Why We Sing

As an ever-more-deeply-invested participant in the Solidarity Sing Along, I’ve been thinking lately about why we sing, why we’ve chosen this particular form of expression. Just what’s going on here? Why do we keep coming back? What exactly are we accomplishing?

I don’t think of what we do as protest, because it’s so much more than that. Certainly there are plenty of things going on in our state worthy of protest. But our singing is also a communal affirmation of our hopes, our values, our longing for justice, truth, and democracy. Communal singing is a vital part of building social movements: the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the Singing Revolution in Estonia, the effort to end apartheid in South Africa.

Building and re-envisioning the Wisconsin Uprising is what we’re up to, whether we realize it or not. The Sing Along is an effective answer to those who cry “Educate! Agitate! Organize!” We learn from and educate each other in the song lyrics we write and rewrite and in the announcements we make between songs. Chief Erwin’s crackdown is a pretty good indication that we’re successfully agitating. And the ease with which we make friends and fortify our connections with each other at the Sing Along is a strong indicator that there’s a lot of organizing going on.

Something magical happens when we sing. It knits our hearts together and strengthens our resolve. It builds community. Since the disaster visited upon Wisconsin on June 5 of this year, singing together has helped to heal broken hearts, stir up flagging spirits, and refocus energies. Given the communal nature of what we do, I asked the citizen singers why they sing and got some amazing responses, which were so good that it seems right to just share them rather than attempt to distill and paraphrase them.

One person directed me to the story of the Singing Revolution of Estonia, which the State of World Liberty Project lists as the freest country in the world:

Estonia finally won its freedom following the 1987–1991 Singing Revolution, in which Estonians gathered night after night, singing national songs and hymns banned by the Soviets and listening to rock music. When the Soviets attempted to quell the revolution, the Estonians used their bodies to shield radio and TV stations from being attacked by tanks. The revolution ended without any bloodshed, with one-fifth of the population having participated at some point. It marks one of the greatest triumphs of the power of liberty over authoritarianism in history.

If singing together can drive out the foreign occupier, what can it do in Wisconsin? Our communal singing is a cauldron of creative, collective empowerment potent enough to make tyrants tremble.

Another citizen singer recommended an article by Solidarity Sing Along friend Billy Bragg about Norwegians singing the song “Children of the Rainbow” in response to the mass killings by Anders Breivik this past spring.

Singing a song together is a powerful social experience, as anyone who has ever been to a rock concert can testify. However, if the song you are singing is not just a celebration of love, if the lyric seeks to make a point to people that you consider to be the opposition, then the sense of bonding is heightened. Think of a football crowd whose team have just taken the lead singing in unison a song aimed at their rivals.

Protest music has a similar unifying effect. When the majority of an audience sing along with a song attacking the government, critics dismiss such behaviour as “preaching to the converted.” While it may be true that those singing share a political outlook with both the performer and one another, the experience goes much deeper than simply affirming one’s beliefs. For someone who exists in an environment where their political views are in a minority, immersing themselves in an audience who are singing songs that articulate those views can be inspirational. To find yourself among other people in your town who share your views—people whose existence you may not have been aware of—offers a sense of social solidarity unavailable in internet chatrooms.”

Billy Bragg visited the Solidarity Sing Along on July 10, 2012.
Photo by Matty O’Dea.

In response to my query about why we sing, one participant posted the lyrics to a song by American songwriter and political activist Malvina Reynolds called—oddly enough—“Sing Along.” Makes perfect sense when you think about it. This is the language we use to speak to each other.

I get butterflies in my stomach whenever I start to sing,
And when I’m at a microphone I shake like anything,
But if you’ll sing along with me I’ll holler right out loud,
‘Cause I’m awf’ly nervous lonesome, but I’m swell when I’m a crowd.

Chorus:
Sing along, sing along!
And just sing “la la la la la” if you don’t know the song.
You’ll quickly learn the music, you’ll find yourself a word,
‘Cause when we sing together we’ll be heard.

Oh, when I need a raise in pay and have to ask my boss,
If I go see him by myself I’m just a total loss,
But if we go together I’ll do my part right pretty,
Cause I’m awf’ly nervous lonesome but I make a fine committee.

