Monday, October 27, 2008

I just got back from performing with a large and amazing gang of musicians on the Sing Out the Vote Ohio tour, organized in only a few weeks by Holly Near, with help from many women and a couple of men working on voter registration, Obama campaigning, and other urgent projects. What an incredible experience. For one thing, Holly is amazing--an inspiring performer, organizer and person who in almost any concert or conversation is likely to say something I want to write down and think about for a long time. For another thing, the sense of being part of a group of artists who are contributing collectively to social change is satisfying and educational in ways I hadn't even expected. As Holly points out, this kind of music (really a lot of kinds--the variety was huge) isn't a retro thing, a '60s thing. It's a set of ongoing variations on interlocking traditions that are much older than that, and will go on for a long time, represented here by a diverse group of people (none of them trying to hog a spotlight, all energetically doing whatever needed to be done and consulting with one another to improve the performances) that would never have appeared together on stage before the labor movement, civil rights, feminism, gay liberation and the consciousness of links across age and class boundaries.

And the apparent success of the project is impressive. The concerts and street singing re-energized organizers and volunteers. They brought their friends and got them to sign up. One big lesson for me: we sang on the green at Ohio State University in Columbus, by a table where organizers were attempting to recruit Get Out the Vote volunteers and convince students to hop on the vans (running every half-hour) taking people to vote early. As often happens on college campuses, it seemed like no-one was paying any attention, that we were probably wasting our energy. After singing in a handful of classes, we ran into one of the organizers from the table, who told us that, while we were performing, she got ten times as many volunteers as she's usually able to get in a day. I'm going to remind myself of that experience often, whenever I feel like the art I'm involved in is being flung out into a void. The work we do as artists (singers, actors, poets, painters, dancers, composers) plays crucial roles in imagining and moving towards the kinds of societies we want to live in, and the effects we can't see might not even be something we have to hope future generations will experience--they might be immediate and only temporarily invisible.

The work continues after the election, and I think there's reason for optimism. If Obama's elected (and, holy shit, I hope he is) things are, at worst, going to get a lot more interesting.



Photos from the Columbus concert
YouTube videos of anthemic election songs