When President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” in 2015 at a eulogy, he was mourning a minister murdered with eight others in a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Yet Obama’s choice of music was more than just a song—it was a kind of musical shorthand that transcended the moment he was marking. Everyone knows “Amazing Grace,” a spiritual with particular resonance in the black community. As a plainspoken hymn about redemption and forgiveness in the face of sin (or, from a more secular standpoint, oppression), the tune has the specific connotation of offering comfort at times of bereavement.
Popular music is full of songs like that, tunes that come to represent something more expansive than their original contexts. When participants in at least one local offshoot of the Women’s March in 2017 sang “This Land Is Your Land,” or people protesting in the Wisconsin state capitol building against anti-union measures in 2010 joined together in “Solidarity Forever,” they were communicating in a similar shorthand, evoking sentiments that are immediately identifiable to most people.
All three songs are among 83 tracks on The Social Power of Music, a new four-CD boxed set from Smithsonian Folkways divided into “Songs of Struggle,” “Sacred Sounds,” “Social Songs and Gatherings” and “Global Movements.” The songs collected here help to show us where we come from, and where we are now. Some of them—the Civil Rights spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” Peggy Seeger’s pointed anti-rape song “Reclaim the Night” or the United Farm Workers theme song “De Colores / (Made) Of Colors,” to name just a few—serve as reminders that change is possible, even if it’s often incremental and frustratingly slow.
Most of the tracks on the set are decades old, and only a handful of the performers are still living. The music, though, feels very much alive. “That’s where songs really show their strength, is if they can resonate outside the immediate situation in which they were born,” says Dom Flemons, the folk singer, music scholar and historian, who also records for Smithsonian Folkways.
What made the songs on The Social Power of Music successful in the first place is a big part of why so many of them remain so well-known today. The set includes Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, the Freedom Singers and Paul Robeson, Flaco Jiménez and Suni Paz, along with Native American performers, a Muslim call to prayer, Buddhist chants and an Aramaic recitation included in synagogue services for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. “Folk song has always been a type of music that is meant for people on the ground level, especially when it comes to the protest movements of the early ’60s,” says Flemons, whose 2018 solo album Black Cowboys received a Grammy nomination. He was also a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “These songs are meant to show a voice and showcase an ideology, it’s meant to illuminate a bigger picture.”
Sometimes the bigger picture evolves over time. One of the most recent songs on the collection, “Estoy aquí (I Am Here)” by the Los Angeles band Quetzal, from their 2012 album Imaginaries, has taken on new meaning for bandleader Quetzal Flores. He and singer Martha Gonzalez, his partner, wrote the song in Veracruz, Mexico, while she was there studying on Fulbright-García Robles Scholarship. They were inspired by the makeshift dwellings topped with corrugated tin roofs, perched on on hillsides surrounding Veracruz, and occupied by people who constructed their shelters on unused land they didn’t own in an effort to provide for themselves and their families. “It’s sort of glittering and glistening on the hillside, but when you take a deeper look you start to understand what it is and who it is, and it’s people claiming their humanity,” Flores says. “Reclaiming their humanity and saying, ‘I’m here and I’m not going to wait for some government who has systematically abandoned us to fix my situation.’”
Back in L.A., where Flores is the director of cultural vitality for a nonprofit community development corporation, the meaning of “Estoy aquí” shifted to encompass the Legalize Street Vending movement that recently won vendors, many of whom are women, the right to sell everything from food, tchotchkes, electronics and more from carts. That same contextual evolution can apply to any topical song: “They’re all getting at the collective spirit, right?” Flores says. He cites a traditional artisan craft like basket weaving, where a practitioner is likely to have learned the practice from forebears who handed it down through generations. “Lineage is important because it tells you that you’re not alone in this and that the information that you’re receiving was held by someone, someone who did the work of holding that information to be able to transfer it to you very later,” Flores says.
Music works in a similar way. “Times change, but inspiration for music, social struggle or whatever, those things don’t change,” says Jay Farrar. The Son Volt leader and Uncle Tupelo co-founder spent much of his teenage years absorbing the Folkways catalog at his local library, which helped shape the sound of some of Uncle Tupelo’s music. The band’s third record, March 16-20, 1992, featured six traditional songs and a bunch more that sounded like it. Son Volt’s upcoming ninth studio album, Union, includes a cover of “Rebel Girl.” Though the labor organizer Joe Hill wrote “Rebel Girl” more than 100 years ago, Farrar sees parallels with the present day. “Right now we’re kind of experiencing a cultural divide,” he says. “No matter what century you belong to, some things never change, so I think that’s why I chose that song. It still resonates.” (“Rebel Girl” isn’t part of The Social Power of Music, but a song about Hill is.)
That songs like that do still resonate speaks to the value of collections like The Social Power of Music, Flemons says. “A song is easy to lure people in. You have other things besides the actual message that can draw people in,” he says. “As the young people are finding they need something to say, this type of reference guide to what can be done is essential to anybody who wants to sing something that can change the world.”