My congressman’s important, he hobnobs with big biz,
He soon forgets the guys and gals who put him where he is.
I’ll just write him a letter to tell him what we need,
With a hundred thousand signatures why even he can read.

Oh, life is full of problems, the world’s a funny place,
I sometimes wonder why the heck I join’d the human race,
But when we work together, it all seems right and true,
I’m an awful nothing by myself but I’m okay with you.

Callen Harty: [Singing in the Capitol] is a way to remind the legislators and the general population that there are still many citizens unhappy over the direction of the state. … It is a joyous and peaceful way to protest. Instead of yelling at enemies, instead of physical violence, instead of anything negative, it is a positive and beautiful way to find community and to share hurt and hope in a constructive and creative way. … Singing is a peaceful and joyous way to express what’s in our hearts.♦ ♦ ♦Kimberly Sprecher: I sing because it helps to relieve frustration. It is an outlet for our voices to be heard when no one is listening!♦ ♦ ♦Chaous Riddle: I sing because it not only is a very peaceful way to protest, but it also helps vent the anger and frustration that builds up every day. And you feel like your voice is finally being heard. We know they are not listening, but you do know they hear us. Chants can easily be ignored, but singing and music cannot.♦ ♦ ♦Chris Taylor: Sounds silly, but one reason is (not the most important) It helps my sinus allergy symptoms. Singing is good for my health.

Freedom of speech is so precious. Singing about it releases stress and allows me to remain calm. I sing at home now (never did before). However, not sure if the cat likes it.♦ ♦ ♦Joanne Juhnke: Singing is transcendent, collective, joyful. Singing lifts us beyond our individual selves and reminds us how much we need one another. Singing brings an element of peace to a situation fraught with conflict. When we join to sing the harmonies of “Solidarity Forever,” we’re a peaceful choir, in no danger whatsoever of becoming a mob. Song makes us strong, in ways that Walker and Huebsch and Erwin do not comprehend.♦ ♦ ♦Sue Breckenridge: I’m really shy, so singing with a group gives me the opportunity to express myself alongside others of like mind. Just coming to the Capitol and standing on the floor with others is actually a pretty big step out of my usual comfort zone. I don’t have a great voice myself, but when you’re with a group, it all sounds good.♦ ♦ ♦
Paula Mohan: Singing means creating community by taking part in an activity in which each person contributes and we create something beautiful. I think we all feel better after we participate in a sing-along. So much positive energy comes from it—it uplifts us all.♦ ♦ ♦Janet Stonecipher: Per William Congreve (1697):

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

Music is one way to express peace and peaceful intent—and it can create trust and sometimes sway people to your point of view. Songs tell stories too. My companion singers automatically become part of me and, I believe, I become part of them as our voices join and blend, creating community and connection. … It boils down, at times, to a very simple equation for me: when I am singing in peace and love with my companion singers, completely befuddling the people with guns and power who can’t figure out what to do with us, how can I keep from singing?♦ ♦ ♦Brooke Nicole: I have not participated in the singing, but … no matter what language and no matter what country and no matter what human cause, singing together conveys peace and power. Not many actions can carry those two messages simultaneously.

Singing like you all do is a powerful display of togetherness and organization, of rationality and emotion. It is a way to make your message heard in a way that is virtually unable to be criticized successfully. Anyone threatened by singing is suspect in most cultures. Sure, you can demonize someone holding a sign and shouting, but trying to demonize someone making beautiful noise is rarely effective. It is an avenue of communication which most people cherish. Music is a protective shell for powerful messages. It is the thread of humanity on display, and I, for one, am so thankful for every single day that the Solidarity Singers do it.♦ ♦ ♦Jonathan Rosenblum: First and foremost, I sing because every day the civil right of association and expression at work is denied is another day in exile. We sing as exiles from our House, in our House, and under the oak tree at our House. We sing also for those exiled from their voice. (Which is not to say that we will stop singing when we are home again.)♦ ♦ ♦Felix Bunke: Music and song have played a huge role in political and social movements throughout history as a way to convey the message, lift spirits, and build bonds within the group. Woody Guthrie’s famous saying on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists,” testifies that song is a way to communicate with people who don’t necessarily read, and it spreads the message that way.

