As the labor protests wage on in Wisconsin, several prominent musicians have taken to using their art to express their support. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats recorded a hundred-year-old folk song "There is Power in a Union," and Steve Earle rereleased a single of his own to benefit The America Votes Labor Unity Fund. And last Tom Morello joined Tim Mcilrath of Rise Against and Wayne Kramer of MC5 for a rally concert in Wisconsin.
But what do their voices mean in 2011? It is a tired line, the long-lamented death of music's ability to change the world. Those of us too young to remember it, imagine the '60s as a place where civil policy could be actively created and destroyed by dancing hippies and dudes with guitars.
Of course, that was never actually the case: Music's power, then as now, was the ability to edify the communal voice. If music has lost its ability to impact real change, it's only because virtually no musicians reach a critical mass.
Earle, ever the blue-collar rocker, isn't even pretending his music is a gift to the workers. He's trying to turn his music into actual dollars to be donated to their cause; whether he is able to make much of a dent is a separate question.
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It is not these musicians faults that Scott Walker was able to pass his legislation, of course, and in the end, the protests themselves will likely result in a backswing of popular support for labor in the next Wisconsin elections.
When Arizona passed its alarming anti-immigration bill last year, plenty of artists responded, some by expressing their displeasure onstage, some by canceling shows in the state, some through these same sorts of musical protest. Who knows if any of this makes much of a tangible impact, but it is imperative that art work to challenge authority. John Darnielle may not be able to physically put Scott Walker on his ass with his acoustic guitar, but maybe he can still stir a few people into forming an opinion about what is happening in Wisconsin.