Tom Genes music column: In decades past, violence begat clarity in the form of song
July 15, 2016
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four college students. Ten days later, police at Jackson State University killed two more students (yeah, that happened, as well). A week later, Neil Young wrote a song about it all. It led to conversation. It led to healing.
A few months later, in Berkeley, California, another anti-war rally ended with acts of police brutality. A singer was there to witness that carnage, as well, and after going on a personal strike until the record company released the song he wrote in response, Marvin Gaye reached No. 1 with "What's Going On." It started the conversation. It began the healing.
Today, our country remains reeling just days after celebrating our nation's 240th birthday. We sat in horror over news reports of more tragedy created in our homeland, a nation at odds with itself over deep wounds that refuse to heal. Decades of pent-up social unrest continue to boil over in all kinds of manifestations. Some proud — like peaceful demonstrations — and some loud — like the horrific taking of police lives.
Though our nation has been on a downward trend of violence for decades, a sudden turn of events has focused our attention on matters of equality and justice; the roots of our nation appear to be diseased.
Where are the musicians?
So where are the musicians? When we found ourselves in times of trouble before, we had a form of clarity from our gifted musical friends. It would oftentimes take the shape of a grand gesture or deep, transcendent song. Groups of diverse genres would gather for events such as Live Aid, which took place this week in 1985, or Peter Gabriel's remarkable Amnesty International tour, which featured the likes of Lou Reed, U2 and The Police bonding together to raise awareness, funds and emphasis to the message of wrongful circumstances. Think "For What It's Worth."
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Today we, as a collective soul, are seeking answers. We are astray and lost and in need of assurance or an ever-thoughtful insight. Music can be that saving grace, that blanket of comfort or even a divisive missile that gets our leaders' attention. Imagine a song like John Lennon's "Imagine" coming from the likes of Taylor Swift with Kayne West now — what a statement that could make— or Kendrick Lamar teaming up with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys for a transformative bit of music-making.
Speak Up and Out
I am hopeful that a song or album is in the works and the release will be forthcoming. In the meantime, I'd just like to hear from any artists on this topic. Shed some light on the vision of America you share. Good or bad, they need to speak up and out. Shout it from the rooftops for all to hear. It's time for some poignancy in the matter, a vision of hope that's not ignorant to the reality, yet wishful in its statements.
Something we can all gather together to sing, reflect and heal with. In music we trust.
Tom Genes is a musicologist and can be heard on air Mondays through Fridays from 6 to 10 p.m. on KZYR. Genes hails from Flossmoor, Illinois, and Vail and writes a regular column in the Vail Daily Weekly.