Of course, there’s also the proud Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW) tradition of song, especially with the famous “little red songbooks,” many of which (including “Solidarity Forever”) are rewritten lyrics for tunes that the Salvation Army would play when they were trying to drown out Wobblies while they were “soapboxing,” trying to talk with workers and organize—so, with the new lyrics, they were still able to be heard, as they sung the lyrics along with the Salvation Army’s “accompaniment”! The IWW have played a huge role in the struggle for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association.♦ ♦ ♦Matthew Schauenburg: Singing is a good way to expend energy in a positive and peaceful way, as opposed to just strangling the heck out of Walker.♦ ♦ ♦
Margit Moses: I sing because it saves my sanity to know that there are others who care passionately about what has been done to us. My office is quite progressive, on the whole, but the general attitude is that the pendulum swings, and swings back. I want to grab that pendulum and make it swing back. So I sing. It may be a very small thing, but I do believe that we matter. Every added body, every voice, makes some difference. Sing on . . .♦ ♦ ♦Vicki Lee Solomon-Mcclain: Singing is good for calming the soul and reminding us that everything will be all right someday, even if it doesn’t feel right now.♦ ♦ ♦Judith Dietert-Moriarty:

A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.

—Joe Hill, American organizer and songwriter

Throughout history the arts have always bloomed during times of strife and struggle, and our time is no different. The joyful and creative “noise” of song brings people of all walks of life together in a peaceful, compassionate action when they might not otherwise participate in a more forceful protest. Music is a common language and understood by every culture. Poets show us a way to reach the attention of power via our consciences, hearts, and souls instead of more challenging, direct, and often, confrontational, action. When a singer shares their voice, a different level of unity prevails, and joined voices do speak fearlessly to power.
—Another singer at home via Ustream with my computer listening when I’m unable to be in the rotunda♦ ♦ ♦Callen Harty: We humans like to sing. There is an elemental draw to joining together in song, and music has been part of protests for as long as there have been protests. Those in power know how dangerous art can be, and they do what they can to quash it. But the Solidarity Sing Along will not be moved. They will not stop carrying their message directly to the heart of our government. The singers know that music can move the masses. It can convey a message in ways that nothing else can. It can get a message through to hardened hearts in a way that simple words cannot.♦ ♦ ♦Anonymous: We sing to express our humanity.♦ ♦ ♦Linda Roberson: We sing to witness. We are the embodiment of human decency in Wisconsin: the people who respect the right of all citizens to enjoy basic freedoms and have access to food, education, and health care so they can be productive members of a just society. We sing to celebrate the creative and progressive spirit that characterizes Wisconsin citizens. We sing so that the people in power will never forget that we are here and we cannot be silenced.♦ ♦ ♦Sue Nelson: For me singing is second to being a peaceful presence at Our House. I feel the calling to be there when I can. I appreciate the great minds that have given us so many powerful, fun and humorous songs. I love singing too and, they say, singing is good for your heart. What’s not to like? Oh, uh, Erwin…♦ ♦ ♦
Thomas J. Mertz: Some of my earliest memories are from early 1960s Open Housing marches and the freedom songs were part of that. Prior to the occupation, and the Solidarity Sings, it wasn’t very often that those memories of song and community were refreshed. Now, there is a chance five days a week. I know many, but not all of the regular singers, but who knows who doesn’t matter, because when singing together the many are one. Over the last year+ I would try to come by and sing two to three times a month. It always lifted the spirit up. Since the recent crackdown, I’ve been singing two to three a week. I think the Solidarity Sing Along and what it is creating are important in ways that I’m not sure we’ll understand until years from now. Meanwhile, I feel good about being among the creators.♦ ♦ ♦Linda Rolnick: Singing brings up memories of the civil rights movement, when the protesters and demonstrators would sing as part of their action. Singing has a long action history that goes back to slavery as a way of giving voice to what is in your heart, but in a manner that is often accepted as civil. That is why I sing.♦ ♦ ♦Sarah Niemann Hammer: I live in Fort Atkinson and don’t get to come sing as much as I’d like to, but when I’m feeling beat down and I come sing, it gives me hope. I always leave feeling as though my “save the world” batteries have been recharged. That’s why I sing. And the times my kids weren’t in school and they joined me, they loved it!!♦ ♦ ♦Susan Cohen: I self-medicate with songs when ever I feel down. I sing because it makes me feel good; there is lots of positive energy in a group sing. There is a sense of shared purpose and an egalitarian-type negotiation that happens when people sing in a group.♦ ♦ ♦Anonymous: I sing because it keeps me sane (mostly, I think.) And because it’s fun!♦ ♦ ♦David Rolnick: When I was eight, the Jim Crow governator of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, came to speak at the state college in La Crosse (now UW-L). My dad, a historian, went in to audit the speech. My mom, my lil’ sis, and I walked around outside in a circle with a church group, I think, Mom holding a picket sign, and all of us singing. I remember “We Shall Overcome.” (No permits, Dave.) In Mom’s memory. ♥

