Music and politics

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The connection between music and politics, particularly political expression in music, has been seen in many cultures. Although music influences political movements and rituals, it is not clear how or even if, general audiences relate music on a political level. Time has shown how music can be used in anti-establishment or protest themes, including anti-war songs, although pro-establishment ideas are also used, for example in national anthems, patriotic songs, and political campaigns. Many of these types of songs could be described as topical songs.

Political music is used to portray a specific political message. Even in the case of overtly political pop acts like U2, the Clash, or Rage Against the Machine, while political message in their music is apparent, it is usually in the political context of the time it was made. This makes understanding the historical events and time that inspired the music essential to fully understanding the message in the music.

Furthermore it is extremely difficult to predict how audiences will respond this kind of music, sounds, or even visual cues. For example, Bleich and Zillmann found that "counter expectations, highly rebellious students did not enjoy defiant rock videos more than did their less rebellious peers, nor did they consume more defiant rock music than did their peers."[1] The difficulty in predicting and understanding an audience is partly due to the fact that there is an extremely diverse range of styles, and structure involved in musical production, and marketing.

Art music[edit]

Beethoven's third symphony was originally called "Bonaparte". In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself emperor, whereupon Beethoven rescinded the dedication. The symphony was renamed "Heroic Symphony composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man".[citation needed]

Verdi's chorus of Hebrew slaves in the opera Nabucco is a kind of rallying-cry for Italians to throw off the yoke of Austrian domination (in the north) and French domination (near Rome)—the "Risorgimento". Following unification, Verdi was awarded a seat in the national parliament.[citation needed]

RAPM (The Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) was formed in the early 1920s. In 1929 Stalin gave them his backing. Shostakovich had dedicated his first symphony to Mikhail Kvardi. In 1929 Kvardi was arrested and executed. In an article in The Worker and the Theatre, Shostakovich's The Tahitit Trot (from the ballet The Golden Age) was criticised. "Can one actually dance to such music", said Ivan Yershov. The article claimed it was part of "ideology harmful to the proletariat"". Shostakovich's response was to write his third symphony, The First of May (1929) to express "the festive mood of peaceful construction".[2][3]

Prokofiev wrote music to order for the Soviet Union, but managed to keep his musical standard high. Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution (1937) is far from banal.[citation needed] Khachaturian's ballet Spartacus (1954/6) concerns gladiator slaves who rebel against their former Roman masters. It was seen as a metaphor for the overthrow of the Czar.[citation needed] Similarly Prokofiev's music for the film Alexander Nevsky concerns the attack of Teutonic knights into the Baltic States. It was seen as a metaphor for the Nazi invasion of the USSR.[citation needed] In general Soviet music was neo-romantic while Fascist music was neo-classical.[citation needed]

"I don't believe anyone venerates Mussolini more than I" said Stravinsky in 1930 to a Rome newspaper.[4] By 1943 Stravinsky was banned in Nazi Germany because he had chosen to live in the USA. Beginning in 1940, Orff's cantata Carmina Burana was performed at Nazi Party functions, and acquired the status of a quasi-official anthem.[5] In 1933 Berlin Radio issued a formal ban on the broadcasting of jazz. However, it was still possible to hear swing music played by German bands. This was because of the moderating influence of Goebbels, who knew the value of entertaining the troops. In the period 1933-45 the music of Mahler, a Jewish Austrian, virtually disappeared from the concert performances of the Berlin Philharmonic.[6]

Richard Strauss's opera Die Schweigsame Frau was banned from 1935–1945 because the librettist, Stefan Zweig, was a Jew.[7] In the Trblinka death camp, new arrivals were presented with a deceptive scene. A ten-piece orchestra played jazz and Jewish folk tunes[8] Shloyme Klezmer stood by the entrance of the gas chambers and played with the orchestra as the bodies were gassed. He saw his son being led in and pulled him out of the line. As SS officer saw this and laughed. Shloyme smashed his violin over the SS officer's head and marched with his only child into the gas chamber.[9]

Contemporary classical music[edit]

Richard Taruskin of the University of California accused John Adams of "romanticizing terrorists" in his opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)[10]

Folk music[edit]

