound,
Rouse all the World around,
With loud alarms!
Fly hence to Britain's land,
Tell George in vain his Hand
Is raised 'gainst FREEDOM's Band,
When called to arms.
Mild, perhaps, by today’s standards, but in an era where the concept of the Divine Right of kings was still being tossed about, this was musical fuel to the revolutionary fire. Skipping forward some years, slave songs – spirituals such as what you will hear tonight – were instance of musical rebellion.
The history of the music of our nation resounds with such examples – and despite grumbling from certain corners about kids and their music these days – it still sparks the imagination and holds influence in the struggle towards freedom. For example, in the mid 90’s, American hip-hop and rap was the foundation for what would become an underground cultural revolution in Iran. Taking the spirit of the genre to heart, a new fusion of Persian poetry and American rap styles was born. It continues to grow in popularity, filling underground clubs with young Iranians – male and female – using the music to escape from and oppose an oppressive regime, despite their government’s oppressive attempts to stamp it out.
While my country and its political/social decisions may irritate me quite frequently, I can truly say that I am unabashedly proud of our musical heritage. Our musical inclusiveness – representing a broad sweep of cultures and creeds – is (I believe) the essence of what the U.S. was meant to be and hopefully will someday achieve: a more perfect Union. And until that happens, our music will be there as a symbol to remind us of what being American means: an unbreakable spirit of defiance in the face of adversity – being able to sing...even when we cannot speak.