During the first Gulf War, when we were living near Delavan, we used to drive up to Madison for war protests. One time, a small group left our signs at the door, as the police politely requested (those were the days, my friends!), and had a moment of silence inside, on the first floor. One woman began singing “We Shall Overcome” spontaneously (you paying attention, Dave?), all dozen or so of us joined in.

One day in about March 2011, marching around Our House like I owned it (Dave?), I heard “Gentle People.” I went back to the rotunda, and started singing along. No one stopped me, or asked for my permit. A couple smiles. Sometimes you’ll still see me getting a little leaky around the eyes when we sing that one.

It’s good exercise. It’s a nice anchor to the retired days when I’m not working out of town. But most of all, besides bringing cherished memories to life, It’s all of you.♦ ♦ ♦
Rick Rumpel: I’m from Watertown, and Linda and I make the Sing Along when we can. Singing makes our hearts soar. Like a Red Heart Helium Balloon. We come to sing because the people’s work is not over.

Linda Rumpel: To add to what Rick said, we also try to make it to the Sing Along whenever we can to show our support for the people who are there every day.♦ ♦ ♦Wendi Kent: My husband and I chose his offer from UW Madison because we knew we wanted to start a family. Great schools, his starting package, and safety were our priorities. We found out we were pregnant six days after we moved here.

At four months pregnant, the primary reasons we decided to make Madison our home were trampled. We learned of pay cuts before he had even started teaching, insurance co-pay increases before we’d even begun to use it, millions of dollars in cuts to schools, and more. The anger I felt, that we had been “tricked” into accepting the position here over others, was immense.

I felt helpless for nine more months during the pregnancy and recovery. It felt terrible. I hated that feeling and I still have that feeling some today, but singing, when we can make it, is the greatest way to feel like I am not completely helpless. I have a voice in the rotunda. Walker might not listen to it, but at least he has to hear it.♦ ♦ ♦Tom Robson: Although we don’t get down there often anymore (we’re planning to be there on Friday), being a part of the singers has been therapy. During the worst of the worst times in this war, standing with “our people” with tears in our eyes, singing at the top of our voices (because nobody cares how bad I am), gave us strength and a feeling of oneness during times that this administration was trying so hard to divide us. As Mary Ellen said, I often get one of the songs we sing “stuck in my head,” and instead of the usual frustration trying to get a song out of my head, it gives me a feeling of unity with all you guys, wherever I may be.♦ ♦ ♦Anonymous: I sing because I believe that the energy we put out in the universe by singing does have a positive effect on the causes we sing about. It keeps the energy moving in a way nothing else can.♦ ♦ ♦Anonymous: I sing because singing is more powerful than yelling. I sing because it’s hard to sing and cry at the same time. I sing because it is a magical thing that happens when people stand on the diamonds in the floor of the rotunda. I sing because even one voice in our Capitol is powerful, and hundreds together can be heard throughout the building. I sing because I love the people I sing with. I sing because I believe it’s working.♦ ♦ ♦Mary Watrud: I sing so my children will be enjoying their freedom of speech long after I am gone. I sing because nothing is more therapeutic than singing your guts out for an hour in the middle of the day with dedicated, thoughtful, inspiring, creative people. I’ve been “singing for my life” since last winter, and now I see my Solidarity Sing Along brothers and sisters everywhere I go. That has had a positive effect on my life—a constant reminder that the good people of the Sing Along are everywhere you look.♦ ♦ ♦Ella Fitzgerald: The only thing better than singing is more singing.