The song "We Shall Overcome" is perhaps the best-known example of political folk music, in this case a rallying-cry for the Civil Rights Movement. Pete Seeger was involved in the popularization of the song, as was Joan Baez.[11] During the early part of 20th century, poor working conditions and class struggles lead to the growth of the Labour movement and numerous songs advocating social and political reform. The most famous songwriter of the early 20th century "Wobblies" was Joe Hill. In the 1940s through the 1960s, The Weavers as well as Woody Guthrie were influential in this type of social and political music. Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is one of the U.S. most famous folk songs and the lyrics describe his sympathetic views of communism.[12] Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", was a popular anti-war protest song.[13] Many of these types of songs became popular during the Vietnam War era. Blowin' in the Wind, by Bob Dylan, was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, and suggested that a younger generation was becoming more aware of global problems than many of the older generation. In 1964, Joan Baez had a top-ten hit in the UK [14] with "There but for Fortune" (by Phil Ochs). It was a plea for the innocent victim of prejudice or inhumane policies.[15] Many topical songwriters with social and political messages emerged from the folk music revival of the 1960s, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, and many others.

Folk music can be considered to be a political invention of traditional authentic songs from the eighteenth century. It is valuable because it suggests to a pre-industrial society that music will affect future generations. However, folk music presents practices within the music itself that reflect a constant rise and fall in tone that is different from the custom way of practicing music. In general, the significance of lyrics within folk music reduced because it became to resemble rock and roll. This gives explanation to why folk music being to consist of one’s opinion causing there to be an increase of persuasion in terms of viewing of the war. [16]

The folk music revival during the Cold War era produced a number of political folk tunes within the United States and elsewhere. The Revival in the United States began in the 1930s after the Great Depression as a response to the new wave of modernization that triggered the post-industrial era.[17] Folk songs of this time gained popularity by using old hymns and songs but adapting the lyrics to fit the current social and political conditions.[18] Artists such as Alan Lomax, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie were crucial in popularizing folk music, and they soon began to be known as the Lomax singers.[19] This began an era of folk music in which artists and their songs expressed clear political messages with the intention of swaying public opinion and recruiting support.[20] An example of this is Lead Belly's "Bourgeois Blues".[21] As the fear of communism began to dominate the United States population and government, it was more difficult for folk artists to travel and perform since folk was pushed out of mainstream music.[22]

The influence of the folk song revival had an enormous impact on war, especially in the early period of war. Countless soldiers, specifically the young were already exposed while attending college. A handful of soldiers brought instruments with them, while others ordered them from the United States or purchased locally. Many of them sang together in Kingston Trio-style trios or quartets that represented the Merrymen, the Blue Stars, the Intruders, the Four Blades. Instruments used to express folk music were the guitar and banjo. The writer’s expression came from real-life experiences that were seen as an authentic method of demonstrated their feelings. Advocators of folk music believe that it is important to understand their own beliefs and actions through discovering and preserving all forms of cultural expressions. In the 1930’s, American folk music was re-evaluated and was shaped into a context that was understood politically and socially which occurred because of the Great Depression.

Nevertheless, folk music began a resurgence in the 1960s as an underground movement.[23] During the revival, folk music became popular mostly with college students since universities provided the organization necessary for sustaining music trends and an impressionable audience looking to rebel against the older generation.[24] It was at this time that folk artists, such as Bob Dylan, began writing their own songs to fit current times, as opposed to only adapting existing folk songs.[25] Nevertheless, the rhetoric of the United States government during the Cold War era was very powerful and in some ways overpowered the message of folk artists, such as in regard to public opinion about communism. Various Gallup Polls that were conducted during this time suggest that Americans consistently saw communism as a threat. For example, a 1954 poll shows that at the time 51% of Americans said that admitted communists should be arrested, and in relation to music 64% of respondents said that if a radio singer is an admitted communist he should be fired.[26]

Folk music was used outside the United States during this time as well. Hungary, for instance, experimented with a form of liberal communism in the late Cold War era, which was reflected in much of their folk music.[27] During the late twentieth century folk music was crucial in Hungary, Romania, and the once existing Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia by allowing ethnicities to express their national identity in a time of political uncertainty and chaos.[28]

There are many ways folk music can be performed. One is able to revise the lyrics, subvocalize or sing aloud which creates an opinion. If one were to sing in first person, they would identify themselves with a narrative or discursive voice that would characterize the narrator with an established political standing.

These folk protest traditions are still being carried on today by many old and new topical songwriters and musicians of all types and varieties. Today's socially conscious musicians not only sing at rallies, demonstrations and on picket lines, but typically have professional web sites and post videos on YouTube and other popular internet sites. Examples of such activist musicians include Ray Korona (environmental, labor, peace, social justice), Charlie King (labor, social justice) and Anne Feeney (labor, protest), among many others. Although these musicians each have their own followings and performance circuits, good sources for finding many of them include the Peoples Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle and the Labor Heritage Foundation.

