The Block Muse

Soundtrack for an Artists' Congress


…popular music can be the social glue for creating and maintaining diverse communities;…these communities support several distinct forms of collective political action including intracommunal disagreement and debate as well as assertion in external public arenas; and…music can increase the capacity, or power, of relatively marginalized people to choose and determine their own fate.

— Mark Mattern, Acting in Concert: Music,Community, and Political Action

The question this collage of popular music addresses is not “what should revolutionary music do now?” It is not a parallel sonic project echoing Louis Lozowick’s 1930 inquiry into “what should revolutionary artists do now?” Rather the sounds here turn the question on its head: what would it mean, I wonder, for revolution to incorporate all that music has to offer? And I mean music in the fullest sense: feeling and thought, corporeal experience and deep intellectual inquiry, individual perspectives and collective actions, questions of economy and commerce as well as culture and civic life, all the pain of the past as well as the rootedness musical traditions can provide, all the hopes and reaching for breakthrough, newness, for the unprecedented that music can evoke, music as a code for living, music as a flexible medium for making sense of the world, music as a modality for both experiencing and expressing what it means to be human—every-thing right down to what sound is at its core, vibration itself.

To ask this question is to shift from the long history of song as protest that includes the period chronicled in The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940 exhibition. It is to move, instead, out across time and space and people more broadly—and a bit more wildly and chaotically. It is to let the sounds unfold and flow, evolve and turn (Turn, turn, turn, in fact) toward more unusual directions. And to do so keeping in mind that it might help us better feel our way toward revolution. It is to see where music can go in registering, and sometimes shaping, the human experience both microscopically and writ large (actually sonus large). 

These mixes start with some of the standard-issue music of the Popular Front—union songs by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Almanac Singers—but they go to other genres quite quickly, without order: soul and New Orleans second line music, riot grrrl and punk, rock steady and ska, calypso and afropop. My mixes do, admittedly, tilt toward the popular music I know. And they also lean toward the function of these songs for the social “breaks” in the living mix of the Artists’ Congress itself—its presentations, performances, questions, and conversations (there could be more classical, jazz, country for instance, but those genres didn’t quite feel right functionally here). The mixes most of all try to connect the soundtrack of the Popular Front to other sounds, artists, and styles that, to me, approach the legacy of the best aspects of the PF ethos—democratic, radical, pluralistic, militant, inclusive, patriotic, tolerant. They do so from a multitude of perspectives, sonorities, elaborations, redirections, and even, at times, rejections. In making the mixes, I also became intrigued by unusual versions of anthemic songs. When we hear something familiar anew, does that provide an opportunity for rethinking what revolution might be? Can revolution include not only ruptures and breakthroughs, but also re-familiarizations and reminders of what matters? In the cover song and the reinterpretation, sound takes us away from ourselves toward others, but it also bounces back, off the walls, helping us know where we stand. At all these levels—historically and leaping across time, touching the familiar and pushing toward the disoriented—the mixes try to probe what revolutionary music might sound like if revolution were enacted musically, across the full soundscape of society and the full societyscape of sound.