Callen Harty: I sing because the spirit moves me.
I sing for those who have no voice.
I sing so those in power hear the people who give them power.
I sing because I have a song.
I sing because I have words and notes to share.
I sing to open myself to the heavens.
I sing to hear echoes of justice.
I sing to taste the sound of freedom on my tongue.
I sing for the love of my brothers and sisters.
I sing because I must.
I sing a song of love.♦ ♦ ♦Arlo Guthrie: If you want to end war and stuff, you gotta sing loud.♦ ♦ ♦Come sing with us! Weekdays from noon until 1pm. Mondays through Thursdays, unless there’s a scheduled event, we sing in the Capitol rotunda. On Fridays we sing outside the Capitol, by what has come to be known as the Solidarity Tree (on Carroll Street, just southeast of the Lady Forward statue at the intersection of Mifflin, State, and Carroll Streets).

Come celebrate with us! On Monday, November 5, we’ll be celebrating our 500th Solidarity Sing Along at 7pm at the High Noon Saloon, 701A E. Washington Ave., Madison.

If you’d like a copy of the Solidarity Sing Along songbook, you can request one by sending a message to the Solidarity Sing Along Facebook page.# # #“Educate Agitate Organize” by Ricardo Levins Morales. “Rise Up” photo by Erica Case, with added text by Worley Dervish. Thanks to Classical Music Humor for the “Music Sets Us Free” image, and thanks to Rebecca Kemble for bringing it to my attention.

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9 thoughts on “Why We Sing

  1. I show up and sing because, as a retiree, I can serve as a stand-in witness for the thousands who showed up at the Capitol during the height of the Uprising, but who cannot come to the Capitol in Madison during the work week. Singing makes the act of showing up a lot more meaningful and powerful. We sing truth to power. We sing to witness for what our wonderful state once was and what it could be again. We sing to demonstrate to those in power that their dirty tricks won’t work and we aren’t going away.

  2. When I go to the sing along, I often think about the thousands of people marching around the Square during the spring of 2011. In some ways I am a placeholder for all the people who are still protesting the Walker regime. When the weather is bad or the walk to the Capitol is long, I think of them. Some of them came on crutches or in wheelchairs in the dead of winter to circle the Capitol! I try to be their voice.

    “Solidarity” means standing up for the other guy and knowing he’ll stand up for you. We sing about unions and most of us are pro-labor but I think we all understand “solidarity” in this other sense too; we’re all in this together and we have each other’s back.

    As a native of Madison, finding the Capitol doors locked against the public was an emotional shock I’m still not over. I sing to keep the doors of the people’s house open to the people. This is territory I will not cede.

    • Thank you, Victoria. I love this: “I sing to keep the doors of the people’s house open to the people. This is territory I will not cede.” I couldn’t agree more. Very well put indeed. Solidarity!

  3. Music has a long labor history and for good reason–it raises the spirit and inspires one to act! I belonged to a little vocal group years ago called the Spirit of Mother Jones. We had a great time singing at local events and pissing off the bosses!
    Here is a little taste of the Spirit of Mother Jones, recorded in our AFSCME Countil 24 union rep’s home back in the 1980s. http://www.sillybirds.com/somj/unionmaid.mp3

    • Wonderful! Thank you for sharing the recording, Katie. “Union Maid” is song no. 2 in the Solidarity Sing Along songbook. The verse 3 that we sing is

      You women who wanna be free, just take a tip from me.
      Break out of that mold we’ve all been sold; you’ve got a fighting history.
      The fight for women’s rights with workers must unite.
      Like Mother Jones bestir them bones to the front of every fight!

      My husband was fired a few years back, for trumped-up reasons that bore no relation to reality. Management was harassing him because of his work as a union steward. They knew he’d be reinstated, but they hoped being without a paycheck for a while would make him less of a thorn in their sides. That’s when I first learned “Union Maid.” It buoyed us up a lot to sing “You can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ to the union.” And to cheer Tom up, I used to sing Woody’s original third verse:

      You gals who wanna be free, just take you a tip from me.
      Get you a man who’s a union man and join the ladies’ auxiliary.
      Married life ain’t hard when you got a union card.
      A union man has a happy life when he’s got a union wife.

      Heh-heh. Not especially liberated, but it totally cracked us up. Singing helped us survive that ordeal, just as it’s helping us thrive now.

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