When Macklemore's Same Love started getting a lot of play on the airwaves, a blogger I follow tweeted that politics don't belong in music. To be honest, I think she just disagreed with the message of the song; she might not have been so against it if the lyrics had matched her beliefs and so there was no point in arguing with her. But I responded to her tweet anyway because one of the things I've always loved about music is how it reflects the culture of its time and, at best, provides provocative social commentary. From William Byrd, a prolific composer who tread a delicate balance in his work between the conflicting theologies and musical styles of Catholicism and Protestantism in 16th century England, to popular songs of the Depression like "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" and much of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which includes lyrics of anger, desperation, and hope from the 1920s and '30s, social and political issues have always had a voice in music.
This topic is especially dear to my heart as my family has long taken an active interest in liberal politics and their related social and cultural movements. My paternal grandparents were very active in left-wing causes of the 1950s and '60s, inspiring passion that still drives my father today, and my mother came down to Washington with her parents to protest against the Vietnam War in one of the earliest marches. My sister and I were raised on the musicians of those crusades - The Weavers, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger - and we both have fond memories of being sung to sleep with "Blowin' in the Wind" as children, Mom sitting on the floor between our twin beds in the room we shared and holding our hands as we drifted off.
As I'm sure you've seen by now, Pete Seeger died yesterday. When I read his obituary, I remembered visiting Grandma in the hospital in January 2012, a few months before she passed away. She was very sick and mostly unresponsive, and the only time I saw her engage consciously and coherently with her family and the hospital staff was when a man with a guitar came by. He was part of a music therapy program and he sat with us for half an hour, singing Grandma's favorite union songs as my father requested them one after another. Dad and Aunt Emily and I sang along, too, and Grandma was more alert than she'd been before; she even hummed and mumbled along to "If I Had A Hammer," so much more comfortable surrounded by the music she loved. I flew back to London very soon after that visit and didn't see her again but, despite the pain of her decline, I treasure the memory of having enjoyed those songs together near the end.
"For Mr. Seeger," the New York Times writes, "folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action. [...] 'My job,' Pete Seeger said in 2009, 'is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.'" I can't of a better reason to make music political, can you?