Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom: Protest song exhibit at the Woody Guthrie Center

The exhibit showcasing protest songs and the artists that wrote them is opening May 21st, at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It looks to be very well curated exhibition, with handwritten lyrics, instruments from various artists, (including Guthrie), song spotlights of various famous protest songs, some rare performance footage and interviews with artists, and promises an interactive history of protest songs throughout modern American history.

Guthrie was infamously hard on his guitars. He was not an outsider looking into the lives of ordinary hard working Americans, he was one of them, amongst the men and women he saw as his peers. His guitars were the tools of his trade. No wonder he emblazoned them with “this MACHINE kills fascists” – his guitars were his hoe, his railroad spike and his trade. Guthrie slept on floors, and hopped railway cars. He borrowed many of his instruments, allegedly sometimes ruining them so thoroughly they were gifted to him. Though he played Gibson’s and Martin’s, I always think of him with his iconic Gibson L-00 with the dark stained finish and the “This machine kills fascists” sticker. I wonder where that guitar is now! I like to think Arlo Guthrie has it safe somewhere.

The great American protest song has it’s roots in the brutal history of slavery. It is the sound of resilience, of suffering, of overcoming. Dylan covered No More Auction Block For Me, his arrangement of the song debuted at the Gaslight in NYC in 1962. I prefer Odetta’s version, but you cannot deny the power of Dylan, that strange young man, in bringing Civil Rights as an issue that white American young people needed to embrace in order to stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters in their struggle. Here is Odetta, I challenge you not to feel that lump in your throat, those tears in your eyes, the rising rage that this song needed to be sung.

As Dylan sang those words once sung by black soldiers fighting in the civil war as a marching song, with America still struggling under segregation, he began the call to arms for the new generation to stand up for the civil rights of all Americans. Dylan allied himself with the civil rights movement, an act which culminated in his participation in the 1963 March on Washington. Though he ditched his protest song era in favor of being ‘a simple song and dance man,” he had made his impact, he had pinned his colors to the mast and helped raise the consciousness of the 1960s generation who tried to shift the United States into a new era. In retrospect, they mostly failed.

This failure is highlighted by the need for new protest songs. H.E.R. released their song I Can’t Breathe, in July 2020 to protest after the horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In the midst of the BLM protests, the protest song gathered new power, new energy, and found itself relevant once more. The fact that we are still here 160 years after No More Auction Block, that there is still the need to reference Strange Fruit, in 2021, highlights both the toothlessless of the protest song to effect real change and also the glorious steadfastness of those who still need to protest, who still are under the boot of racism, of hatred, of cruelty, of injustice, of justified fear . It provides outlet and a way to set out the manifesto for change. It gives a structure within which people can sing out their pain, and sing it loud, calling out the haters, the suffocaters, the murderers, the racists and the oppressor’s. H.E.R. provided a powerful soundtrack to the struggle, voices unbowed, comfort in calling to arms those of us who choose change.

In the years between No More Auction Block and H.E.R.’s I Can’t Breathe, we have a whole rich tradition, from hero of the boxcars Guthrie, to Pretender On The Road, but genius, Dylan (Dylan never rode the boxcars, but liked to pretend he did. Dig Cynthia Gooding’s interview with Dylan in 1962 on her show Folk Singer’s choice, where Dylan is trying on his Woody persona. It is a gem); from Billie Holliday and the devastating Strange Fruit, to Creedence’s Fortunate Son Vietnam War protest song American history always had the best soundtrack.

This promises to be a fantastic exhibition, and one this is needed more than ever. We need to be reminded of our power as a people who refuse hate, as our power as a country to do the right thing. Perhaps we all need to confront the bad and learn how to make society fairer for all, instead of clinging onto privilege at the expense of the lives of other Americans. Maybe the Protest Song is needed right now, more than ever.

My favorite protest song of recent years was heard on the streets of SF everywhere after America threw out hatred. It is a beautiful, angry, righteous anthem, which is as California as sunshine, freedom, and California Love blasting out of summer warmed windows. It says it all really. I heard it and it uplifted me, empowered me, made me feel like people had my back, that there was a hope me and the Boy can find a place in this country that we both love so much, whose roads and forests provided us shelter from the storm.

Hands in the air…let’s hear it for protest! Black Lives Matter!

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