Now on the street tonight the lights grow dim/The walls of my room are closing in/There’s a war outside still raging/You say it ain’t ours anymore to win/…Well we made a promise/we swore we’d always remember/No retreat, baby, no surrender –Bruce Springsteen
This past fall saw the most musical presidential campaign in over fifty years, since the days when Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and other members of the People’s Songsters played for the third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace. The Vote for Change tour presented major stars like Bruce Springsteen, Jurassic 5 and the Dixie Chicks to hundreds of thousands of fans. Russell Simmons’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network and Sean Combs’s Vote or Die tour brought voter registration and messages of political engagement to young people of color and to communities often ignored by the political process. From stadium shows to coffeehouses, punk rockers, rap artists, rockers, country stars and folkies focused on the election; the Air Traffic Control project (www.airtrafficcontroltower.net) documents more than 300 election-related music events focused on progressive change.
But for all that activity, the youth vote was widely described as “disappointing,” and thus the efforts of the musicians were deemed unsuccessful–even a failure in some people’s eyes. Exit polls suggested that only 17 percent of voters were 18 to 29, the same percentage as in 2000.
Were these results really so disappointing from the progressive point of view? It depends on how you look at it. Youth voting participation may not have grown faster than other groups’, but keeping pace with the largest voter turnout in three decades meant raising turnout from 42 percent of potential young voters in 2000 to 51 percent in 2004, which translated into more than 4.5 million more young voters than in 2000, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement. In the ten most contested states, the youth turnout was 64 percent, 13 percentage points higher than in 2000. These voters disproportionately voted progressively: While Gore beat Bush 48 percent to 46 percent among voters 18 to 29 in 2000, Kerry won that age group 54 percent to 44 percent. Youth voters, in fact, were the only age group that gave a majority of votes to Kerry.
The real results, then, might be better thought of as mixed: less than many had hoped for, perhaps, but certainly significant and trending progressive. One can’t help but conspiratorially wonder if musicians’ success in engaging disenfranchised voters inspired political operatives and pundits to pre-emptively derail them as ineffective.
There’s also an entirely different way of thinking about what happened–a longer view that tries to put this past year’s effort into historical perspective. In the early days of a movement, things can look bleak. Today, for example, we celebrate the victories of the civil rights movement, but in 1963, according to Julian Bond, civil rights activists thought, “We’re never going to see the end of this thing. These people will murder us all, they’ll burn us out, they’ll drive us out, they’ll stomp us out.” Yet just a year later Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act; a year after that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act; and three years later the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawed discrimination in housing.
The closest parallel to this year’s efforts by musicians might be Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party run for President. It began, as Richard Reuss has chronicled, with an agreement between the Wallace campaign and the People’s Songsters (negotiated by folk song collector and producer Alan Lomax) that every political meeting would feature a song leader, and for every speech there would be a song. Further, the Progressive Party would fund and distribute a national song booklet so people could sing along.
Few doubted the singing campaign was having a profound effect. But when the results were tallied, Wallace had received barely more than 2 percent of the vote. Songsters were angry and disillusioned; some were despondent. “Why did our songs not reach in and touch deep enough to cause the hand to push the C row handles in that voting booth?” asked Woody Guthrie.
Yet fast-forward a decade and already there were signs of a growing wave of politically minded musicians who would spearhead the folk revival, support the civil rights movement, infiltrate rock and roll, and eventually provide much of the inspiration for the great mass movements–and electoral campaigns–of the 1960s. Who were their models? Seeger, Guthrie and the rest of the People’s Songsters. Through Bob Dylan and other musicians inspired by that vision and model, the notion of the politically charged singer/songwriter ripped apart the Tin Pan Alley notion of bland, inoffensive popular music and helped change the country in ways that still influence the culture we all live in today. But none of that was visible–perhaps even conceivable–on the day of the Wallace defeat.
The efforts of musicians in the Kerry campaign will have a life and an effect that, in all likelihood, will go far beyond that campaign. “Whether movements are immediately successful or unsuccessful, they are part of creating a constituency that will continue, and part of entering into an ongoing dialogue about what is right and wrong,” Peter Yarrow–of Peter, Paul and Mary–told an interviewer a decade ago. “That dialogue I consider to be essential, so even if you lose a round, you have no alternative but to go forward, believing that one day you will succeed.”
Musicians, don’t despair now! The concerns you had, the issues you raised, won’t go away. The cultural division we hear so much about is not a reflection of a gaping difference in the real interests of blues and reds but the ability of some to frame those interests in ways that speak to divisions instead of mutual concerns, that play on fear and loathing instead of hope and respect. Music has the ability to speak across divides. Surely, we need that now more than ever. “Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own,” as one of your number, Jackson Browne, once sang. And somewhere down the line, there’ll be a harvest.