Song Writing

Where is the Woody Guthrie of Occupy Wall Street?

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Wall Street may be occupied by protesters, but things still look the same on the charts - just with more Maroon 5. The top songwriters are still the Swedish beatmasters like Max Martin, and the major acts are much more likely to brag about their cash than to express concern over our lack of it.

In the '60s, music went hand in hand with the protests, resulting in songs that transcended the times, but we still haven't found a soundtrack to Occupy Wall Street. Is this recession going to give us another Woody Guthrie? We're still searching for the singer to represent the 99%.
Occupy Wall Street is now global, and the world is watching eagerly to see what unfolds. Commentators project their own biases, beliefs, and hopes onto the spectacle and judge it accordingly. It's like a Rorschach. Some berate the protest as ineffective and hypocritical; others praise it as a beacon of hope.

An idealistic part of me would like to believe that this gathering — whatever it is — will magically sprout a new Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. I'm not alone in this; commentators are actively looking for some kind of bold guitar-toting folk hero to emerge from the demonstrations - someone to help frame the narrative and contribute sound bites.

But we still haven't found that magic voice, that protest singer we pine for. And I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but historically speaking... protests don't create artists.

The Wall Street spectacle itself is a bit like a piece of instrumental music: emotionally charged, but abstract. The problems and challenges we face as a nation are deeply felt, but they're also complex and poorly understood. An important question is whether even the most intelligent, well-written songs would be able to attract the attention of demonstrators in The Age of Distraction.

Because after all, Occupy Wall Street is an Internet-age protest. iPhones abound. The spectacle is supported by social media and word-of-mouth. It's viral. So far, the music of Occupy Wall Street is not viral.

Sure, we've seen several jongleurs perform at the protest — Tom Morello, for example — but so far no musician has earned widespread attention from either mainstream or online media. Why should they? What have they given to Wall Street Occupants that can't be gotten from an iPod? What have they done to inspire widespread courage, thought, dialogue, pride, or meaningful action? Have they managed to capture the spirit of this very strange, complex economic and social atmosphere?

There is a scenario where the old and new guard come together and musically unite the generations, distinguishing the occupy movement from the '60s protests which were divided by age. Witness Pete Seeger, at 92 years old, performing on the streets of New York City with the Iraqi-American agitator for justice, Stephan Said. Old and young seem to agree on this cause, and while it's focused on Wall Street, there is support around the globe. Those who have been through this in the past provide a template for the next wave of change. As Said told us, it isn't always the big names that shake things up on a global level - it's the Woody Guthrie types that operate on the fringes. Says Stephen, "One song that speaks the truth to one child who hears it is worth more than a song that represents something less than the truth but reaches 50 million."

If a great protest singer emerges over the next few years, it's not going to be a Wall Street promo performance launching her to fame, or a single available for purchase on iTunes, or a shout-out anthem mentioning the protests by name. Songs that are actually about protesting don't generally go down in history. Those songs don't spread into the mainstream.

"Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" doesn't mention the Depression even once. "The Times They Are A Changin'" doesn't give a cheesy shout-out to the Summer of Love. Yet these are some of the most enduring songs we have from their respective eras.

A great protest singer's work has to be very carefully balanced: emotionally moving without being histrionic; weighty without being grave; insightful and bold without being preachy. Historically the long-lived songs haven't been pandering cheerleader chants - "Blowin' In The Wind" made it long past "Volunteers."

Enduring sociopolitical songs that touch on universal themes are very, very hard to write. It's nothing like writing a jingle, where you just set the name of the product or event to a catchy melody. I think we can agree that "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" is not a jingle. Hit songs these days fall into these lyrical categories: Relationships, Hooking Up, Party/Clubbing, Inspiration. Social, political and economic injustice don't play to the masses, although every now and then a song like "I Need A Dollar" bubbles under.

While certain clichés and catchphrases dropped into songs might elicit cheap applause for now, it remains to be seen whether any living songwriters are capable of — and interested in — being the conscience of this troubled time.

