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Patriotic Protest and Song
@The Wednesday English Conversation Club
Bethesda Library, Montgomery County, Maryland, USA

In America this weekend, on Sunday, 11 November 2007, we celebrate Veteran's Day. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the guns of Europe fell silent. After The Great War, armed conflict would never seem romantic or glamorous again.

In remembrance of the lost youth of all wars, today we will discuss music as an expression of faith, freedom, peace, and justice. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and American music has cried out against inequality, poverty, and war, and in support of workers, civil, and human rights. American patriotic protest and song music is as old as our nation itself.

America's first protest songs were written by and about slaves.
Slavery was legal in parts of America from about 1492 until around 1865.
Protest songs of faith, such as "Go Down, Moses (Let My People Go)" are called spirituals.

When Israel was in Egypt's land,                           Let my people go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,            Let my people go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt's land;                                       Tell old Pharaoh
                                                                                      To let my people go!

In the mid-20th Century, Woody Guthrie became the first in the U.S. to write and sing of the plight of the migrant worker in his Dust Bowl Ballads (recorded in 1940).

Woody Guthrie

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

In the early 1960's, North American Cree Indian singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, wrote and sang of the "Universal Soldier." She describes the eternal conflict between patriotism and pacifism:

He's five foot two & six feet four,
He fights with missiles & with spears,
He's all of thiry one & he's only seventeen,
He's been a soldier for a thousand years.

People who lived through the Woodstock era will always remember Jimi Hendrix, an honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran of African American, Cherokee Indian, and Mexican decent, playing the national anthem on his electric guitar in 1969. In what way has your home country's national anthem changed? Does your national anthem have words and music?

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

Work Songs include a jody, a call-and-response song, sung by soldiers in the army while running or marching. A shanty is sung by sailors in the navy. Gandy dancers (railway workers) had railroad songs. Work songs tend to be ironic and disrespectful of death, family ties, and authority. Do workers in your home country sing special songs? What is the mood of the songs?

Protest Songs are songs that question authority. What U.S. protest songs do you know? What protest songs do you know from your home country? What is the mood of most protest songs? Are they old or new songs? Have you ever sung them yourself? Where and why?

American protest songs tend to be in favor of organized labor and anti-war. What are the subjects of protest songs in your home country? What laws or parts of society do they question? Is it legal in your home country to sing protest songs? Peaceably to assemble?

Minstrels & Musicals are comic or stereotypical songs by and about the poor to amuse the rich. Some people believe Gangsta Rap and Outlaw Country are minstrel music. Some people believe they are protest songs. Gangsta Rap is urban and Outlaw Country is rural. The songs are about men and women going to jail for domestic offenses: violence, drug, and/or alcohol abuse, NOT for union-organizing or pacifist reasons. Do you have songs like these in your home country? Do you believe they are protest songs or minstrel songs? Why or why not?

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