Blues songs tend to be resigned to fate rather than fighting against misfortune, but there are a few exceptions. Josh White recorded "When Am I going to be Called a Man" in 1936. At this time it was common for white men to address black men as "boy". He also wrote "Silicosis is Killing Me" in 1936. Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit" in 1939. With great sophistication, it draws a comparison between fruit on the trees and the rotting corpses of lynched black men. It also exposed American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans, and was performed as a protest song in New York venues, including MSG. Paul Robeson, singer, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist, was investigated by the FBI and was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for his outspoken political views. The State Department denied Robeson a passport and issued a "stop notice" at all ports, effectively confining him to the United States. In a symbolic act of defiance against the travel ban, labor unions in the U.S. and Canada organized a concert at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia on May 18, 1952.[29] Paul Robeson stood on the back of a flat bed truck on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border and performed a concert for a crowd on the Canadian side, variously estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people. Robeson returned to perform a second concert at the Peace Arch in 1953,[30] and over the next two years two further concerts were scheduled.

Lansdale, a legendary figure was best known as a military historian with unorthodox approaches to receiving information. Most of Lansdale’s career was dedicated to finding the cause of democracy in terms of emerging nations, specifically in the Philippines and Vietnam. He was certain that the government’s best weapon against communist rebellion was the support and trust from the people. He was intrigued by the traditions and customs people created and applied with folklore as a technique of mental awareness. Lansdale’s interest in using folklore as a mental weapon goes back to his days in Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

Lansdale was good at playing the harmonica. In 1965, he started to record songs that had a relation with people that were prominent on the tours that he went on. On a regular occasion, Pham Duty would sing, but there would be other Vietnamese guests, students, military men, and bureaucrats. The songs recorded were from their perspective allowing them to display the long history of war. Being that the tapes were unedited, they held significance. Lansdale was able to receive tapings that were collected during the war from civilians and soldiers. [31]

In Communist China, exclusively national music was promoted. A flautist named Zhao Songtime, a member of the Zhejiang Song-and-Dance Troupe, attended an Arts festival in 1957 in Mexico. He was punished for his international outlook by being expelled from the Troupe. From 1966 to 1970 he underwent "re-education". In 1973 he returned to the Troupe but was expelled again following accusations.[32]

Rock music[edit]

Rock the Vote is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan organization founded in Los Angeles in 1990 by Jeff Ayeroff for the purposes of political advocacy. Rock the Vote works to engage youth in the political process by incorporating the entertainment community and youth culture into its activities.[33] Rock the Vote's stated mission is to "build the political clout and engagement of young people in order to achieve progressive change in our country."[34]

Some rock groups, such as Roger Waters, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Living Colour, Rage Against the Machine, Manic Street Preachers, Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Architects UK, Megadeth, Scars on Broadway, Enter Shikari, and System of a Down have openly political messages in their music.[citation needed]

Detroit, Michigan's MC5 (Motor City 5) came out of the underground rock music scene of the late 1960s, and displayed an aggressive evolution of garage rock which was often fused with sociopolitical and countercultural lyrics of the era, such as in the songs "Motor City Is Burning" (a John Lee Hooker cover adapting the story of the Detroit Race Riot (1943) to the Detroit Insurrection of 1967), and "The American Ruse" (which discusses U.S. police brutality as well as pollution, prison, materialism and rebellion). They had ties to radical leftist organizations such as Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and John Sinclair's White Panther Party (composed of white American socialists seeking to assist African Americans in the fight for racial equality - it was not, as the title may suggest, a white supremacist group). MC5 performed a set before the 1968 Democratic Convention held at International Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois where an infamous riot subsequently broke out between police and students protesting the recent assassination of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Vietnam War. During the counterculture era, acts like John Lennon commonly protested in his music, with latter devoting an entire album to politics and the song Imagine, widely considered to be a peace anthem. Imagine's lyrics talk about "giving peace a chance" and Imagine also deals with imagining a world without countries or religion. 1965, Bob Dylan sang to his fans about the evils of war and the emptiness of consumerism when he released his trade mark album "The Times They are A-Changin'" which became one of his number one albums containing one of his number one songs. This song was articulating the movement of social change and that history will always repeat itself. When he sang the lyrics "Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen and keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again. And don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin." He achieved the attention of the civil rights movement which helped in the transformation of the American political landscape.[citation needed]

