Paul Chapman has been involved with the Poverty Initiative since it was founded and represented the Poverty Initiative in Scotland for five years, working with an anti-poverty program sponsored by the church of Scotland. After a lifetime of activism he is now mostly retired and living in Guilford, Connecticut.
I like music in my life and have sought out every opportunity to sing – with my family around the piano on Sunday evenings, at church, in high school and college chorales, musicals, community sings and Christmas caroling. Music draws me in.
The church gets it right. Music is integral and indispensible to the life of the church. It is an essential part of worship. No other organization I know – book clubs, fratenal or veteran groups , community discussions — gets its members on their feet three, four or even five times in the course of a meeting to sing out together. Every person at the meeting has a song book with hundreds of songs to choose from and a piano or organ that accompanies. Music is more than entertainment; it is participation. When a minister in Glasgow was asked by some in the congregation if they could start a choir, he said: “No, the congregation is the choir,” and they live up to that expectation. In some churches, notably churches made up mostly of black people, the group singing has transforming vigor and passion. Some of the singing in mostly white churches is, frankly, pathetic — a faint echo of what once might have renewed the faith of the worshippers.
Think of the role that Christmas music plays in the life of the community — gatherings of people on street corners or in nursing homes singing to the joy of everyone. I recommend that you look at the video on YouTube called “Christmas Food Court Flash Mob” A group of choristers, wandering casually through a mall, from different locations among the shops, spontaneously start singing Handel’s Halleluiah chorus together. Shoppers were enthralled and moved. Some wept. Some know the music well enough to join in. The singers were exultant. At a mall, no less. What an unlikely, soulless place for inspiration. To steal from William Shakespeare, music hath charms even to soothe the busy Christmas shopper. Music hath other charms as well, especially for those who sing or make music in other ways.
Look back at the American Revolution. In 1776, as a rag tag army, led by George Washington, assembled around the city of Boston intending to drive the British out of the city, as many as 500 pipers joined the 10,000 volunteers. Fife and drum corps were essential to the creation of the revolutionary army. The British also had their music. Yankee Doodle Dandy was originally a British song making fun of the Yankees, but eventually became a patriotic song of Washington’s army as well.
There are many songs from both sides that are associated with the Civil War. I wish I were in the land of Dixie, old times there are not forgotten’ was a favorite of the rebels while John Brown’s body lies a moulderin’ in the grave was a northern song. And when one side or the other would sing Home Sweet Home sometimes the opposition, tenting a short space away, would join in.
When Johnnie comes marching home again, Hurrah, Hurrah comes from Civil War times, but is also associated with World War I. While the music of the Civil War was vocal music, sung by the troops and by those at home, in the 20th Century the radio played an increasingly significant role in people’s lives, and music was entertainment as well as inspiration. Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning was sung mostly off the battle field, as was Over there, say a prayer for the boys over there.
To some extent entertainment replaced participation in the Second World War. Was there less singing by the troops? Perhaps something was lost but there was still lots of memorable music: Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer, Let’s remember Pearl Harbor, and God bless America can all be traced to the early 1940s.
Meanwhile, stirring music, often sung by the workers themselves, helped inspire the labor movement. Music bound the workers together as they struggled with the injustice of workplace exploitation.
Strains of Solidarity Together still can be heard on picket lines as can Which side are you on and There is power in a union. The Wobblies (IWW) produced The Little Red Song Book with dozens of titles including Joe Hill and Casey Jones (the Union scab). Sung originally as militant music, as the movement shrank the songs lost their punch; yet they, like many campaign songs, are still favorites at community events. Hymns without faith, and campaign songs without the struggle can still be sung, but it’s not the same.
Personally, I first felt the movement power of music when sung by young voices in the Civil Rights campaign in North Carolina. This was both joyful and serious. Inspired in many cases by songs of faith it became sacred music given the passion with which it was sung. I think of what fun it was to sing with the young people — changing the words, harmonizing, processing through the church and out into the yard; always singing joyfully but with a deeply serious intention.
We need more music – simple, rhythmic, joyful music for the soul and to keep us moving.
Fast forward a few years when the same nation that passed the enlightened Civil Rights law was waging a vicious war in Vietnam. That tragic war gave rise to a new opus of anti-war songs: John Denver singing I had the strangest dream…the end of war; Pete Seeger singing O, Freedom over me; Peter Paul and Mary, Where have all the flowers gone and many other songs. And soon the anti-war movement with one voice was bound together by this music.
And what of music for the anti-poverty movement? There are songs that recognize the evil of poverty, like I’m spending my night in the flophouse and songs of the hobo life, like King of the road, but not many militant songs calling for economic justice and equality. Willie Baptist taught us Rich Man’s House, a song that came from the welfare mothers who led the 1999 March of the Americas from DC to the United Nations. Charon Hribar and others from the Kairos Center and the Poverty Initiative help keep the anti-poverty movement on key. And we need more such music – simple, rhythmic, joyful music for the soul and to keep us moving.
I’ve heard that music is stored in a different part of the brain and that there are physiological reasons why singing affects us like mere words never can. For one thing, music is retained longer than words. Even people with severe memory loss or dementia can sing the songs of their youth. Some music stays with us long after other events in our lives are forgotten. And we sometimes associate a particular song with an event that helps keep that event alive in our memory. Besides freedom songs from the 60s whenever I hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I am reminded of the destruction of the Berlin wall and the joyous Bernstein performance on Christmas Day, 1989.
Contemporary neuroscientific studies of the brain verify the uniqueness of music as a resource for abundant living. It seems that music is stored in many parts of the brain simultaneously, thus affecting many of our bodily actions and experiences. An influx of dopamine and other ‘feel good’ chemicals is released in the brain affecting many parts of the body. We’ve all experienced the body moving when certain music is played. Perhaps a smile; perhaps tears. Does your foot tap irresistibly to the rhythm of marching music? The body dances; people are bound together. I sense that I belong to something important. Music contributes to collective identity, deepens our faith and brings solace when life seems dark.
Music serves as an important organizing strategy, energizing and uniting. I can’t express emphatically enough how important music is to social change movements. Not to sing is to miss an essential human resource that has the potential of changing human history.