Pete Seeger came to remind everyone that "we're carrying on a long tradition." The 75 singers, songwriters and activists who had gathered in the District at Antioch Law School for the People's Music Weekend nodded their heads knowingly. Most looked too young to have been a part of the civil rights rallies of the early '60s, but they'd known the antiwar gatherings of the '70s, women's and gay rights marches of the mid-'70s and the more recent safe-energy and environmental protests.
In many ways, last weekend's conferees looked like the bright-eyed idealists of the '60s -- jeans were the fashion, empathy the mood, sharing the intent, confirming the need. In his keynote speech, Seeger connected them with their past, to revolutionary broadside ballads and union organizing songs, to anthems for social and political change in many languages and times. "We know that good songs can help a group of human beings move this old world a little further along," he continued, his voice strong, his eyes bright. "Martin Luther King said, 'The songs we sing are vital to our struggle.' John L. Lewis, organizing the CIO, said exactly the same thing. The IWW used to hand out little red songbooks along with the union cards 'to fan the flames of discontent.' " A murmur of approval rippled through the group.
Over the weekend, they gathered together at Antioch to organize as pied pipers for social change, to swap songs, to affirm ideals, to share a sense of commitment to a rainbow of causes: anti-nuke, pro-labor, anti-draft, pro-gay, anti-pollution, pro-civil liberties. At the heart of it all is a concern for social and economic justice.
Seeger, of course, is the good gray presence of music of conscience. Holding the banjo inscribed "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" and singing snatches of "L'Internationale," "Pie in the Sky" and "Wearing of the Green," Seeger sought to place the "glorious tradition" of protest and social action music in socio-historical context. That seemed to be a major concern of the weekend in general, evidenced by huge sheets of paper adorning the wall and proclaiming action-oriented workshops: "The Role of Popular Music in Struggle," "Cultural Workers Against Reaganism," "Black Music -- Free Expression vs. Cultural Genocide," "Songs of Workers In and Out of Unions," "Working Women's Music," "Politics and New Wave."
In the turbulent civil-rights '60s, such a conference would have drawn a greater black presence; now a new energy seems to come from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries of South and Central America by way of "La Nueva Cancion" (New Songs) from groups like Quilipayun and Inti-Illimani. Isabel Letelier, widow of slain Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier, shared a quietly intense Nueva Cancion workshop with local activist Luci Murphy; graceful, sadly insistent songs of struggle from Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Haiti and Puerto Rico were passed around, echoes of a culture of solidarity suggested tentatively at times, boisterously at others. Through the weekend, there seemed to be no trouble finding voices raised together.
These are hard times for folk-based protest, but the participants at the conference seemed unwilling to forgo their ideals. It's not the grace period of the early and middle '60s when folk-protest singers played an important role in political and cultural changes that they incautiously branded "revolutions." In the '80s, folk is a decidedly minority music, slave to the technology of rock.
There's also the admitted problem that much of the music is "not so good," that it seldom matches the passion and clarity of its varied ideologies. And, what little attention protest music gets is focused on the rock-dominated anti-nuke movement.
But the conferees quickly passed over the success of their rock counterparts; they were more interested in figuring out how to share messages, how to "touch people," how to "write songs to rescue the spirit." They exchanged addresses and ideas and songs and newsletters and looked immediately toward the future; two early workshops were "Planning the Next People's Music Weekend" and "Let's Get Serious About Networking."
"There are no easy answers," one singer said quietly.
Another looked at the eager faces in his workshop and smiled with what one veteran songwriter once described as "eyes shining with a tomorrow light": "Lots of great questions, though."