Like any other musical artist, Dylan was influenced by other radical groups such as the Wobblies- the popular group of the thirties and forties, the Beat Writers of the fifties, and above all, by the political beliefs of young people during the civil rights movement. In his songs, he included the terror of the nuclear arms race, poverty, racism, prison, jingoism, and war. With his songs, he helped with the political revolution of America in the 1960s.[citation needed]

Racist music[edit]

Racist music or white power music is music associated with and promoting neo-Nazism and white supremacy ideologies.[35] Although musicologists point out that many, if not most early cultures had songs to promote themselves and denigrate any perceived enemies, the origins of Racist music is tied to the early 1970s. By 2001 there were many music genres with 'white power rock' the most commonly represented band type, followed by National Socialist black metal.[36] 'Racist country music' is mainly an American phenomena while Germany, Great Britain, and Sweden have higher concentration of white power bands.[36] Other music genres include 'fascist experimental music' and 'racist folk music'.[36] Contemporary white-supremisist groups include "subcultural factions that are largely organized around the promotion and distribution of racist music."[37] According to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission "racist music is principally derived from the far-right skinhead movement and, through the Internet, this music has become perhaps the most important tool of the international neo-Nazi movement to gain revenue and new recruits."[38][39] The news documentary VH1 News Special: Inside Hate Rock (2002) noted that Racist music (also called 'Hate music' and 'Skinhead rock') is "a breeding ground for home-grown terrorists."[40] In 2004 a neo-Nazi record company launched "Project Schoolyard" to distribute free CDs of the music into the hands of up to 100,000 teenagers throughout the U.S., their website stated, "We just don't entertain racist kids … We create them."[41] Brian Houghton, of the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, said that Racist music was a great recruiting tool, "Through music ... to grab these kids, teach them to be racists and hook them for life."[42]

Country music[edit]

