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Music and (the) Movement(s)

This is a blog post about the Interrogating Bias playlist: why the songs are there to begin with and what they specifically mean to me and sometimes most everyone else. I’ve been dreaming about this post since the last one I wrote in June. I finally had the time and was further inspired by a recent, I guess, re-experiencing of a place, and the way in which it magically came full circle, without my intention. It came fully, full circle when I came across a version of a song I realized I hadn’t yet included and, as of right now, it’s the final addition to this playlist (but probably not for long). I’m inviting you to join in the serendipity of it all in the month of the most holy days and therefore the most miraculous, magical time of the year as we experience the darkness of night, hold onto the light, and look ahead to the start of a new year and a new cycle.

Music can put things in perspective, like a time machine, and create meaning.

A few weeks ago my son’s marching band was performing for a playoff game in Altoona, PA. I was sitting in the stands and daydreaming because the people I was with were actually watching the game instead of gossiping with me; I was remembering a soccer tournament I had at the same park in junior high. My team won first place! But a stronger memory was the first mixtape I freshly made from my parents’ 1960s and 70s albums and the impression the music made on my peers over the course of the tournament. The tape included Cat Stevens, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and The Jackson 5. From across a field I remember a friend shouting, “Hey, bring that tape over, and let so-and-so listen to that peace train song.” I may be embellishing some of the details here. But I remember this moment as setting off a lifetime obsession of creating mixtapes, burned CDs, and playlists, as a way to bring joy to myself and those around me.

Music can elicit emotions and helpful reminders.

During the 2020 election, I shared the early version of the Interrogating Bias Playlist. I listened to it regularly as 2020 turned to 2021, with all of the ups and downs (e.g. Biden/Harris elected and the January 6 insurrection, George Floyd’s and Ahmaud Arbary’s murderers found guilty and the Kenosha victims’ killer/shooter found not guilty, vaccine development and vaccine hesitancy). I used music to calm my soul and remind myself that these ups and downs are part of history and what I have reluctantly accepted as the long trajectory toward justice. According to my 2021 Spotify Unwrapped, the songs contributed to my empowering and healing music aura, which only confirmed what I already knew about my ever-evolving musical taste.

Music can be a balm, especially in these times.

This post, with all of the links and researching/fact-checking, took days to write. This labor of love in the final days of 2021 provides context about why I chose each song. The order is based on when I’ve added a song, but I’ll jump to songs by the same artist and groups they’re in to avoid going on and on, which I am inclined to do when it comes to music and musicians I love. I am not a musicologist nor a historian nor a Rob-like character from either the High Fidelity book, film, or TV versions. I just know what moves my heart, gives me goosebumps, and is signaling that I can be stronger and softer at the same time. I’ve included some classic protest and freedom songs but also surprising pop songs, songs by my favorite Pennsylvania musician, and powerful songs that mix in spoken word. There are multiple links in most entries, including video versions of some songs that can vary from the versions on Spotify. I hope you will listen and find solidarity and belongingness as we’ve all found ourselves living together on this planet at this time, while also feeling as if we live, at times, on different planets.

Music, I hope, can still bring us together and call us back, out, and in.

And so, here we go. Find yourself a comfortable chair and consider listening while you read.

Resilient by Rising Appalachia (as well as Medicine, Wider Circles, and Stand Like an Oak) - I had an instrumental song or two by Rising Appalachia on a “music without words” playlist that I created as a soundtrack for finding focus as I wrote my dissertation. I noticed their aesthetic was earthy and mystical. A friend posted the video for Resilient in fall 2018, as Christine Blasey Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. About a year later, I found myself at a Rising Appalachia show in Pittsburgh. I ran into the friend who posted the video, and I cried when I heard Resilient live. Since then this same friend and I found ourselves, during the pandemic, in an international Zoom class on music, myth, and ancestry with Leah Song and Lydia Violet. This led to another Zoom class with Lydia and Joanna Macy and then another with Leah and sister Chloe Smith. Having my “roots down deep” and learning what it means to be part of “the great turning” is what will continue to make Interrogating Bias stronger. Another part of my inspiration for making this specific playlist was RA’s traditional folk playlist.

