Any song that has ever played in the background while a memory is being formed is thereby instilled with the power to bring listeners back to a certain time. The past is dripping with music. Everyone has their own cherished time portal. However, there is another form of musical time travel, a bit harder to come by: a song that not only propels us forward but actually has a hand in shaping the future.
This is the protest song. Such songs owe their existence to the strife of the present but their hope is derived from the fact that the voices singing along may know a better world.
Today, artists such as Dispatch and Pearl Jam are taking to their guitars to demand gun reform in the wake of numerous tragedies. While these songs respond to an individual, tragic time in history, they are part of a greater, long-standing American tradition of singing out in the face of injustice– a tradition made famous by Bob Dylan.
Woody Guthrie (“This Land is Your Land”) and Pete Seeger (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone”) laid the folk-foundation of Dylan’s pulpit. Dylan embodied the times and shaped the society that followed, a feat achieved only by icons. In his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan equated songs with guides into “a liberated republic.” Visions of this liberation prevailed throughout The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964). While America was a powder keg of tension and energy in the face of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, Dylan gave his prophecy and plea:
“Come, senators, congressmen/Please heed the call/Don’t stand in the doorway/Don’t block up the hall/For he that gets hurt/Will be he who has stalled.”
And as history proved, the times were a-changin’. And here we are in 2018, changing again.
Change in America seems to require a few key ingredients: a rightfully pissed-off new generation, stagnant politicians to rally against, and songs to capture the momentum of the times. In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida massacre this still holds true.
Dispatch, most known for their 1997 hit, “The General,” has never refrained from letting their social values and political beliefs seep into the music. Their latest album, America, Location 12 (2017), was no exception. Their disdain for American gun culture was touched on in the album’s track “Skin the Rabbit.”
However on Feb. 23, Dispatch released their most overtly political track yet, “Dear Congress (17),” where the band adopts the perspective of a grieving Parkland parent:
“Oh bless the child/oh rest their souls/I bet those lawmakers don’t know/this feeling that/it’s not enough/your thoughts and prayers.”
The piercing lyrics, paired with undeniably Dispatch harmonies and gently plucked guitars, invite listeners to not only share in astounding grief, but demand change. All proceeds from the song are being donated to the Brady Campaign, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing gun deaths by changing culture, laws, and the gun industry itself.
Pearl Jam also had something to say in response to the Parkland shooting; enough so that the band broke their five-year hiatus from releasing new music. “Can’t Deny Me,” was released on streaming services on March 13. The song delivers rock n’ roll grit and fury (along with its fair share of zings towards the Trump administration). Eddie Vedder dedicated the song to “The incredible students in Florida,” before the song’s live debut in Chile.
While our hearts ache for the circumstances that bore these songs, we continue to do the things Americans do best: make demands and walk out, grab posters and march, ache and get angry, and pick up a guitar and sing.