At political concerts one concern is whether the music will measure up to the seriousness of the issues. Last night at Lisner Auditorium singers Pete Seeger, Hazel Dickens and Luci Murphy sang for the benefit of striking coal miners from Kentucky, and they more than measured up.
The evening's emotional weight was raised early on by the half-dozen miner families who sat on stage. In thick mountain accents and unpolished phrases, they told of their strikes for safer working conditions and union representation, which have dragged on for 18 months in Harlan County and for 34 months in McCreary County.
The performers translated those passions into lyrics and music. Dickens' sharply drawn songs about mining life were a highlight of the documentary film "Harlan County, U.S.A." Last night she delivered those songs in a strong, rough voice that rose to a high-pitched lament. She combined the miners' oldest musical traditions and their more recent militancy.
Washington's own Murphy brought the Afro-American tradition and her lovely a cappella to the evening's themes. Once she got the audience humming a funeral melody, her acrobatic voice danced above them in "Aint's No Grave Can Hold My Body Down."
Seeger has been turning political themes into timeless music for 40 of his 60 years. With disarming informality, he won wider audience participation last night than any singer in recent memory. Plucking his banjo, singing with relaxed assurance and pulling songs from his limitless memory, he gave the evening's issues roots beyond today's headlines.