This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie - I acknowledge the problematic framing of this song, as in, white settler-colonizers, many of our ancestors, stole this land in the Americas and displaced and caused the genocide of Indigenous peoples. At the same time, I don’t think many people know that this song was written as a critique to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” When we sang it in school I didn’t learn the verses about private property and breadlines. Still, it’s clumsy, and, still, it deserves to be worked upon as one of most popular protest songs in what is now the United States. With that, this is my favorite version, where Gangstagrass and Branjae add some new verses and feature those traditionally excluded verses more prominently.

I’ve Endured by Ola Belle Reed - I fell in love with Ola Belle Reed after catching her music on Rising Appalachia’s traditional folk playlist. Her cadence of speaking and solid wisdom remind me a little of my grandmothers on my dad’s side as well as a few church ladies I’d visit with my grandparents on my mom’s side. There is something familiar and therefore empowering about her takes on what life means and how to live it. Check out the liner notes with her oral history to get the full feel of who Ola Belle was and what she was about because it’s what we all should be about. This is the first of a few songs on this playlist that remind us to listen to the young people and revere the wisdom of our elders.

Balm in Gilead sung by Nina Simone (as well as I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free) - I didn’t know much about Nina Simone before watching the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? a few years ago. Afterward, I grew more curious and interested in her work as an artist and activist. Balm in Gilead is a traditional African American spiritual and when sung by Nina Simone, like most things, grabs my attention further. Recently Spotify suggested I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. It got me thinking more deeply about Miss Simone, especially since watching the documentary.

I Knew I Could Fly from Songs of Our Native Daughters, which includes Rhiannon Giddens (who wrote/sings Birmingham Sunday and We Could Fly), original member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops (so check out their cover of Political World) - This entry is centered around Rhiannon Giddens with additional love for Leyla McCalla, but I will keep it short. I have been fortunate to have short conversations with both musicians when they came through venues in/near State College and have a photo with Rhiannon to prove it at the top of this post. Rhiannon was a 2017 MacArthur Fellow and performed at the White House for the Obamas. It goes without saying that I love everything about her but most especially her attention to keeping music and history alive, evident in Freedom Highway and her work with CDC.

We Shall Overcome sung by Pete Seeger - It is a no-brainer, if you know me, that this song is on here, and that it would be the one by Pete Seeger, whose voice filled my home and car with songs about critters when my twins were little (and sometimes still now that they’re big). Pete Seeger was a hugely gentle spirit. As a civil rights song, WSO is almost 60 years old and has been sung all over the world. And Seeger was honored posthumously in 2014 with the Woody Guthrie Prize.

Cairo Walls by Joe Purdy (as well as Children of Privilege) - When I saw Billy Bragg for the second time in State College a few years ago, Joe Purdy opened for him and, in musical and spiritual terms, I fell in love. I adore that he talks about being a hillbilly from Arkansas and that he believes Black lives matter, and I cry when listening to most of the songs from the album that each of these songs comes from. The whole thing could be part of this playlist.

Freedom! ‘90 by George Michael (as well as I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me) - a duet with Aretha Franklin) - Remember this epic video? I had completely forgotten about this song and the music video until Frog Holler, my favorite Pennsylvania band, sang this song at the show celebrating their lead singer’s 50th birthday. George Michael had passed away, along with several other artists, the previous year (actually, on my 40th birthday), and Darren said George Michael’s death was hardest on him. I audibly “awwed” from the audience, and Darren reaffirmed his statement. I started thinking about this song, what it must have actually meant to George Michael, and the feelings it gives me. Then, in listening to Biden Harris #soulsquad playlist, I was reminded of the duet with Aretha. In doing this work, we find kindred spirits and people who will walk along with us in the journey. We’re all out here waiting for one another so keep showing up.

Glory by Common/John Legend - This song is from the film Selma by Ava DuVerney about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama voting rights marches. It’s moving, and I’ve listened to it quite a bit in recent years.

A Beautiful Noise by Alicia Keys/Brandi Carlile - A friend shared this song with me a few days or maybe the day of the 2020 election, and it got to me in a good way. I still sometimes cry while singing along with the lyrics.