American country music contains numerous images of "traditional" life, family life, religious life, as well as patriotic themes. Songs such as Merle Haggard's "The Fightin' Side of Me", and "Okie from Muskogee" have been perceived as patriotic songs which contain an "us versus them" mentality directed at the counterculture "hippies" and the anti-war crowd, though these were actually misconceptions by listeners who failed to understand their satirical nature.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ alio, nur. "Political Pop, Political Fans?". Music & Politics. 
  2. ^ Shostakovich and Stalin by Solomon Volkov (2004)
  3. ^ Shostakovich Studies (1995) edited by David Fanning
  4. ^ Sachs, Harvey (1988). Music in fascist Italy. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-02563-2. 
  5. ^ The Oxford History of Western Music, vol 4 (2005) by Richard Taruskin
  6. ^ Levi, Erik (1996). Music in the Third Reich. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-12948-3. 
  7. ^ Kater, Michael (1999), The Twisted Muse, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-513242-4 
  8. ^ Music in the Holocaust" (2005) by Shirli Gilbert, page 193
  9. ^ The Book of Klezmer (2002) by Yale Strom, page 140
  10. ^ article in the December 9, 2001, New York Times Arts and Leisure section
  11. ^ Adams, Noah (15 January 1999). "The History of 'We Shall Overcome'". Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  12. ^ Hajdu, David (29 March 2004). "Review: Folk Hero". The New Yorker. Retrieved 13 March 2012. 
  13. ^ PBS. "The Power of Song". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  14. ^ "Favorites in the UK 1965". Retrieved 16 February 2012. 
  15. ^ Unterberger, Richie. "There But for Fortune". Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 16 February 2012. 
  16. ^ James, David (1989). "The Vietnam War and American Music". Social Text: 122–143. Retrieved 27/02/2014. 
  17. ^ Eyerman and Barretta, Ron and Scott. "From the 30s to the 60s: The folk music revival in the United States". Springer. Retrieved 13 March 2012. 
  18. ^ 30s to 60s folk music revival 1996, p. 508
  19. ^ Reuss and Reuss, Richard and Joanne. American Folk Music and Left Wing Politics. 
  20. ^ 30s to 60s folk music revival 1996, p. 502
  21. ^ 30s to 60s folk music revival 1996, p. 512
  22. ^ 30s to 60s folk music revival 1996 p. 520
  23. ^ 30s to 60s folk music revival 1996 p. 521
  24. ^ 30s to 60s folk music revival 1996, p. 522
  25. ^ 30s to 60s folk music revival 1996, p. 528
  26. ^ White, John. "Seeing Red: The Cold War and American Public Opinion". Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  27. ^ Bohlman, Philip (2002). World Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 64–65. 
  28. ^ World Music 2002, p. 65
  29. ^ Duberman, p. 400
  30. ^ Duberman p. 411
  31. ^ Fish, Lydia (1989). "General Edward G. Lansdale and the Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam War". American Folklore 102: 390–411. Retrieved 27/02/2014. 
  32. ^ Folk Music of China (1995) by Stephen Jones, page 55
  33. ^ "Rock the Vote - About Rock the Vote"
  34. ^ "AT&T and Rock the Vote Team Up to Engage Young Voters via Mobile Technology Throughout 2008 Election" December 19, 2007 press release
  35. ^ Intelligence Report: a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Issues 133-136; Southern Poverty Law Center, Klanwatch Project, Southern Poverty Law Center. Militia Task Force, Publisher Klanwatch, 2009.
  36. ^ a b c Dominic J. Pulera, Sharing the Dream: White Males in a Multicultural America, pages 309-311.
  37. ^ Barbara Perry, Hate Crimes, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 0-275-99569-0, ISBN 978-0-275-99569-0, 2009, pages 51-2.
  38. ^ "Racist Music: Publication, Merchandising and Recruitment", Cyber racism, Race Discrimination Unit, HREOC, October 2002.
  39. ^ Anne Rooney, Race Hate, Evans Brothers, 2006, ISBN 0-237-52717-0, ISBN 978-0-237-52717-4, page 29.
  40. ^ David Bianculli, Vh1 Special Goes Behind The (racist) Music, New York Daily News, February 18, 2002.
  41. ^ Abraham Foxman, "Hate Music: New Recruitment Tool for White Supremacists",, December 17, 2004.
  42. ^ "Record Label Targets Teens With Hate Message: Sampler CD Of White Power Music Circulating In Numerous U.S. Schools", Ohio/Oklahoma Hearst Television Inc. on behalf of KOCO-TV, December 1, 2004.
  43. ^ Malone, Bill, "Country Music U.S.A," 2nd rev. ed. (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002), p.371.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Courtney (2008), Politics In Music: Music and Political Transformation from Beethoven to Hip Hop, Atlanta: Farsight Press, ISBN 978-0-9766762-3-2 
  • Fanning, David (2006). Shostakovich studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-02831-0. 
  • Karakayali, Nedim (September 5, 2010). "Two Assemblages of Cultural Transmission: Musicians, Political Actors and Educational Techniques in the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe". Journal of Historical Sociology 23 (3): 343–371. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6443.2010.01377.x. 
  • Keller, Marcello Sorce (April 2007). "Why is Music So Ideological, and Why Do Totalitarian States Take It So Seriously? A Personal View from History and the Social Sciences". Journal of Musicological Research 26 (2-3): 91–122. doi:10.1080/01411890701361086. 
  • Jameux, Dominique (1991). Pierre Boulez. Cambridge, Massachusetts|: Harvard University Press. p. 142. ISBN 0-674-66740-9.  translated by Susan Bradshaw.
  • Moldenhauer, Hans; Rosaleen Moldenhauer (1978). Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 
  • Pace, Ian (Fall 2006/Spring 2007), ""The Best Form of Government...": Cage's Laissez-Faire Anarchism and Capitalism", Open Space Magazine (8/9): 91–115 
  • Schönberg, Arnold (1975). Leonard Stein, ed. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. London: Faber & Faber. pp. 505–506.  translated Leo Black
  • Seeger, Pete (1985). Carry It On!: A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-60347-7. 
  • Strom, Yale (2002). The Book of Klezmer: the History, the Music, the Folklore. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. ISBN 1-55652-445-5. 
  • Volkov, Solomon (2004). Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator. New York: H. Holt. ISBN 0-375-41082-1. 
  • Walsh, Stephen (1999), Stravinsky: a Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934, London: Pimlico, ISBN 0-520-22749-2 
  • Whiteley, Sheila (2012). Countercultures: Music, Theories & Scenes. Volume!, n°9-1, Nantes, Éditions Mélanie Seteun. 
  • Whiteley, Sheila (2012). Countercultures: Utopias, Dystopias, Anarchy. Volume!, n°9-1�2, Nantes, Éditions Mélanie Seteun. 

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