What I'm absolutely certain of, though, is that the present demonstrations aren't going to magically deliver us a Dylan or Guthrie. Both of those figures worked hard, wrote prolifically and thoughtfully, and toured extensively. If the next great American protest singer is out there somewhere, she's got a lot of work to do and even more noise to cut through.

~Nicholas Tozier
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Comments: 12

  • Nina Martinez from New York Hello 

    My name is Nina Martinez & I am one half of a songwriting & screen  writing team.  We just released our most current project mini movie music video State Of The Nation we have dedicated it  to the call of  the Occupy Wall  St movement  because it's something we  strongly believe in Thank you in advance for your support ;)  
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaGa73AV4dI&sns=em

    I would love to perform at your event.

    Thanks, Nina
  • Laura King from SeattleThough he didn't write music, Mark Twain is a better model than Woody for protest songwriters today. Earnestness just doesn't reach those raised on irony; you need satire's comic bite. Here's our contribution:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnC3ZRgu-_A&feature=youtube_gdata_player
  • Maximillion Band from Rome, ItalyWould like to offer up our band's latest release and video if I may - "The World You Live In" by Maximillion. The video, which is comprised of news-reel footage from the Occupy Protests, can be seen here on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCjS4teUvog. The song was written about the lack of protest going on, just a few months before OWS materialized. It was inspired by the Arab Spring and the protests in London and Rome in the Winter of 2010. Hope it's ok that I've posted this here, but I do feel it's relevant to the discussion!
    Cheers,
    Maximillion
  • Td from Richmond, VaObviously the times they are a-changin' wouldn't have a shoutout to the Summer Of Love since it was written four years prior. What made Dylan's songs like those so great and lasting is the fact that he never dated his songs with current (at the time) names or events. By leaving them vague, they can be applied forever to any situation.
  • AnonymousI vote Langhorne Slim, hes from Brooklyn, would be sweet to see a local come out and have a good political song.
  • Rik Penn from San FranciscoYou could not ask for a more passionately involved singer-songwriter than Tom Morello! He has been singing in the Woody Guthrie tradition for years and years, singing songs of resistance, protest and common sense in the face of the big bosses their corporate greed.
  • Paul from The Mediating Center10CC's 'Do the Wall Street Shuffle' seems to be the most direct in representation of Occupy Wall Street movement I can think of.
  • Michael from RockfordMan I agree. Somebody step up! I did see Tom Morello in CA sing
    This Land Is Your Land.
  • Scot Sier from San Francisco, CaliforniaHere ya go, a song for the movement you might enjoy: http://soundcloud.com/scotsier/bp-edit-4
  • Jayson from Tampa, FlExcellent piece Nick. I couldn't agree more. The most enduring and powerful "protest" songs are the ones that are not specific to a particular movement that automatically antiquates them when any element of the struggle changes. Of course Guthrie and Dylan wrote some specific songs of protest but the ones people like me who didn't live in those eras remember are the ones that speak universally to our very sense of humanity. Like Steve Earle said "come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now."
  • Willie from Scottsdale, AzHow about Mojo Nixon's "Burn Down the Malls." :-)
  • Strongwriterdean from Anaheim, CaNicholas, you beat me to the punch! GREAT article. I was writing something similar for my blog. I believe the reason you don't see any Pete Seeger's or Woody Guthrie's evolving out of these "protests" is that the recipe is missing a couple of ingredients. Namely, these "Occupy" rallies did not materialize organically like past events (Berkeley, Columbia, Selma, Prohibition, etc.) But I think you'll hear songs emerge, because it's something to write about. Even the Tea Party demonstrations deserve more relevance in folk culture than "Occupy Wall Street." But you can't write songs about that. Besides, have you heard the "Hey Hey" chants coming out of Zuccotti Park? Not exactly Phil Ochs or John Lennon!
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