Matadjen Yinmixan by Tinariwen - I came across the work of Tinariwen, a desert blues band from the Sahara region of northern and west Africa, via Rising Appalachia’s traditional folk playlist. This video translates the lyrics to English, which start “why all this hate?” Matadjen Yinmixan will also get you moving (as in dancing).

The Sweetest Sound by Frog Holler/lead singer Darren Schlappich (who also wrote and sang Bloody Knuckles as part of Ataloft) - When Darren gets to the part, “right me when I’m wrong | help me feel like I belong,” I think, damn! Yes! When someone does this, think of it as them showing their love for you and the world. I was fortunate to hear some sneak previews of the album he wrote for Ataloft in my own home when we hosted a house concert and then to be present at the CD release party (remember those?) in 2014. The “don’t give up the fight part,” again - not sure what these abstract but familiar lyrics mean, but Frog Holler’s music got me through writing my dissertation. Darren sent me their album Souvenir as a dissertation defense good luck charm, and they performed again at our home to help me celebrate being #PhinisheD. So I’m going to just believe he’s cheering me (and you) on in this fight toward justice until he tells me otherwise. And even then, I may just continue to read too much into almost everything he writes.

Keep Her Safe by Lydia Violent, feat: Joanna Macy - On the CD/Spotify recording, Joanna Macy recites the Rainer Maria Rilke lines. Lydia performed this song during one of the classes I took last winter with Joanna. “She who reconciles the ill-matched threads of her life” by Rilke speaks to me as does the line from the song, “She is the result of the love of thousands.” Two precious ideas around purpose and fate that have kept me floating from 2020 and into 2022. May it also give you feelings of, “the ancestors have got me.”

We Call you Now by Áine Tyrrell/Emily Wurramara - Last winter a friend who introduced Resilient by RA to me sent me a link to this video and the sentence, “This is f*cking intense.” It totally is, but it is also required viewing, especially if you have any Irish or maybe even Scot Irish ancestry. This song, that is more of a chant, summarizes and also expands what I am trying to model through my own work around understanding and listening to ancestors.

Divide and Conquer by Chris Kando Iijima/Nobuko Miyamoto/Charlie Chin, aka Yellow Pearl - After the Atlanta spa shootings and co-leading a session for colleagues to reflect on violence towards Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi Americans (APIDA) and what to do about it, I realized my protest songs needed more representation. I came across the album, Grain of Sand, via Smithsonian Folkways.

American Skin (41 Shots) by Bruce Springsteen - On the Renegades podcast, Bruce told President Obama that crowds have booed him for playing this song that he wrote after the murder of Amadou Diallo. (Say what you will about this podcast; I liked it.) It popped back into my memory, sadly, during the trial for George Floyd’s killer; yet it could pop into anyone’s head at any time as the disproportionate violence against Black and brown people at the hands of the police continues. I love many aspects of Bruce, but I especially love that he doesn’t allow just anyone to map their identity onto him. He’s a reminder that the struggle for justice is a group activity and everyone should be on board for one another. It’s probably why he’s the 2021 recipient for the Woody Guthrie Prize.

This Little Light of Mine sung by Sam Cooke - I grew up singing this song in Sunday school, with zero awareness that it was also used as a civil rights anthem. Sam Cooke also wrote A Change is Gonna Come, which as I’m writing this I’ve added a version of that anthem to the playlist, which is part of this write-up going full circle for me.

Grandma’s Hands by Bill Withers - The book My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem helped reignite my work, especially in early 2020. When I heard this song by Bill Withers, who passed away in late March 2020, it felt like a perfect addition. The key to interrogating bias is starting with yourself and your own histories and the ancestors who are cheering you on, most especially the grandmas.

Thoughts and Prayers by Drive-By Truckers - There continue to be mass shootings in the United States. Just last week my kids’ high school threatened the students with detention if they walked out in solidarity for the Oxford, Michigan shooting. I told my kids I wouldn’t be mad if they got detention, but teachers in the classes they were in at the time were unsupportive. I expressed displeasure to the superintendent, principal, and assistant principal via email. The next day the TikTok challenge made going to school so scary, whether or not something happened. Half of the kids stayed home that day, which, for me, was another way to show solidarity. Perhaps a national student strike would get politicians’ attention? Either way, thoughts and prayers don’t do $hit, as we know, for preventing gun violence.

