I don't think of what we do as protest, because it's so much more than that. Certainly there are plenty of things going on in our state worthy of protest. But our singing is also a communal affirmation of our hopes, our values, our longing for justice, truth, and democracy. Communal singing is a vital part of building social movements: the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the Singing Revolution in Estonia, the effort to end apartheid in South Africa.
Something magical happens when we sing. It knits our hearts together and strengthens our resolve. It builds community. Since the disaster visited upon Wisconsin on June 5 of this year, singing together has helped to heal broken hearts, stir up flagging spirits, and refocus energies. Given the communal nature of what we do, I asked the citizen singers why they sing and got some amazing responses, which were so good that it seems right to just share them rather than attempt to distill and paraphrase them.
One person directed me to the story of the Singing Revolution of Estonia, which the State of World Liberty Project lists as the freest country in the world:
Estonia finally won its freedom following the 1987–1991 Singing Revolution, in which Estonians gathered night after night, singing national songs and hymns banned by the Soviets and listening to rock music. When the Soviets attempted to quell the revolution, the Estonians used their bodies to shield radio and TV stations from being attacked by tanks. The revolution ended without any bloodshed, with one-fifth of the population having participated at some point. It marks one of the greatest triumphs of the power of liberty over authoritarianism in history.
Another citizen singer recommended an article by Solidarity Sing Along friend Billy Bragg about Norwegians singing the song “Children of the Rainbow” in response to the mass killings by Anders Breivik this past spring.
Singing a song together is a powerful social experience, as anyone who has ever been to a rock concert can testify. However, if the song you are singing is not just a celebration of love, if the lyric seeks to make a point to people that you consider to be the opposition, then the sense of bonding is heightened. Think of a football crowd whose team have just taken the lead singing in unison a song aimed at their rivals.
Protest music has a similar unifying effect. When the majority of an audience sing along with a song attacking the government, critics dismiss such behaviour as "preaching to the converted." While it may be true that those singing share a political outlook with both the performer and one another, the experience goes much deeper than simply affirming one's beliefs. For someone who exists in an environment where their political views are in a minority, immersing themselves in an audience who are singing songs that articulate those views can be inspirational. To find yourself among other people in your town who share your views—people whose existence you may not have been aware of—offers a sense of social solidarity unavailable in internet chatrooms.”
Photo by Matty O'Dea.
In response to my query about why we sing, one participant posted the lyrics to a song by American songwriter and political activist Malvina Reynolds called—oddly enough—“Sing Along.” Makes perfect sense when you think about it. This is the language we use to speak to each other.
I get butterflies in my stomach whenever I start to sing,
And when I'm at a microphone I shake like anything,
But if you'll sing along with me I'll holler right out loud,
'Cause I'm awf'ly nervous lonesome, but I'm swell when I'm a crowd.
Sing along, sing along!
And just sing "la la la la la" if you don't know the song.
You'll quickly learn the music, you'll find yourself a word,
'Cause when we sing together we'll be heard.
Oh, when I need a raise in pay and have to ask my boss,
If I go see him by myself I'm just a total loss,
But if we go together I'll do my part right pretty,
Cause I'm awf'ly nervous lonesome but I make a fine committee.
My congressman's important, he hobnobs with big biz,
He soon forgets the guys and gals who put him where he is.
I'll just write him a letter to tell him what we need,
With a hundred thousand signatures why even he can read.
Oh, life is full of problems, the world's a funny place,
I sometimes wonder why the heck I join'd the human race,
But when we work together, it all seems right and true,
I'm an awful nothing by myself but I'm okay with you.
Callen Harty: [Singing in the Capitol] is a way to remind the legislators and the general population that there are still many citizens unhappy over the direction of the state. ... It is a joyous and peaceful way to protest. Instead of yelling at enemies, instead of physical violence, instead of anything negative, it is a positive and beautiful way to find community and to share hurt and hope in a constructive and creative way. ... Singing is a peaceful and joyous way to express what's in our hearts.
