NEW YORK — The sound of insistent drumming bounces off the sides of nearby office towers announcing the location of the Occupy Wall Street home base long before its inhabitants are otherwise seen or heard.
Turn a corner in Zuccotti Park and you’re likely to run into a drum circle or find someone strumming a guitar. Maybe it’s an amateur trying to keep spirits up, or it could be the real deal — recording artists such as David Crosby and Graham Nash.
Music and musicians are woven into the fabric of the Occupy Wall Street protest, much as they were in movements, confrontations and protests of the past, from the American Revolution to slavery to the Civil War, women’s suffrage movement, labour movement, civil rights movement and Vietnam War. But no defining anthem such as “We Shall Overcome” or “Which Side Are You On” has yet emerged for the protesters who have taken on corporate America.
“Every successful progressive social movement has a great soundtrack. The soundtrack (for Occupy Wall Street) is just as democratic and grass roots as the movement,” said singer Tom Morello, who was given an MTV online music award for his performance of “The Fabled City” at Zuccotti Park last month. A clip of the performance has spread widely online.
Morello, who performs solo as The Nightwatchman and was a member of Rage Against the Machine, has also brought his guitar and sung at Occupy demonstrations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Nottingham and Newcastle, England. Just before midnight Wednesday, he performed near a darkened kitchen area at a demonstration in London.
He has also volunteered to contribute to an album of protest songs that Occupy Wall Street is putting together as a fundraiser this winter.
If Occupy Wall Street has no anthem yet, it’s partly due to how a new generation experiences music: through personalized iPod playlists streaming through headphones instead of communal singalongs.
True to a movement that claims to speak for the 99 per cent of Americans who aren’t super-rich, Occupy Wall Street embraces many forms of expression. Musicians across several generations and styles have given their support.
“The more the merrier as long as you’re going to bring in positive vibrations for the movement,” said Kanaska Carter, a singer-songwriter who travelled from her home in Canada to camp out at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan near Wall Street. She helped arrange Morello’s appearance and is shown in the video clip of his performance, standing near him holding a guitar.
Crosby and Nash’s manager sent an email to Occupy Wall Street’s website asking if the musicians could perform. Crosby quietly came a few days earlier to check out the scene, worried that cold weather would make it difficult for him to play guitar, said Beth Bogart, who helped show him around. The day of their visit was warm, however. Because police don’t allow amplification, the performance was decidedly old school. The audience on Tuesday heard only as far as the singers’ voices could project.
Bogart couldn’t hear Crosby and Nash, but “you could just see the energy,” she said. “When the whole audience started singing you could see their spirit lifted. It really was a good vibe.”
Among the first New York performers was Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, an indie rock cult favourite who played a long set. Rapper Talib Kweli performed and so did Michael Franti. A 92-year-old Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, veterans of the labour, peace and civil rights movements, sang “We Shall Overcome.” Sean Lennon and Rufus Wainwright offered an irony-drenched version of Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
Folk singer Joan Baez, whose protest songs inspired the anti-Vietnam War movement in the ‘60s, serenaded the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti on Friday, the Veterans Day holiday.
Kanye West and Katy Perry walked through Zuccotti, but didn’t perform.
Then there are those drums, beaten steadily by about a dozen people who call themselves Pulse. Police and protesters have limited the hours of drumming to help neighbours work and occupiers sleep.
An Internet-connected, do-it-yourself culture allows people beyond those at Occupy demonstrations to join in. They can write their own songs and spread them on Twitter or YouTube. The band Atari Teenage Riot has made a new video for its song “Black Flag” that includes clips from Occupy demonstrations sent in by fans, said Shannon Connolly, vice-president for digital music strategies at MTV. While she’s staying in Zuccotti Park, Carter has written movement-inspired songs “Stand Up to Wall Street” and “Game of Chess” that she’s put on her websites.
“The movement is not waiting for superstars to grace it with their presence,” Morello said. “It’s not waiting for a Diane Warren-penned anthem featuring Rihanna and Drake.”
Occupy Wall Street’s nature as a sometimes unfocused expression of dissatisfaction plays into the diversity, too, said Amy Wlodarski, a music professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
“There’s no centralized musical figure because there isn’t a coherent value that is going to be communally expressed in song,” she said.
Yet from the earliest days of America, music has been a cornerstone of protests and conflicts and movements. Music provided a voice for the disenfranchised and stirred people to fight injustice. The Revolutionary War produced “The Liberty Song.” ”Follow the Drinking Gourd,“ with its escape directions for fleeing slaves, was the anthem of the underground railroad that took the fugitives to freedom in Canada, while ”Battle Hymn of the Republic“ gave support to anti-secession Union soldiers from the Northern states during the Civil War. Women fighting for the right to vote in the early 1900s had the ”Suffrage Song.“ There was even a protest song about lynching, the jazz-infused ”Strange Fruit,“ sung by Billie Holiday.
The labour and peace movements created some of the more enduring music, with such artists as Woody Guthrie, Seeger and Bob Dylan. “We Shall Overcome” was born during a strike in 1945. Based on an early 20th century gospel song, it became the anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Meanwhile, anti-war sentiments flared in such songs as “All Along the Watchtower,” ”Blowin’ in the Wind,“ ”Give Peace a Chance“ and ”What’s Going On?“
Socially conscious music never went away. Such artists as Bruce Springsteen, OutKast and Bonnie Raitt continue to take on injustice. Others also give voice to social issues from the economy to anti-war to the environment to abuse. “We Are the World” galvanized anti-hunger efforts. Rappers such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. offered messages from the streets. Steve Earle puts a string of progressive causes to music and Neil Young recorded a disc of opposition to the Iraq War.
The more current protest music is not noticed as much as the music of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s because music is increasingly a more individualized experience. People rarely gather at each other’s homes and pump up the volume on their stereos for a shared listen of a hot album. Instead, friends might burn a CD for a buddy or share a download of a tune.
But if Occupy Wall Street needs a song to call its own, Texas songwriter James McMurtry’s seething “We Can’t Make it Here,” written in 2004, is a virtual blueprint for the movement. It tumbles with images about damage done to the country through corporate greed and political neglect. McMurtry knew he had something the first time he played a version of the song, then unreleased, during a visit to an Austin radio station.
“I had some really nasty emails on my website before I had even gotten home,” he said.
Hopeful that things might change, McMurtry stopped performing what is probably his best-known song when Barack Obama was elected. He has since started playing it again. McMurtry said he’s going to make “We Can’t Make it Here” available for free on his website in a gesture of solidarity, and is encouraging fans to make their own videos to accompany it.
“I’d be glad to let them use that song,” he said. “Whatever helps.”
Morello, who has done what amounts to a tour of Occupy demonstration sites, considers it his job as a musician to “keep steel in the backbone and wind in the sails of people who are standing up for economic justice.”
“I’ve been down there a couple of times,” said MTV’s Connolly. “There’s always music. It’s sort of a thread that runs through it.”