Start Composing

December 1, 2012
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Shaul Kelner

NASHVILLE — I futz around on guitar. Strum a few chords. Pluck simple scales — enough to entertain myself. Every Nashvillian who can do that much will eventually step onto a stage. My performing debut (which doubled as my farewell concert) came at the conclusion of a Jewish conference several years ago where I had been teaching a retrospective on the movement to free Soviet Jews. The class session unlocked a trove of stories from former activists. Inspired, I borrowed a guitar and an erstwhile Reform movement summer camp song-leader, and, in a darkened ballroom at the final evening’s cabaret, offered a rendition of the band Safam’s “Leaving Mother Russia,” an anthem of the Soviet Jewry movement.

“They call me Anatole, in prison I do lie.” I had stood in crowds singing this line many times, but not since my teenage years. “So stand up now and shout it to the sky!” And as would have happened three decades ago, the room — more than 100 people — stood and swayed and indeed shouted: “We are leaving Mother Russia. When they come for us, we’ll be gone.” The reenactment was surprisingly powerful. How strange to experience again the actual feelings of being in the movement during its peak. If there were still a Soviet embassy to protest in front of, we would have marched. Such is the power of song.

A suggestion to today’s activists: If you want to transform your cause into a full-fledged social movement, start composing. Movements do more than just hammer away at a policy agenda. They also do more than sound alarm bells to raise awareness about burning issues. Movements create full-blown cultures that immerse people — body and soul. Imagine the civil rights movement without “We Shall Overcome” or the Jewish feminist movement without “Miriam’s Song” (“And the women dancing with their timbrels…”). Yes, one needs a hammer and a bell, but, as Pete Seeger teaches us — in lyric, no less! — one also needs a song.

Songs communicate a movement’s message in concise and compelling ways, provide rousing calls to action, foster solidarity among activists, and bolster morale. But what makes for a good movement anthem?

First, the success of a movement anthem is never solely attributable to its musical qualities. As the saying goes, “All hits are flukes.” Activists don’t have as much control as they think. The Israeli peace anthem “Shir Lashalom” was propelled to classic status not by any peace activist’s choice but by an assassin’s bullet.

And one needn’t compose new melodies. Hit songwriter Sam Lorber, who is also an expert in Yiddish socialist protest music, notes that verse written by the sweatshop poets — a group of Yiddish writers in America who wrote during the 1890s and 1900s — became popular protest songs set to the tunes of familiar Russian marches.

Beyond the musical qualities, what about context? With whom, when, and how will the songs be sung? For movement anthems, eschew the solo performance. Through communal song, individuals recreate themselves as a collective acting in unison.

Where? Movement songs are often sung in spaces that already belong to a movement, as when workers sing “We Shall Not be Moved” in a union hall. But singing in public places and in someone else’s “territory” can transform a venue into movement turf. Sing “We Shall Not be Moved”  on the factory floor and you have claimed the space.

How will the song engage the body? Will activists cross arms and link hands, as with “We Shall Overcome”? Will they dance to “Miriam’s Song” with timbrel in hand as at feminist seders? What choreography will serve as the anthem’s trademark and enable one-time activists to reexperience the embodied sensations of the movement decades hence?

A movement for social change requires a vision for a better future. After Anatoly Sharansky received his freedom and changed his first name to “Natan,” Safam recorded a new version of “Mother Russia” written in the past tense: “They called me Anatole, in prison I did lie.” But the Sharansky of the song is not just the individual who inspired the anthem. Safam’s “refusenik” represents all Jews who might ever confront the weight of state oppression. As a cry against injustice, Sharansky’s fight against imprisonment needs always to remain in the present tense, just as “We Shall Overcome” always remains in the future simple.

Songs embody and encapsulate the experience of a social movement. Even after a movement recedes into the mists of history, its songs remain as spores. Under the right circumstances, they can sprout new life. They can regenerate emotions of the past or rouse people to action for new causes.

So, start composing or scouring the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. If a movement is creating feelings that can be felt again by reenacting its anthem 30 years later, it is doing the work of mobilization well.

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Shaul Kelner directs the program in Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism (New York University Press, 2010). The Smithsonian catalogue can be viewed at

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