In 1930, British law forbade Indian industries and individuals from making salt. The reason this curious law existed amounted to simple trade monopolism. English salt makers wanted to control the right to supply all the needs of the huge Indian subcontinent with an essential staple. In this era in which "free trade" gets bad press universally, one might remember as well that sometimes regulated trade produces incredibly oppressive results for ordinary folks. As with so many things, it's not the catchphrase or the monicker that counts, but the totality of the situation.
Mohandas Gandhi's Salt March entered the collective consciousness as a high water mark in non-violent resistance to oppression. The gesture featured both a simplicity of concept and a genius for metaphor. First, Gandhi wrote to the British Viceroy for India. He pointed out that the salt laws served to most oppress the poorest Indians, who had to pay the English monopoly for a staple they could make themselves much more cheaply. The British government levied a salt tax which Ganhi sought to eradicate. He advised that he would engage in civil disobedience if the law were not changed. The Viceroy wrote back promptly and politely that Gandhi would be violating the law. Gandhi said "I asked for bread, and he gave me a stone". The Salt March resulted.
Gandhi walked 380 kilometers from his ashram to Dandi, on the ocean. Along the way, he passed through numerous villages. Along the way, villagers joined his march. Soon many thousands were marching along. They sang Hindu hymns as they walked.
When they arrived in Dandi, at the location of a salt works, Gandhi made a small quantity of salt from the ocean water. The authorities arrested him. Some 92,000 people who joined his march also faced arrest. Numerous people seeking to non-violently take over the salt works were beaten by officers, but did not resist.
The Salt March provided a picturesque and powerful dissent from injustice. In its day, its force became recognized--Time Magazine named Gandhi its 1930 Man of the Year. But the British "raj" did not end as a result of the Salt March. Talks in London about reforms proved entirely inconclusive. Independence lay seventeen years away. But I think about the image of tens of thousands of people, marching against oppression, singing hymns about God.
Woody Guthrie wrote of travelling overseas during the World War Two era. Turned away from landing in north Africa by what he termed fascist authorities, he made his way ashore a bit more obscurely. He described, though, finding music among the people who lived in the margins:
"We walked around to several of the most pitiful Arab Villages that I have ever seen. We saw whole swarms of people race out of their rock and mud huts to fight like cats and dogs over a hunk of soap, and then to run away again when the soap was torn into a hundred pieces. We heard these people pound on their native skin drums and sing some of the saddest and prettiest music that I have ever heard anywhere".
Mr. Guthrie himself spent his life bringing his own songs to people he considered disenfranchised. He grew up in small town Oklahoma, but found himself in Los Angeles, hosting a popular radio show of "hillbilly" songs. He sent his listeners a songbook, which contained the following "copyright notice":
"This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."
Sometimes folk music gets "calcified" into a history lesson or a twee tale over tea. This results in the notion that the only purpose of the folk musician is presevationist. But I posit that folk music can be played on a theremin, or an electric football field. People debate "what is folk music?" with an avidity that only the related question "what is outsider music?" can exceed. I like what Mark Moss, the editor of Sing Out! magazine (which has shared folk song lyrics for decades) said: "our community vehemently refuses to take responsibility for defining folk music". Of course, in some circles, folk is now a "genre" of denim and certain forms of political sentiment and an affection for quaint instruments.
I'm not interested in defining genres, as this seems to me a job for A & R departments or people who set up the categories on eBay. I'm intrigued by the way in which music is an integral part of social activism and of real community.
"We Shall Overcome" is a song that striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina, sung in 1945. It ultimately became a kind of "theme song" for the 1960s civil rights movement. The civil rights movement had an inherently musical soundtrack. In 1963, the March on Washington required some $ 125,000 to organize. Musicians stepped up to assist in raising the funds. A concert in Harlem's Apollo Theater featured many donated musical performances, including among hte performers William "Cozy" Cole, Herbie Mann, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Thelonious Monk, Carmen McRae, and Billy Eckstine. During the march, Joan Baez opened the musical portion of the program with "Oh Freedom" and "We Shall Overcome". Contralto Marian Anderson sang "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands".
Just before Martin Luther King spoke, Mahalia Jackson sang "I've been 'buked and I've been Scorned". This spiritual has the simple lines:
"I’ve been ‘buked an’ I’ve been scorned, children
I’ve been ‘buked an’ I’ve been scorned
I’ve been talked about, sho’s you’re born
Dere is trouble all over dis world
Children, dere is trouble all over dis world
Ain’t gwine to lay my ‘ligion down
Children, ain’t gwine to lay my ‘ligion down
Dr. King's famous speech from April 1963 itself evoked yet another spiritual:
"When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
The songs and speeches at the March on Washington did not end racial hatred in this country. One symbol of the ongoing problem manifested two weeks later, in Birmingham, Alabama. An explosion ripped into a Baptist church filled with African-American kids celebrating Youth Day. The morning lesson at the Sunday School was "The Love that Forgives". The blast killed four children and injured twenty one others. The law failed to secure a conviction for this murder until 1977.
I believe, though, that music of social action, as well as simple fun music of community, is like salt. It's a staple. It's possible to really miss it, when you don't have it in your life. It's worth marching over, and worth singing while one marches for change. It's also worth sitting at home and just doing.
I get wary of the labels like "activist singers". My wariness comes from two opposing places. On the one hand, the term "activist" is a way for the mainstream to marginalize people who take a stand or speak out. On the other hand, some people self-pigeon-hole themselves into comforting "activist" roles, which permits one to stridently insist that one is a "force for good" and not try to sort out which compromises in life are workable and which are abhorrent.
I also respect music for music's sake, and, for that matter, sound for sound's sake. I listen to and admire people who take music places it rarely goes, just for the sheer fun of doing so. I don't think that everything has to have a "message". Sometimes things can just be, and that's good.
But this morning it seems to me that my life ought to have some soundtracking. A flurry of real songs. Some lyrics of genuine concern. A little harmony.
I don't think I'm going to get there by singing "This Land is Your Land", though that may well be a start. Maybe, though, I've got a little sing in me. I'm going to start humming a bit, and see if any tunes begin to come. I don't want to lay my religion down.