Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Protest as Heard

One of the aspects of audience history I’ve been thinking about lately (since 2012 is the Woody Guthrie Centennial) is the reception of protest songs. Music historians and writers typically analyze the composition or performance of protest music; scholarship is relatively plentiful on the content of songs like “Get Off the Track,” “The Preacher and the Slave,” or “We Shall Overcome.” And news features, interviews, and biographies have filled us in about the great performers of protest music, from Woody Guthrie to Rage Against the Machine. But we don’t know very much about how such songs have been encountered by actual listeners in different contexts; what those encounters made people think, feel, or do; or how those songs and their reverberations were woven into the daily lives of abolitionists, workers, activists, teachers, police officers, politicians, businessmen, or even opposition groups.

There is some good work out there that suggest some answers by delving into historical or cultural contexts of social movements. T. V. Reed’s The Art of Protest, Annie J. Randall’s Music, Power, and Politics, and Mark Mattern’s Acting in Concert, among others, all have profound thinking about the power of music in society and in social change. Still, there is a general assumption in the scholarship of music and politics, influenced in part by the folk movement of the 20th century, that the best protest music is a participatory enterprise, a marked ritualized moment in which people make music together and, through that action, cohere and inspire the front lines of a social movement. Obviously, the shared experience that is engendered in such music-making represents a significant form of public discourse and social meaning. Music-making is politics, in that sense. But I think also that there is another way that protest songs operate, especially in the contemporary world of commercial popular music—through listening. How do we make sense of the fan who hears a song of conscience--on the radio or at a concert--or the average citizen who encounters singing protesters in the street? Presumably, that act of audiencing has the potential to change him or her in some way. But how?

Mark Pedelty and Linda Keefe have done a study of this very sort of thing over at the journal Music and Politics ("Political Pop, Political Fans? A Content Analysis of Music Fan Blogs"). Their research focuses on contemporary listeners, however; I wonder whether it might be possible to explore the effects of "political pop" for historical listeners. What was it like to hear Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” during the 1940s? How about a suffragette song like “Give the Ballot to the Mothers” at the turn of the century? When the Hutchinson Family Singers sang “Get Off the Track” in the 1850s, to the tune of the popular minstrel song, “Old Dan Tucker,” what did people hear, exactly?

In fact, what do we make of the large volume of 19th century sheet music that offered social commentary and even confrontation? Who was buying it and why? George P. Holt’s “Wanted a Substitute” (published by Oliver Ditson & Co. in 1863) offered a clever take on the class politics of the Civil War draft and the resentment it created. But how can we accurately assess the kinds of dynamism the song afforded various people in their daily lives in 1863 and beyond?

How protest songs were heard is an area that desperately needs more study. There are so many possibilities, here, for thinking about historical reception—one could go song by song, issue by issue, era by era, documenting listener's interpretive moves and/or the literacies of protest at work in each level of analysis. Scholars of fandom, who are already attuned to the varieties of attention and response to cultural forms, as well as to the intricacies of commercialized manipulation, might have something significant to offer.

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