Gifts of Music & Justice
I have probably waited too long to recommend Christmas gifts for the social-justice minded music lovers, but I will anyway. Putting close friends first, I must recommend Fiercer Love, ($15 U.S. per copy) the long-awaited, first CD of the husband-wife musical duo, Down to Earth. “Down to Earth” is known to my family as Paul Whitely, Jr. and Kate Sanders. In addition to being a union organizer, Paul is the seminary-trained volunteer minister of music at my church, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty. He has also worked for Jobs with Justice. Kate is an award-winning poet and songwriter who has played with the Louisville Orchestra, and was the hammered dulcimer champion in Kentucky for 2006. This first CD combines their own original music with struggle songs from many cultures. The title comes from a line in their single, “Your Heart is a Muscle as Big as Your Fist,” which you can hear on the website and which contains the great line, “You can be loving and still be pissed!” It rails against the culture of nice and, in a way reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for “creatively maladjusted” people (because “adjusting” to an unjust system is horrible), “transformed noncomformists,” Down to Earth calls for us to “Keep on Loving, keep on Fighting! Stick together and we just might win. Shout freedom’s name to the heavens above–and start each day with a fiercer love!” Amen. Other tracks on this first CD include Kate’s haunting rendition of the Virgin Mary’s Magnificat, a tribute to Harriet Tubman, Paul’s tribute to his grandfather called “Old Reliable,” “Maquiladora,” and the painfully funny “Talking Health Insurance Blues.” I hope a second CD soon follows with Kate’s haunting tribute to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero (written soon after his assassination in 1980) and their tribute to the marchers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (especially Rosa Parks), “My Soul is Rested.” You can also book Down to Earth on this website.
I have highlighted before the fantastic music of Mike Sterns, composer, folksinger, and inspirational leader (for both children and adults) who is the current Artist-in-Residence at the Rauschenbusch Center for Social Justice at University Baptist Church, Seattle, WA. Mike’s music and presence have been utilized powerfully by Habitat for Humanity, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Hiroshim to Hope, Witness our Welcome, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), the American Civil Liberties Union, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Witness for Peace, and Physicians for Social Responsibility. I love all Mike’s songs, but especially “Love Makes a Family.”
Another favorite of mine who combines great music with a peace and justice vision is the incredible Kate Campbell, rooted in the Southern literary tradition of Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner, the spirituality of Baptist churches (white and black), and a musical style that combines ’60s Soul with the Southern Rock sound made famouse by Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Her latest CD, For the Living of These Days, takes its title from a line in Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” and includes both old hymns done in a new style, and the “Prayer of Thomas Merton” which Merton wrote in 1958 and which Kate has set to music.
People often ask whatever happened to musicians making great music for social struggles. There is as much out there now as when Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, Woody Guthrie, and Joan Baez were in their hey-day–but you have to hunt for it. Few radio stations will play such music, now. Mass produced music is not interested in music that helps with liberation. The musicians who empower today usually have day jobs–as union organizers (Paul Whitely, Jr.), or nurses (Mike Sterns), etc. and have to sell their music outside of the major markets. It can be a struggle to find it–but it is worth the effort–and makes for great Christmas gifts. (One place to look is here.)
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