May 5, 2014

Finding a sound and a symbol

Sam Smith - For some years now, I have been grumpily and futilely complaining about the lack of a common  counter-cultural symbol and a wildly shared musical anthem. Having been raised in the beat, civil rights and peace eras, I have naturally assumed that you can’t produce change without sounds and symbols.

My frustration went up another notch when I saw 1960s peace signs appear on the bedroom doors of my elementary school granddaughters, and then on their T shirts. Even a pancake made by one of them mimicked the design.  If they recognize the importance of such symbolism, why can’t adult activists?

I had various explanations. A society atomized even when it was fighting a common cause. The fading of melody in popular music, the social distraction of the cellphone and the shared singing at demonstrations replaced by hands waving in time to music someone else was making. Naomi Klein argued that "The Bono-isation of protest has reduced discussion to a much safer terrain There's celebrities and then there's spectators waving their bracelets. It's less dangerous and less powerful."

Then yesterday, while thinking about my granddaughters’ peace symbols, I suddenly realized my error. They hadn’t raised a question, they had given the answer.

I had assumed we had to come up with something new when just reviving what had worked in the past might do just as well.

The peace symbol is almost 60 years old. But it was already old when it became the symbol of the anti-Vietnam war movement. It had been designed by a nuclear disarmament activist in the UK in 1958. The symbol was a blend of the semaphore positions for the letters N and D.

But who cared about that during the Vietnam War? It became our symbol for another time. Just as it could again.

And what about a song?

The first one that came to mind, and refused to leave was “We Shall Overcome.” And despite its major history as a civil rights anthem, its story is far more complex, as NPR explained last year:

It has been a civil rights song for 50 years now, heard not just in the U.S. but in North Korea, in Beirut, in Tiananmen Square, in South Africa's Soweto Township. But "We Shall Overcome" began as a folk song, a work song. Slaves in the fields would sing, 'I'll be all right someday.' It became known in the churches. A Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley, published a version in 1901: "I'll Overcome Someday."

The first political use came in 1945 in Charleston, S.C. There was a strike against the American Tobacco Co. The workers wanted a raise; they were making 45 cents an hour. They marched and sang together on the picket line, "We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday."

The tobacco workers brought their song to Tennessee, and Zilphia Horton, [The Highlander Center’s] music director, started using it in workshops in Tennessee and beyond.

On a tape from the late 1940s, Horton can be heard speaking with a group of farm workers in Montana. "This is the song of 'We Will Overcome' — it's a spiritual," she says. "I sang it with many different nationality groups. And it's so simple, and the idea's so sincere, that it doesn't matter that it comes from the tobacco workers. When I sing it to people, it becomes their song."….

John Lewis is now a congressman from Georgia. In his book Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, he tells of joining the civil rights cause as a teenager off the farm in Alabama. He became a leader. He was jailed; he was beaten. His skull was fractured in Selma on the day that was called Bloody Sunday. He says "We Shall Overcome" sustained him throughout the years of struggle — especially those moments when demonstrators who had been beaten, arrested or detained would stand and sing it together.

"It gave you a sense of faith, a sense of strength, to continue to struggle, to continue to push on. And you would lose your sense of fear," Lewis says. "You were prepared to march into hell's fire."

And its power and promise turned up in the speeches and sermons of [Martin Luther] King — including one on March 31, 1968, just days before his death.

"There's a little song that we sing in our movement down in the South. I don't know if you've heard it," King told the Memphis crowd. "You know, I've joined hands so often with students and others behind jail bars singing it: 'We shall overcome.' Sometimes we've had tears in our eyes when we joined together to sing it, but we still decided to sing it: 'We shall overcome.' Oh, before this victory's won, some will have to get thrown in jail some more, but we shall overcome."

If a song can be that powerful for that long, why can’t we sing it now?

Of course, maybe I picked the wrong symbol and song. Then find another, but take it on. What’s a good symbol and song for our times? If you’re a singer, pick your choice and sing it with each performance, asking the audience to join in vocally and not just wave their hands. If you’re a preacher use it in your church. If you’re a teacher, give your kids some choices and the stories behind them and then ask them which they want. If you’re a student, start a new trend. And if you’re activist, find a song and a symbol and start using them now.

And use that symbol whenever it works. Even when making pancakes.

Money, publicity and the Internet isn’t enough.

There is great untapped power in simple things that go straight to the soul.


Steven said...

Hi Sam,
The peace symbol is a good one to revive. Regarding We Shall Overcome, I vote yes, though with a faster tempo so it's more upbeat. Too many people sing it like a dirge, and in a minor key.

Steven Shafarman

Anonymous said...

The "peace symbol" might have been independently created by Horton out of the N & D semaphore signals as he claimed, but the actual glyph goes back to mediaeval times where it was the symbol for a dead man (when the "arms" were pointing up, it symbolised a live man).

It was one of the mediaeval glyphs collected by the very influential type designer, calligrapher, and scholar Rudolf Koch. He published them in Das Zeichenbuch (The Book of Signs) in 1923, which has been part of every graphic designer's library, probably even Holtom's, ever since.

Anonymous said...

We Shall Overcome is excellent, and the more-secular version of How Can I Keep From Singing would also be goo.

What we need is small groups busking in the street.

Many of the trad songs still have power, even the ones 200 years old:

"I'm a four-loom weaver as many a one knows / But I've nowt to eat, and I've worn out me clothes / Stockings I've none, nor no looms to weave on / And I've woven myself to far end".

Or "Hard Times in Old England", from the end of the Napoleonic Wars:

"You go to the shop and you ask for a job / But they answer you there with a head-shake and nod / It's enough to make a poor man turn out and rob / For it's hard times in old England, / In old England very hard times.

Our soldiers and sailors have just come from war / Where they fought for our Queen and our country once more / Then came home to be starved, better stayed where they were / For it's hard times...."