A Revolutionary Mix—Music for An Artists’ Congress

pop music meditations on “what is revolutionary art?”

David Lester, “The politics are not obvious” (12 x 12″ acrylic on canvas), 2003.

…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

When Block Museum curator Susy Bielak asked me to put together a mix of popular music songs that related to the themes of The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940 exhibition and the Artists’ Congress event planned in conjunction with the show, I immediately thought of the standard-issue music of the Popular Front: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Leadbelly, union songs, solidarity forever, perhaps Billie Holiday singing Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.” Fine by me. I love that stuff!

But the more I ruminated on the question of what we should do with popular music that might be “revolutionary,” the more I thought that the question actually had to be turned around. It was not how should music be revolutionary today (my version of 1930s Artists’ Congress member Louis Lozowick’s question, “What Should Revolutionary Artists Do Today?,” which has inspired the contemporary version of the Congress), but rather almost the opposite: what would it mean for revolution to incorporate all that music has to offer?

And I mean music in the fullest sense: feeling and thought, corporeal experience and deeply 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—everything right down to what sound is at its core, vibration itself in all its mysterious physical and spiritual dimensions.

If there is to be a revolution that turns neither into a new kind of terror or a replication of all the worst qualities of the current world, if there is to be true emancipation, we will need to turn to the arts for new possibilities in democratic action. Which doesn’t mean that lots of good old-fashioned political organizing doesn’t need to happen as well, and lots of struggle and confrontation. Just that we more too. We need songs.

My mixes tilt toward the popular music I know and toward the function of these songs for the social “breaks” in the living mix of the Artist Congress itself—its presentations, roundtables, receptions, and social interactions (as a side note, the functional use of music might turn out to be important for its emancipatory potential). There could be much more classical music here, and much more classic country music too for that matter. Way more jazz of all varieties. Hip hop for sure.  More dance music too. There could be many more sounds from cultures around the world as well as many more contemporary pop songs. Actually, if it were up to me, the whole thing would consist solely of Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone.

But these mixes attempt to let the sounds I associate with the Popular Front ring out, then from there they especially move on to other sounds and styles that, to me, approach the legacy of the best aspects of the Popular Front ethos—democratic, radical, pluralistic, militant, inclusive, patriotic, tolerant—and do so from a multitude of perspectives, sonorities, elaborations, redirections, and even, at times, rejections. The mixes try to probe the many corners of what revolutionary music might sound like if revolution were enacted musically, across the full soundscape of society and the full “societyscape” of sound.

The mixes are split into three sections: Entrance Music, Midday Reception Music, and Closing Reception Music. Here is the whole thing, in sequence, courtesy of a Spotify playlist.

Hope to see you at the Artists’ Congress, this coming Saturday, 17 May 2014 from 1 to 5pm at Northwestern’s Block Museum.

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