Demonstrators Don’t Sing Anymore
By RICH GRANT
Demonstrators don’t sing anymore. But they used to. I was there in Washington, on a cold bitter October afternoon in 1969, when a quarter million people migrated to the city to protest the war in Vietnam. And we were all singing. It may seem impossible today, but a line of human beings – thousands, as far as the eye could see in any direction, were all singing the same song. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”
Like many of them, I spent the summer at the Woodstock festival and felt emboldened.
The “whole world was watching us.” Young people (today they call us “Baby Boomers”) were going to change the planet, but first we had to end an unjust war.
Much like Woodstock, the “Moratorium to End the War,” as they called it, was all word of mouth.
It was to be a gathering of the tribes in Washington to protest the war.
The signal traveled by its own electricity from one campus, one church and one city to another. It was seldom mentioned on the fledging national TV news programs. No one watched TV anyway. But the word spread like revolution.
Something was going to happen in the capital and you had to be there.
I arrived in Washington in that November 1969 by hitchhiking 150 miles from Penn State. I met a girl at a dance on Wednesday, invited her along and with a sign her roommates made that just said, “DC!” above a giant peace sign, we hit the road.
And got either a finger or a horn toot from every passing car until a pickup stopped.
A hippie handed me a joint as we squeezed in, and he drove us (he said) to a better spot.
Stoned, we got out and waited for two hours at a highway exchange before someone stopped to tell us we were heading the wrong way. (North instead of south to Washington.)
Our next driver handed me a joint, drove us to the exact spot we had started, and dropped us.
The first car picked us up and took us to somewhere near the Lincoln Memorial.
Meanwhile, Richard Nixon’s army, not knowing what to expect from the Age of Aquarius marching to his town, surrounded the White House with buses in a wall with troops behind them. It wasn’t necessary.
This was November 1969. Despite the daily casualties in Vietnam, despite the two recent assassinations, we were still on a high from Woodstock and believed all we had to do was gather, show our united presence, and sing “Give Peace a Chance.”
Well, that didn’t work.
The next time I was in Washington protesting in May 1970, it was a different tune. They teargassed us, arrested thousands and locked them up in a football stadium. The Beach Boys gave a free concert, but nobody was singing in the streets.
These memories came back to me recently on two occasions.
I went to the Ringo Starr concert at the Bellco Theatre in Denver and the 84-year-old Ringo ended his set singing “Give Peace a Chance.”
Flashing the peace sign, which only Ringo would dare do anymore, he had everyone on their feet singing the old chant and believing, at least for a moment, maybe this time it would work.
And then I went to the new Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bob Dylan’s museum is in Tulsa (of all places) because it’s next to the center honoring his idol, Woody Guthrie. Woody’s battle in the 1920s to 1940s was against fascism, hunger and poverty. He sang in defense of the 4.5 million Oklahomans who were forced to flee their homes because of the Dust Bowl – the worst manmade ecological disaster in the history of the planet. Woody was one of many who believed that singing could bring about change.
Bob Dylan followed his path.
They were both disappointed. Woody became more influential after his death. Dylan admitted in his autobiography, “Chronicles, Volume One,” that his early protest songs ruined his life. He never thought of himself as a prophet or a revolutionary. Despite public adulation, he dropped out, left music for nine years and tried to hide and raise a family in Woodstock, New York. But people looking for a leader would come to his house and camp out on his property. Joan Baez wrote a song begging him to come back to lead a revolution that Dylan only wanted to sing about.
And now we come to Jason Aldean and his new anthem, “Try That in a Small Town.” It’s a song swept up to Number One with lyrics that at one time embrace the idea that in small towns people watch out for each other, but also remind us that in many small towns of old, outsiders were dealt with by hate, lynching and racism.
The song has been banned … and embraced. But at least it got people singing again. And before you ban this song, just imagine for a minute a video of the Jan. 6. riots at the Capitol mixed with these words:
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
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
You can ban songs. Or you can surround yourself with a wall against those singing them.
But you should never forget the power of song.