Movement Music

By David Swanson

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” said Emma Goldman, who might also have said “If we don’t dance, not enough people will work long and hard enough in our revolution.” This is one of the two most useful quotes for Americans right now, the other being another remark by Emma Goldman: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

But when people ask you, as they tend to ask you, “Shouldn’t we all give up and die of heartbreak because, for the umpteenth time, voting didn’t change anything?” you can’t simply reply “What are you, stupid?” In fact, you can’t simply reply with words at all. You have to use music. In the face of powerful forces, dangers, and long odds, people cannot be reasoned into moral action. They have to be inspired. A rule for political events (alongside “Be the media and put video online” or “Include new people”) should be “Sing and dance.”

Even just singing, without the dancing, will do it. But you have to sing, and hear, songs of inspiration. They aren’t on the radio very much, but they are online and at the best events. One of the most inspiring groups of performers, of a great many I could name, is in fact called “Emma’s Revolution.”

But I want to talk about David Rovics, a singer, song-writer, guitarist with whom I’ve shared a stage recently, he singing, me talking. You can listen to some of his music online and even download a song book.

Much of Rovics’ music combines the inspiration of rhythm and melody with the inspiration of stories about people who struggled for justice. If you see David Rovics perform you are guaranteed to learn new stories about struggles in our own country and around the world, labor struggles and campaigns of all sorts for justice and fairness. You’ll leave wanting to get CDs of his music and books about the stories he’s told. History always helps to put our own miniscule attention spans and flagging determination into perspective.

Rovics sings of violence too much in an age when we have overwhelming evidence of the superior success rate of nonviolence, but he makes the nonviolent members of his audience overlook that — which only demonstrates the power of music. Watch and listen to this video of Rovics’ song “Saint Patrick’s Battalion.” Then watch this humorous video of a laugh-at-ourselves activist ditty called “I’m a Better Anarchist Than You.” (The first half of the video is a story leading into the song. I recommend listening to the story, too, but it’s not needed.)

While words alone lose nine-tenths of the value, Rovics’ words alone are powerful, and those of us who don’t sing should read poetry at our events, forums, and rallies. This is how “Saint Patrick’s Battalion” begins:

My name is John Riley
I’ll have your ear only a while
I left my dear home in Ireland
It was death, starvation, or exile
And when I got to America
It was my duty to go
Enter the Army and slog across Texas
To join in the war against Mexico
It was there in the pueblos and hillsides
That I saw the mistake I had made
Part of a conquering army
With the morals of a bayonet blade
So in the midst of these poor, dying Catholics
Screaming children, the burning stench of it all
Myself and two hundred Irishmen
Decided to rise to the call
From Dublin City to San Diego
We witnessed freedom denied
So we formed the Saint Patrick Battalion
And we fought on the Mexican side

And here is a song I’ve only read and never seen David perform. But just try reading it and then whining about something as trivial as a particular elected official’s corruption. Try it. It can’t be done. Read this and let’s get to work on saving this world:

When I say the hungry should have food
I speak for many
When I say no one should have seven homes
While some don’t have any
Though I may find myself stranded in some strange place
With naught but a vapid stare
I remember the world and I know
We are everywhere
When I say the time for the rich, it will come
Let me count the ways
Victories or hints of the future
Havana, Caracas, Chiapas, Buenos Aires
How many people are wanting and waiting
And fighting for their share
They hide in their ivory towers
But we are everywhere
Religions and prisons and races
Borders and nations
FBI agents and congressmen
And corporate radio stations
They try to keep us apart, but we find each other
And the rulers are always aware
That they’re a tiny minority
And we are everywhere
With every bomb that they drop, every home they destroy
Every land they invade
Comes a new generation from under the rubble
Saying “we are not afraid”
They will pretend we are few
But with each child that a billion mothers bear
Comes the next demonstration
That we are everywhere

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