On Movement Music: Notes from the July Meeting

Fellow Workers,

Having come out of the KY GMB’s July meeting a week ago, there are a number of good things to report.

FW Mick and Kate at the Adjunct Teach-In, Feb. 2015.

FW Mick and Kate at the Adjunct Teach-In, Feb. 2015.

First and foremost, we want to congratulate FWs Kate Lafferty and Mick Parsons, who were elected to the position of delegate (Kate will also be taking the reigns as Branch Treasurer). Both have been integral to growing the branch in recent months and constantly work to tweak ever-so-small details and make the day-to-day operation as smooth as possible. Their election will continue to grease the wheels of the movement machine, stabilizing the meeting schedule and distributing the day-to-day of our organizing and planning. Best of luck to these Fellow Workers!

Second, there are a few upcoming events to look out for, some of which are detailed here. This Saturday, the 8th, the KY GMB will host an open house at our meeting space in the Mammoth. The shindig kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Hope to see everyone there!

We’ve also been given word that Indiana Wobbly Walter Beck–a great poet and performer–will be joining us in October, surrounding the digital organizing drive and the Louisville stop of the Joe Hill Tour in October. I personally only know Walter through social media, and knowing that social media presence means I’m looking forward to it. You can check out some of his writing at Omnibus Journal.

A final thing to look out for is the possibility of our own FW Mick busking in downtown Louisville! We’re not quite sure where or when, but hopefully in the next few weeks he’ll make his way near his former employer–where he was unjustly “removed” not too long ago–and make a stand with music, poetry, and general theatrics. (He promises to do so should his Facebook artist page get 200 “likes.” Let’s make that happen.)

Now for some thoughts:

These things–music, poetry, art and performance–continue to stand out as distinct features in the Kentucky branch. We’re home to poets, craftworkers, and musicians of all types. Where we meet, at the Mammoth, we’re surrounded by artists constantly.

At the close of our July meeting, our branch delegate J.P. Wright channeled a former job and gave us all a drum lesson, which translated into a short discussion of organizing tactics and the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center). The Highlander School made its mark most prominently in highlander-folk-schoolthe Civil Rights movement, having trained everyone from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King to Louisville’s own Anne Braden. The School emphasized non-violent protest tactics and community engagement, but also birthed and rewrote some of the great protest music of the twentieth century. Little known fact, hidden in the name: the Folk school started out resisting the capitalist class during the Depression, and the music born at Highlander was largely a transformation of the folk songs of that earlier movement.

So why does this matter?

It’s important that music and art remain as much at the center of the workers’ movement–and all movements–today as it historically has been. This doesn’t necessarily mean singing old folk songs in tandem (though those songs are great and, absolutely, moving). But it does mean that we recognize that the cultural component(s) of the workers’ rights movement are our original–and now our contemporary–shared material. These things that communicate shared sentiment, communal consciousness–a cartoon, a popular song, a specific sound–can be grown to communicate deeper and more profound messages between movement members.

Cultural historian T.V. Reed recognizes the complex roles that music and other forms of art can play among, and beyond, the members of a movement. Importantly, sharing in an artistic experience can be a way to pass the time, to make the boredom that comes with incremental organizing a bit more palatable. In The Art of Protest, Reed writes of music in the Civil Rights movement,

Movement work was often unimaginably arduous. In such a context, but in any movement context really, there needs to be a time fore pleasure and relaxation. And there too music was often the key. In addition to songs drawn into the movement for specific practical uses, there was music around just for fun. SNCC activist and later U.S. congressional representative John Lewis recalls that in addition to the freedom songs, and sometimes as a respite from them, he spent many a long drive down country roads listening to the latest pop songs on local radio stations, especially with the emergence of “soul” music in the 1960s.

Anyone knowledgeable of the cultural components of this particular moment recognizes the importance of “soul” in this anecdote. But more importantly, Reed illustrates how music and art become shared experience between movement members, even in moments of simple relaxation. As articulated in an earlier post, shared experience and communal struggle does not end even when we’re just hanging out, listening to whatever.

Old shot of Pete Seeger.

Old shot of Pete Seeger.

Art within and of a movement holds these multiple purposes. It brings us together, allows us to communicate to one another (Reed illustrates this deftly with the single line “We shall not be moved”), provides a moment of respite and, in the same breath, can communicate to those unsure of whether they are or are not a “part” of the movement. Art and performance can bring new ears and eyes to a movement and a cause. It can create, grow, and strengthen a movement community. To paraphrase Reed, the major point is that music, historically at the center of the Workers’ Movement culture, can function as an overarching site to build and move in new directions. It is not only a unifying force, but a baseline context for members to overcome division and recognize solidarity.

So as the KY IWW moves forward, we hope to bring members of the movement, new and old, out to listen to music, read some poetry, and embrace our community. We look forward to the opportunity to build and strengthen community around these very experiences.

FW Patrick

Press Secretary



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