Freedom of speech is so precious. Singing about it releases stress and allows me to remain calm. I sing at home now (never did before). However, not sure if the cat likes it. :)
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,Music is one way to express peace and peaceful intent—and it can create trust and sometimes sway people to your point of view. Songs tell stories too. My companion singers automatically become part of me and, I believe, I become part of them as our voices join and blend, creating community and connection. ... It boils down, at times, to a very simple equation for me: when I am singing in peace and love with my companion singers, completely befuddling the people with guns and power who can't figure out what to do with us, how can I keep from singing?
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
Singing like you all do is a powerful display of togetherness and organization, of rationality and emotion. It is a way to make your message heard in a way that is virtually unable to be criticized successfully. Anyone threatened by singing is suspect in most cultures. Sure, you can demonize someone holding a sign and shouting, but trying to demonize someone making beautiful noise is rarely effective. It is an avenue of communication which most people cherish. Music is a protective shell for powerful messages. It is the thread of humanity on display, and I, for one, am so thankful for every single day that the Solidarity Singers do it.
Of course, there's also the proud Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW) tradition of song, especially with the famous "little red songbooks," many of which (including "Solidarity Forever") are rewritten lyrics for tunes that the Salvation Army would play when they were trying to drown out Wobblies while they were “soapboxing," trying to talk with workers and organize—so, with the new lyrics, they were still able to be heard, as they sung the lyrics along with the Salvation Army's "accompaniment"! The IWW have played a huge role in the struggle for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association.
A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.—Joe Hill, American organizer and songwriter
Throughout history the arts have always bloomed during times of strife and struggle, and our time is no different. The joyful and creative "noise" of song brings people of all walks of life together in a peaceful, compassionate action when they might not otherwise participate in a more forceful protest. Music is a common language and understood by every culture. Poets show us a way to reach the attention of power via our consciences, hearts, and souls instead of more challenging, direct, and often, confrontational, action. When a singer shares their voice, a different level of unity prevails, and joined voices do speak fearlessly to power.
—Another singer at home via Ustream with my computer listening when I'm unable to be in the rotunda
During the first Gulf War, when we were living near Delavan, we used to drive up to Madison for war protests. One time, a small group left our signs at the door, as the police politely requested (those were the days, my friends!), and had a moment of silence inside, on the first floor. One woman began singing "We Shall Overcome” spontaneously (you paying attention, Dave?), all dozen or so of us joined in.
One day in about March 2011, marching around Our House like I owned it (Dave?), I heard "Gentle People." I went back to the rotunda, and started singing along. No one stopped me, or asked for my permit. A couple smiles. Sometimes you'll still see me getting a little leaky around the eyes when we sing that one.
It's good exercise. It's a nice anchor to the retired days when I'm not working out of town. But most of all, besides bringing cherished memories to life, It's all of you.
Linda Rumpel: To add to what Rick said, we also try to make it to the Sing Along whenever we can to show our support for the people who are there every day. :)
At four months pregnant, the primary reasons we decided to make Madison our home were trampled. We learned of pay cuts before he had even started teaching, insurance co-pay increases before we'd even begun to use it, millions of dollars in cuts to schools, and more. The anger I felt, that we had been "tricked" into accepting the position here over others, was immense.
I felt helpless for nine more months during the pregnancy and recovery. It felt terrible. I hated that feeling and I still have that feeling some today, but singing, when we can make it, is the greatest way to feel like I am not completely helpless. I have a voice in the rotunda. Walker might not listen to it, but at least he has to hear it.
Callen Harty: I sing because the spirit moves me.
I sing for those who have no voice.
I sing so those in power hear the people who give them power.
I sing because I have a song.
I sing because I have words and notes to share.
I sing to open myself to the heavens.
I sing to hear echoes of justice.
I sing to taste the sound of freedom on my tongue.
I sing for the love of my brothers and sisters.
I sing because I must.
I sing a song of love.
Come celebrate with us! On Monday, November 5, we'll be celebrating our 500th Solidarity Sing Along at 7pm at the High Noon Saloon (701A E. Washington Ave. in Madison).
If you'd like a copy of the Solidarity Sing Along songbook, you can request one by sending a message to the Solidarity Sing Along Facebook page.