Essay: Connection Between Music and Politics

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Music and Politics -- the Connections

Music has been used to promote particular political and ideological messages for many years. In the 20th century and well before, there are myriad examples of how music and politics have been intertwined, and this paper will point to several examples of music providing the message with politics the theme.

Hitler and Music in Nazi Germany

Adolf Hitler loved the music of Ludvig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, and especially Hitler enjoyed the classical music of Richard Wagner, according to an article in the Brainz website. Why did Hitler revere Richard Wagner's music in particular? Wagner's music "…is the music most inextricably linked with Nazi Germany" because Wagner published an essay in 1850 titled "Judaism in Music" which accused the Jewish community of "poisoning" popular culture (Brainz.org).

The Nazi leadership took certain parts of Wagner's pieces that suited the fanatical ideas most ideally, "and suppressed the rest"; the Wagner piece, Der Ring das Nibelungen "figured strongly in the Nazis' propaganda plans" because it "reinforced the national myth" that the Nazis had manufactured (Brainz).

An article in the Economist reviews the writing of Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker; among the links between politics and music in Nazi Germany, the article points out, "classical music blared constantly in the choreographed background to Nazi life." In fact, the classical music repertoire (it seems likely that the author is alluding to Wagner's music at least in part) became so identified with the Nazis that it "…was deemed to have lost its moral stature" (the Economist, p. 2-3).

And as a result of European composers' reticence to embrace the kind of classical genre that reminded civil people of the Nazis, "…a dissonant pandemonium of experimental music" was launched in the 1950s, the Economist writer explains. The writer points out that left-wing sociologist and musician Theodor Adorno, wrote in 1949, "…preserving tonality betrayed a fascist mentality"

In a Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust, the writer explains that under Hitler, if a "loyal Nazi" had talent in music, that person was "guaranteed a job"; and any non-Jewish person who showed "genius" for music and had membership in the Reich Music Chamber (Reichmusikkammer) was given employment. Hitler loved Beethoven because Hitler believed Beethoven possessed "that heroic German spirit."

Many musicians living in Germany during the Third Reich were not able to please the Fuhrer albeit their survival "meant compromise" with the Nazi point-of-view, a Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust explains. Being committed to one's work -- and having to have a degree of allegiance to Germany -- was a balance that was hard to maintain. In fact, failing to please the Nazis with one's music "…meant deportation or perhaps death."

The history of Protest / Political Songs

A series of articles in the Public Broadcasting Service (KCET) points to protest songs, music linked to politics, from well back in the history of the United States. Some of the first music that was linked to political issues included songs about slavery. Religious hymns and Negro Spirituals had a message that was about social change, justice, and politics. "Steal Away," "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)," "We Shall Be Free" and "Run to Jesus" were all songs that related to the evil institution of slavery and about the need for people to be free from bondage (PBS, 2007).

A song that was sung in South Carolina in 1813 -- by a "secret slave organization" -- was used at the opening of meetings and at the closing of meetings of this secret group (PBS):

"Arise, arise! Shake off your chains! / Your cause is just, so Heaven ordains / to you shall freedom be proclaimed! / Call every Negro from his task / Wrest the scourge from Buckra's hand / and drive each tyrant from the land!" (PBS).

The Underground Railroad, a network that helped hundreds of runaway slaved find freedom in the north (in particular, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan) had a song that related to politics and to the Milky Way. The song was "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which referred to the Big Dipper constellation, which is in the northern sky. So when the slave was running away at night, all he or she had to know initially was to head north, away from the slavery south, and the Big Dipper (the "Drinking Gourd") would lead that person to eventual safety (PBS).

When it came to women's rights and abolitionist movements, music and politics played well together. The Hutchinson Family Singers used sentimental ballads and protest songs to spread the word about women's rights and abolitionism. Their fans included Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the PBS article continues. The Hutchinson Family Singers wrote music and performed for nearly 40 years. One of their best-known songs had to do with ending slavery, it was called "Get Off the Track":

"Politicians gazed, astounded / When, at first our bell resounded / Freight trains are coming, tell these foxes / with our votes and ballot boxes / Roll it along! Roll it Along! / Roll it along! Thro the nation / Freedom's car, Emancipation" (PBS).

Julia Ward Howe took familiar music and penned new lines as protest songs in support of the movement to allow women to vote (the women's suffrage movement). For the tune, "America," instead of "My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty," Howe wrote these lyrics: "My country tis for thee / to make your women free / This is our plea…" (PBS).

Later, in the 1890s, workers were striking for better working conditions and better wages, and their songs were a "central part of the & #8230; strategy of recruitment, solidarity and strikes. The songs from the Industrial Workers of the World showed "…a fluid adaptability to new lyrics to fit the moment" (PBS). From the song, "Solidarity Forever," these lyrics were used to stir passions and to help get workers in the mood to make demands or to strike:

"Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite / Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might? / Is there anything left for us but to organize and fight? / for the Union makes us strong" (PBS).

Among the best-known protest songs in the 1940s and 1950s regarding the need for fairness in the workplace and in society was "Deportee," by Woody Guthrie.

"Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted / Our work contract's out and we have to move on / Six hundred miles to that Mexican border / they chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves / We died in your hills, we died in your deserts / We died in your valleys and died on your plains / We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes / Both sides of the river, we died just the same" (PBS).

Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times points to the writing of Dorian Lynskey, whose book 33 Revolutions Per Minute addresses the history of protest music. Lynskey explains that a protest song is a song that "…addresses a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog" (Wilentz, 2011). Some radical songwriting (in folk music and also in jazz) emerged "forcefully in the United States out of the Communist-affiliated Popular Front" in the late 1930s and into the 1940s. So when the musicians that wrote songs for and about the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movements simply "…revised the tradition" in the 1950s and 1960s that had been started in the thirties and forties (Wilentz, p. 1). Bob Dylan's tunes, in particular "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" was just one among the classic anti-establishment, anti-war tunes that Dylan wrote.

"And I'll tell it… [END OF PREVIEW]

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