“This is all because of Joe McCarthy.” John McCutcheon, folk musician and songwriter extraordinaire, was on the stage at Proctors Sunday night. He was talking about the network of folk venues and series like our own Eighth Step, which is now housed at Proctors, and which was hosting a release concert for Rise Again, the sequel songbook to Rise Up Singing, the venerable 1200-song, tiny-print, words-and-chords only songbook that has enabled thousands of groups of people to sing together over the past 25 years.
My nine year old elbowed me. “Who’s Joe McCarthy?” Oh boy.
“Tell you later,” I said. Then I did a quick mental calculation: communism vs. capitalism, Soviet communism vs. its other manifestations, democracy vs. dictatorship, Cold War, paranoia, witch hunts, the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even with the available analogies from Harry Potter and the fact that’s she’s studying Cuba in school, I decided this wasn’t going to be an intermission question either. “In the car,” I added.
McCutcheon’s point was that when Pete Seeger was blacklisted, his wife Toshi started calling around all over the country to universities and churches and other places that would host him anyway, laying much of the ground work for what we now think of as the folk music “scene.”
It’s a classic silver-lining story, one that does not in any way outweigh the bad thing that happened, but reminds us of how people survived and made good things in the face of it. I had that feeling that I do periodically that it’s important to remember the past not only so that we don’t idealize it, downplay the awful stuff, or repeat the mistakes, but also for some perspective. Things do change—not always for the better, and some things not nearly as fast they should. But we are not the first generation to feel besieged by challenges and outrages. It doesn’t sound all that deep to say that, because it isn’t. My point being that sometimes to remember that, you have to experience it in a different way—song, novel, film.
Bonus points for something you do collectively. It is possible that my dream brain may have mixed a bunch of these conversations and past and present issues together and served me up a dream that night of the FBI coming to my house to search for smuggled goods we were hiding somehow in service of helping Syrian refugees, but more importantly, after that concert I have also spent the week with songs of protest—and also songs of love and grief and joy—rattling around in my head even more than usual.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that with my pub/sea chantey singing habit, I sing in large groups more than the average American, but it was still special to sing this wider range of songs with an entire theater full of people. And it seemed really special somehow to have the mix of songs represented in the book there in the room. Rise Again, while it does not strive for any kind of fake “balance” or neutrality when it comes to politics, and like Rise Up Singing has chapters with titles like “Peace,” “Struggle,” “Rich & Poor,” is not intended as a protest hymnal. It is intended first and foremost to encourage people to gather and sing together.
And one really good way to do that is to include a lot of songs that people know and love and could sing together but might not quite have all the words to right at the tips of their tongues. That means this “folk” songbook also has rock songs, Motown, blues, country, gospel, and Broadway. There’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the Indigo Girls’ “Galileo” (which I will say I have sung around quite a lot of campfires), They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” Heaven help us all, they included “Let It Go” (as well they should have, I suppose).
And so at the concert we had stirring and inspiring social justice anthems from the performers Emma’s Revolution, Kim & Reggie Harris, and McCutcheon, but we also got to join in with all of them, and Rise Again’s editors Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, on “Under the Boardwalk” and “I’m a Believer.” There’s no great meaning to that except the energy it created, the smiles, the sense of connection.
I hope that in a world with unlimited customizable channels there will still be some songs that some large percentage of my children’s generation will break into a grin over and want to hop in and sing along. It just might break the ice enough for a discussion of economic systems, history, democracy, paranoia, struggle, and hope.
(This column originally appeared in Metroland, the New York Capital Region’s alt-weekly, on Oct. 8, 2015.)