Face Your Fear by Curtis Harding - I heard this song while watching Crime + Punishment and then got to hear Edwin Raymond speak as part of last year’s symposium for Strategies for Justice. It’s the perfect song for when you feel afraid to speak your mind or take some other kind of action.

Into the Deep by Galactic, feat: Macy Gray - Fun fact: my husband went to the same high school as some of the members of Galactic. This song with Macy Gray is one that speaks to my love of going deep with people through conversation and how those connections can nurture us and move us further into actions.

Sing to the Mountain by Elephant Revival - Lydia sang this song to us too in the class with Joanna Macy last winter. (She covers it on Already Free.) It is one that also inspires deep connections between people, species, and the planet.

We Are by Sweet Honey in the Rock - One of the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock visited the Singing the Bones course I took with Lydia and Leah last summer. Its lyrics speak to the hopes of our ancestors.

For Her Speak by MaMuse, feat: Lyla June - MaMuse is another set of artists I learned about being in Lydia’s presence via Zoom. I love the spoken word by Lyla June here, where she’s urging humanity to unite against forces that can divide us, bookended by delicious MaMuse melodies.

Ease My Revolutionary Mind by Tom Morello - I learned about this song through a friend who is a huge Woody Guthrie fan. I was reminded of it upon reading Tom Morello’s newish NYT column, another push for putting this writing together. This song comes from one of many of Woody’s writings that musicians and scholars come across through his archives. The line about “no FOX-news watching females,” clearly added by Morello in the live performance/not written by Woody, gets me every time.

One Way or Another by Blondie - I was listening to Blondie recently, maybe around Halloween, and this song, if you ignore the aspects that seem like she’s stalking you, makes me think about the magic that it sometimes takes to bring people along in the journey to peace and justice. It’s playful, and we need joy and play to lovingly “getcha!” to join us.

Wildflowers sung by The Wailin’ Jennys (as well as One Voice) - Wildflowers is my Tom Petty theme song because, I learned over 20 years ago now, everyone has a Tom Petty theme song for their life. (I have nothing to back this up with. You just have to trust that I got this information from a trusted source.) In recent years it feels like many other groups have covered this song. I like the Trampled by Turtles version too, but I went with this one. This is partly because I was familiar with One Voice after being invited to sing it with a group of three other women at a community event just after the 2016 election. Both songs are nurturing, connecting songs. As precious beings, we all belong among the wildflowers.

I Won’t Back Down sung by Johnny Cash - The best version I have ever heard of this Tom Petty song was at the Rhiannon Giddens show in 2017 (where we posed for the photo, remember?). I was recently reminded of this version at a breakfast honoring veterans. It adds additional grittiness to this playlist, which I think Cash used regularly to advance causes he believed in.

Fight the Power by Public Enemy - Featured in a few iconic scenes in Do the Right Thing, this song along with others by Public Enemy is what led Chuck D to be honored with the Woody Guthrie Prize in 2019.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gill Scott-Heron - This song showed up in Spotify for me a few years ago now, but then I also heard it while visiting a civil rights museum soon after. It seems to bad mouth Johnny Cash a little, but it’s not like Johnny Cash was a perfect human being. In community, there are both/ands and plenty we can learn from one another if we’re open to the criticisms and “uncomfortable truths.”

There Is Power in a Union by Billy Bragg - Billy Bragg is another musician I’ve been able to briefly chat with in the theater in our little downtown. (I told him the lyrics in This Guitar Says Sorry, specifically the time it takes to make a cup of tea vs. make a baby, made me feel seen when I was somewhat unexpectedly pregnant with twins, which led him to tell me TMI about how his son was conceived.) Anyway, this song is the reason my husband thought I would like Bragg’s music. He was right.

A Change Is Gonna Come sung by Greta Van Fleet - Originally by Sam Cooke and in response to being turned away at a whites-only hotel in the South, I wanted to include this version, at first, for variety and because I’m slightly obsessed with lead singer Josh Kiszka’s flamboyance, ever since I first saw them perform on SNL. And because people love/hate that they sound just like Led Zeppelin, one of the artists on my first ever mixtape, please allow the full circle to be completed and unbroken until I get started on adding whatever songs come next.

Merry music listening and everything else in this season and new year.

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