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Alumni Seminar Explores Songs of American Protest

American protest songs of the Vietnam era and later drew a large group of alumni to Zoom on Thursday for a session of listening, questioning, and discussion.

The seminar discussion was led by Toy Savage '71, Middle School History Teacher, with Upper School Math Teacher Tom Duquette providing a voluminous list of protest songs to explore. This seminar, part of a series organized by Mr. Duquette, followed one focused on James Baldwin's essay, “My Dungeon Shook" from The Fire Next Time, which featured a reading accompanied by an interpretive dance by Mr. Elbert Watson. In addition to alumni from a wide range of classes, the event drew some current faculty members and two long-serving faculty members, now retired, Dr. John Noffsinger and Mr. Kevin Sims.

Mr. Savage kicked off discussion on Thursday with a tough question: Does protest music work? Does it accomplish its stated goals to spur change?

The selections investigated over the course of the night included Vietnam protest classics like “Blowing in the Wind" by Bob Dylan and “counter-protest" songs like “Okie from Muskogee" by Merle Haggard, with its blunt opening lines, “We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ We don't take our trips on LSD/ We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street." The group also listened to songs reflecting the current Black Lives Matter protests, such as “I Can't Breathe," the 2020 hit by H.E.R. (the persona of Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson).

Over the course of the discussion, the group listened to portions of songs, studied lyrics, and offered opinions. One of the most intense discussions came in response to Bruce Hornsby's  hit from 1986, “The Way It Is," and its seemingly contradictory refrain:

That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
That's just the way it is
Ah, but don't you believe them

Following that, the group explored the impact of Tupac Shakur's 1998 song, “Changes," which samples from Hornsby's song to comment on racism in the United States, including lines like, “I see no changes, all I see is racist faces / Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races."

The form of protest music in the 1960s reflected a rejection of Frank Sinatra and even the Beatles, Mr. Savage said, and the form chosen by the writers of the protest music would have been off-putting to those who were in the political opposition. So, he noted, both the lyrics and the forms would have been unappealing to the political opposition.

Again, Mr. Savage asked the group, “Does that work?" Sarah Werner '16, one of the participants, noted that some songs get more play in the media than others, and that is a factor in whether it can be effective.

Songs get a message across through two vectors--the music and lyrics, observed Griffin Bealle, husband of Emmy Ill Bealle. A successful protest song could be one that wrap a pretty tough message in music that is appealing, so that people absorb the message.

After thanking alumni for coming, Mr. Savage called on Mr. Duquette to play the exit song, “We, Americans," by the Avett Brothers, with an evocative and haunting music video. 


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