Music Stirs Public Movements and Special Private Moments

Does music play the same role as the visual arts or literature in inspiring social or political action? Listen to “Do You Hear The People Sing” from Les Miserables [press “Skip Ad”!]. We can barely hear the lyrics, but as it escalates, the music thumps deep inside us and stirs us profoundly, whatever our politics.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

Is it the rhythm in Les Miz that sets us up? Or other elements of the music? Elements such as melody that you can’t get out of your head the rest of the day (the “ear worm”); tempo or pace, which in Les Miz builds gradually; dynamics, loud or soft, also building; and timbre, the character of the young, choral collaboration of voices.

This music, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, inspired, motivated, and even sustained participants through the inhumane revolutionary bloodbath that followed. Given the extent of relatively peaceful and legal American protests over the years and what they have accomplished – albeit, far from everything – let me go on record as opposing violent, bloody, destructive “revolution.”

What about the protest songs of the 1960s?

Peter, Paul and Mary at the 1963 March on Washington

Peter, Paul and Mary, 1963 March on Washington

Pete Seeger in his prime.

Pete Seeger in his prime

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez






In the 1960s, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and many others composed specifically for peaceful demonstrations, not full-blown revolution. It was difficult to keep protestors out on the streets marching arm in arm with the only goal to change people’s hearts and government policies. Protest songs like “We Shall Overcome” kept people marching and hoping. This kind of song persists in today’s American music, but sadly, less in its public actions. Where is the protest music today?

Paris, May Revolution, 1968, Place Denfert Rochereau, where Janet's march began.

Paris, May Revolution, 1968, Place Denfert Rochereau, where Janet’s march began.

Protest songs play a role in The Berkeley Girl, in Paris 1968. Janet Magill’s guitar is with her in both Berkeley and Paris. Janet is also inspired by the 19th century socialist standard, L’Internationale. Here she describes the music’s ability to keep her in the march with her new friends, and in the cause:

Up front, a group had started to sing L’Internationale… The catchy tune flowed back and picked up strength as it rolled our way, until it reached us and we added to its intensity. I still did not know all the words, but I sang la-la to fill in the gaps. We were walking with our arms linked, everyone in high spirits and full of energy, and by the second verse I was singing my la-la’s to the rousing march rhythm in as resonant a voice as my tiny soprano allowed. The full feeling in my chest surprised me. By the second time around I could join in with most of the words, “Debout les damnés de la terre,” I sang. If my friends and I were the damned of the earth and I had been buried my whole life, at least now, as the song commanded, we were rising together, resurrected.

 Music in this writer’s life

I don’t listen to music when I’m writing, though many writers do. I find it distracting. I listen to music as a warm-up before writing, like stretching before exercise. And when I go to live performances, or listen to a favorite CD in my living room, emotions begin to percolate and then ideas and eventually imagery and distinct words flow from an emotional state into my consciousness.

Jay and I go to hear lots of live music, especially jazz and classical. Folk rock and protest songs are only available these days in our album collection. SF Jazz, SF Symphony, Yoshi’s in Oakland, and Café Stritch in San Jose are our favorites, but we get out to many other venues around the Bay Area.

Marcus Shelby

Marcus Shelby. Photo: Jay Miller

Jazz has figured prominently in many of my short stories, including “Playing by the Rules” in Fault Zone: Stepping Up to the Edge (2011), in which our friend Marcus Shelby, a Bay Area jazz composer, bassist and conductor, plays at the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

Marcus’s music is often based on historically significant figures, and his CD “Soul of a Movement” is a tribute to how music impacted MLK Jr. and the whole of the civil rights movement. It is expressive on many levels.


Marcus Shelby quintet at Cafe Stritch, 1916: Dylan Barrows, Sly Rudolf, Joe Warner, Tiffany Austin, and Marcus.

Marcus Shelby quintet at Cafe Stritch, 1916: Dylan Barrows, Sly Rudolf, Joe Warner, Tiffany Austin, and Marcus. Photo: Jay Miller

Anyone open to musical experience can enjoy the kind of private moments I describe above as a writing warm-up or stimuli for ideas and imagery. Recently, at Café Stritch, Marcus’s quintet featured Tiffany Austin, singing the Abbey Lincoln song “What I have Lost.” Tiffany, Marcus, Abbey, and so many others offer up the quiet, passionate and meaningful songs that may inspire – quite forcefully – a revolution in the personal soul.

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