Aspen Ideas arts: Joe Henry and protest music, Sing For Hope and Street Symphony, DJ Spooky in Antarctica
When the music and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte overheard singer-songwriter Joe Henry say he didn’t want to write a particularly topical and political song, Belafonte blasted Henry for his cowardice.
“He challenged me,” Henry recalled Friday evening at an Aspen Ideas Festival panel on protest music.
The song, Henry recalled, had been about the conflation of patriotism and nationalism after 9/11 and he was intimidated by the hot topic. Belafonte — at a crowded dinner table — cursed out Henry and told him to write it.
“I don’t (care) what you mean to say,” Henry recalled Belafonte telling him. “It’s what your song means to say that I care about. If you’re tamping it down, I think you’re doing that because you don’t think it looks cool on you. And it’s too late in the game, my brother, for you to worry about whether you look cool.”
Henry shared the story on the tail end of a discussion with Yale professor Daphne Brooks and rock critic Greil Marcus. It was moderated by NPR Music’s Ann Powers.
Each of them selected one historic protest song and one new one, formulating a group playlist they shared and discussed throughout the event in the ballroom of the St. Regis resort.
Marcus opened with “It Isn’t Nice” by Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, a subversive doo-wop ditty inspired by car dealerships’ refusal to hire black salesmen in 1966 and written by Malvina Reynolds. He recalled hearing it on the radio recently and being shocked by its direct and enduring message about civil disobedience and its sugary sonic package. The song opens “It isn’t nice to block the doorway / It isn’t nice to go to jail / There are nicer ways to do it / But the nice ways always fail.”
“Hearing that song so many years later and having it be an explosion into the present,” Marcus said. “That is a great protest song, when it sloughs off its time.”
(Marcus called Reynolds’ best-known protest song “Little Boxes” “the most condescending protest song in history.”)
Henry picked Gil Scott-Heron’s bombastic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as his historic song, saying “it feels very alive to me now.”
While the Scott-Heron song is very specific to its Nixon era moment — name-dropping John Mitchell and Spiro Agnew, among others — Henry argued that it retains its power and potency today. Most of the time, he argued, that’s not the case. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing,” for example, transcends generations, while his more specific “Who Shot Davey Moore” stays in 1963.
“Sometimes specificity is not the friend of a protest song as it ages,” Henry said.
Some of the most immortal protest songs, Brooks suggested, don’t overtly protest anything in their lyrics. She played with the Negro spiritual “Steal Away” as an example.
“Depending on who is the singer, any song can be a protest song,” she said, later adding: “Negro spirituals were about self-making. They were about claiming one’s humanity.”
Powers, in response, deviated from her planned playlist and shared a Diana Ross cover of the children’s song “When We Grow Up,” which she described as another example of “singing yourself into being.”
The panel’s contemporary song choices included Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which became the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement and Algiers’ “Cleveland,” which ends with a roll call of names of black people killed by police in recent years, along with Beyonce’s cover of Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Whatcha Wanna” from Coachella.
On the question of whether protest music has a future — in an increasingly visual and video-based culture — Henry argued that it certainly does, because music is inextricable from community, and communities need to protest.
“Funerals and weddings and everything in between — if there is something of drama or trauma or both impacting a community, song is involved,” he said.
Members of the Ideas Fest audience were surprised that no Vietnam era songs made the panelists’ playlist. Marcus surprised two questioners from the crowd on the topic, when he argued that Vietnam protest songs like “Ohio” and “For What It’s Worth” were inadequate for the topic.
“In my experience, the entire Vietnam era was so increasingly ugly and horrible that music didn’t quite reach it, didn’t’ rise to it in the way that many songs inspired by, or addressed to, or part of the atmosphere of, the civil rights era were able to do,” he said.
The protest music panel stood among a robust slate of arts- and music-related events at the 2018 Ideas Fest, which included a 15-event festival track titled “The Art of Justice” and the 10-event track “Moved By Music.” Other highlights:
‘MAKING ART RADICALLY ACCESSIBLE’
Two world-class musicians and exemplars of the “citizen artist” ideal often espoused through the Aspen Institute’s arts program came together Thursday morning for a panel about how they’re trying to change the world through their work and by “making art radically accessible,” as the renowned soprano Camille Zamora put it.
Zamora is the founder of Sing for Hope, a nonprofit that places 88 colorfully painted pianos on the streets of New York City every summer, to encourage community and conversation around making music from Coney Island to the South Bronx.
Vijay Gupta, first violinist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, brings his Street Symphony project to Skid Row in Los Angeles, performing works by Vivaldi and Schumann alongside residents fighting their way out of homelessness and addiction.
“It’s the role of the artist to be a bridge,” Gupta said. “We are a cultural broker, we are a communicator across spaces. I spend most of my mornings and evenings onstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But most of my afternoons I am in Skid Row or one of the five L.A. county jails. That is exactly the job of the citizen artist.”
Zamora said her mission as an artist changed on 9/11, when she was a student at Juilliard. She and fellow students went to a firehouse adjacent to campus, she recalled, from which 11 firefighters had died in the attacks. They sang for the surviving firefighters, she said, which allowed them to cry and to open up about their loss.
“It connected me, for the first time in my musical education, to the fact that we actually could provide solutions,” she said. “Citizen artistry is about art for all, and it’s about using art’s power to transform institutions, individuals, our world.”
The session ended with Gupta leading a performance of a Schumann string quartet and Zamora leading a sing-along of “America the Beautiful.”
With the help of three strings players, DJ Spooky brought the music of climate change to the stage at Paepcke Auditorium on Thursday afternoon. The artist, activist, composer and producer recently traveled to Antarctica and recorded the sounds of melting polar ice and moving glaciers. Through his unique, data-driven composition methods — what he called “algorithmic transcription” — he transformed those sounds into a piece of string music and then remixed that into electronic music.
“Electronic music is the mirror we hold up to society today,” he told the Ideas Festival crowd. “The arts are the most powerful tool we have.”
Embedding a message about climate change into a piece of electronic music, he said, is a powerful way to cut through the noise on the issue.
“Art is the antenna that tells you things — the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “There are so many accumulations of things that the arts can help us express, especially in our time of information overload.”
‘THE GENIUS OF SOUL’
The best idea at Ideas Fest, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik argued Friday afternoon, came out of Kirk Whalum’s saxophone.
Whalum — the man behind perhaps the most heard sax solo in pop music history, on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” — opened this Ideas Fest panel on soul music by walking through the crowd to the stage at the Greenwald Pavilion while riffing on his instrument.
“Of all the things you have heard and I have heard over the last few days, however articulate and lucid they may have been, nothing approaches in lucidity and meaning what Kirk just played for us,” Gopnik said.
The panel that followed included a wide-ranging discussion of American music, the soul tradition and its political and cultural influence, with insight and performances from Whalum, vocalists Clint Holmes and Kyla Jade and the 10-time Grammy-winning a capella group Take 6.
Claude McKnight of Take 6 urged musicians to lead the way on breaking down political divides in the U.S. in the same way soul musicians led on de-segregation.
“The genre-fication of music puts limitations on musicians, just like it does in life,” McKnight said. “That’s the way they sell music now — you have to stay in your lane just as they try to do politically. Our job as artists is to push those limits and say, ‘It could be more. It should be more.’”
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