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FROM READERS: Where have all the folk singers gone?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Steve Swope is currently the pastor at Columbia United Church of Christ. He wrote this article for ColumbiaFAVS, where he is a regular contributor.

A few weeks ago, ColumbiaFAVS blogger Carl Kenney reflected on the influence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., particularly on his own call to ministry and sense of social justice. 

A few weeks ago, FAVS blogger Carl Kenney reflected on the influence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., particularly on his own call to ministry and sense of social justice. - See more at: http://columbiafavs.com/2014/02/05/folk-singers-gone/#sthash.Hxkzf5lz.dpuf
A few weeks ago, FAVS blogger Carl Kenney reflected on the influence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., particularly on his own call to ministry and sense of social justice. - See more at: http://columbiafavs.com/2014/02/05/folk-singers-gone/#sthash.Hxkzf5lz.dp
A few weeks ago, FAVS blogger Carl Kenney reflected on the influence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., particularly on his own call to ministry and sense of social justice. - See more at: http://columbiafavs.com/2014/02/05/folk-singers-gone/#sthash.Hxkzf5lz.dpuf

Privately, I sympathized with Kenney’s longing for continued attention to social justice and his search for partners in effective action. Like him, King’s vision influenced me not just socially, but religiously. Yet I sensed Kenney was really seeking support from the African-American community and its leaders, and not the affirmation of a comfortable and potentially paternalistic white man.

Then, I awoke on Jan. 27 to the news that folk singer and activist Pete Seeger had died. Songs immediately began running through my mind: “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, “This Land Is Your Land” and “Guantanamera.”

The songs brought back memories of former days when the challenge to injustice seemed powerful, and suggested a comparison with today similar to Kenney’s. If he asks where the black pastors are, I wonder about white activists.

Where are the folk singers and fellow marchers?

Oh, a few are still stirring the waters, but mostly they seem like aging ex-hippies trying to hold onto a bit of faded glory. They certainly don’t have the following they used to – even the Occupy movement has largely faded from view.

Perhaps part of the problem is due to what Tom Lehrer satirically noted in his 1965 song “The Folk Song Army”: “If you feel dissatisfaction, strum your frustrations away. Some people may prefer action, but give me a folk song any old day.”

Folk singers – even those as committed as Seeger – can seem to be resting on others’ sacrifices. But seemingly innocuous songs can deliver subtle messages and spark a transformative reflection, even in those disinclined to engage in social change.

Catchy newer folk songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and historic spirituals from a distant era like “Oh, Freedom!” steal into the mind, engage the emotions and can initiate a personal reassessment of issues, especially when they’re coupled to current events.

When I was in junior high and high school, it seemed like every other person was learning to play the guitar, and every gathering of young people eventually turned into a sing-along.

The song list involved some personal choice (and the familiarity of the guitarist), but sooner or later some staples appeared, and the folk songs and spirituals that accompanied the civil-rights demonstrators were prominent.

“If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – these and others were recorded by their composers and covered by numerous others, each new version adding to the psychic and social influence.

So what’s happened? Why didn’t the momentum continue? When have we seen a movement of similar power and effect since then?

1984’s Band Aid and other musical projects for charity have had short lifespans and only momentary influence. Artists of conscience like U2’s Bono haven’t seemed to inspire wider support.

I don’t have answers right now, but our country continues to struggle with persistent poverty, subtle but still powerful prejudices, and deep political divisions. Maybe it’s time for a good folk song, to remind us of who we can become.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

Folk singers – even those as committed as Seeger – can seem to be resting on others’ sacrifices. But seemingly innocuous songs can deliver subtle messages and spark transformative reflection, even in those disinclined to engage in social change.

Catchy newer folk songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and historic spirituals from a distant era like “Oh, Freedom” steal into the mind, engage the emotions, and can initiate a personal reassessment of issues, especially when they’re coupled to current events.

When I was in junior high and high school, it seemed like every other person was learning to play the guitar, and every gathering of young people eventually turned into a sing-along.

The song list involved some personal choice (and the familiarity of the guitarist), but sooner or later some staples appeared, and the folk songs and spirituals that accompanied the civil-rights demonstrators were prominent.

“If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – these and others were recorded by their composers and covered by numerous others, each new version adding to the psychic and social influence.

So what’s happened?  Why didn’t the momentum continue?  When have we seen a movement of similar power and effect since then?

1984’s Band Aid and other musical projects for charity have had short lifespans and only momentary influence. Artists of conscience like U2’s Bono haven’t seemed to inspire wider support.

I don’t have answers right now, but our country continues to struggle with persistent poverty, subtle but still powerful prejudices, and deep political divisions.  Maybe it’s time for a good folk song, to remind us of who we can become.

- See more at: http://columbiafavs.com/2014/02/05/folk-singers-gone/#sthash.Hxkzf5lz.dpuf

Where are the folk singers and fellow marchers?

Oh, a few are still stirring the waters, but mostly they seem like aging ex-hippies trying to hold onto a bit of faded glory.  They certainly don’t have the following they used to – even last year’s Occupy movement has largely faded from view.

Perhaps part of the problem is due to what Tom Lehrer satirically noted in his 1965 song “The Folk Song Army”:  “If you feel dissatisfaction, strum your frustrations away. Some people may prefer action, but give me a folk song any old day.”

- See more at: http://columbiafavs.com/2014/02/05/folk-singers-gone/#sthash.Hxkzf5lz.dpuf

Folk singers – even those as committed as Seeger – can seem to be resting on others’ sacrifices. But seemingly innocuous songs can deliver subtle messages and spark transformative reflection, even in those disinclined to engage in social change.

Catchy newer folk songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and historic spirituals from a distant era like “Oh, Freedom” steal into the mind, engage the emotions, and can initiate a personal reassessment of issues, especially when they’re coupled to current events.

When I was in junior high and high school, it seemed like every other person was learning to play the guitar, and every gathering of young people eventually turned into a sing-along.

The song list involved some personal choice (and the familiarity of the guitarist), but sooner or later some staples appeared, and the folk songs and spirituals that accompanied the civil-rights demonstrators were prominent.

“If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – these and others were recorded by their composers and covered by numerous others, each new version adding to the psychic and social influence.

So what’s happened?  Why didn’t the momentum continue?  When have we seen a movement of similar power and effect since then?

1984’s Band Aid and other musical projects for charity have had short lifespans and only momentary influence. Artists of conscience like U2’s Bono haven’t seemed to inspire wider support.

I don’t have answers right now, but our country continues to struggle with persistent poverty, subtle but still powerful prejudices, and deep political divisions.  Maybe it’s time for a good folk song, to remind us of who we can become.

- See more at: http://columbiafavs.com/2014/02/05/folk-singers-gone/#sthash.Hxkzf5lz.dpuf

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Comments

Michael Williams March 26, 2014 | 3:39 p.m.

In the context of your commentary, Steve, it's hard to understand your "Maybe it’s time for a good folk song, to remind us of who we can become."

We had folk songs, and you named many of them. We sang those folk songs, too. And, now, here we are.....we are who we became.

It seems to me those "good folk songs" didn't do much good. In fact, your plea seems more of a "hold onto a bit of faded glory."

You ever read James Michener's book "The Drifters"? It was written in 1971, the heyday of hippiehood. I've read it many times over the years, and just finished it again. It's interesting to see how the predictions of "then" morphed into the reality of "now".

In 25 years, most boomers will be dead or dying. I don't think those who come after us will view us in a particularly favorable light, great folk songs notwithstanding.

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