What makes protest songs such a powerful part of any protest movement?
Luther College postdoctoral fellow in ethnomusicology Michael O'Brien got a first-hand chance to study that question as part of the crowd that rallied one year ago in Madison in opposition to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union-busting legislation. O'Brien was part of the protest crowd when someone walked past him and shouted out "Can anyone here play a snare drum?"
Thus was O'Brien drawn in to performing protest music--a tradition that dates all the way back to the 1920s union movement and earlier.
But O'Brien says the Wisconsin pro-labor rallies were very different than previous protest movements because of the impact of Facebook and YouTube. Many protest songs were invented at the rallies--usually by putting new words to familiar songs, but sometimes as original songs.
It was after these songs were performed at the rallies in Wisconsin that they found their way to YouTube and Facebook. O'Brien says this was a way for rally participants to reinforce the sense of value of their protesting, but also to help others to realize how powerful the protest movement had become. They also allowed rally participants to say to others, "I was there--it was really like that."
You can get a sampling of the protest songs by going to YouTube and searching for "wisconsin solidarity singers."
O'Brien says he is continuing his research into the ways protest songs are used in political movements.