When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, many of us were reminded of how music moved the nation during the late ’60s. Dylan and fellow anti-war troubadours like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez brought us together in song, inspiring us to believe we could change the system, halt the war in Vietnam, and come together to save the world.
In the 19th century, gospel music in the United States gave a dignity and power to a people violated by slavery, helping them maintain the subversive right to their own voices. A century later, whether it was at civil rights marches, anti-Vietnam rallies, or gatherings like Woodstock, music was a vital part of the background, sometimes live and sometimes ringing like a soundtrack in our ears.
During the 1970s, as people started to rise up in Chile and other Latin American countries, an exquisite music supported them. And in the 1980s, spontaneous singing demonstrations helped restore independence in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
No matter what the decade, music has power to send messages pulsing around the globe, support dissenting voices, and convey the urgency for change. When we feel isolated in private angst about a political system that disenfranchises many, music can weave us together, renew our sense of common purpose, and feed our courage.
Music comes with a secret code because it touches the heart. Civil rights organizers engaged movement-friendly churches by first sending in musical groups. They knew that their words, without song, would be less powerful.
Music, especially songs that speak to the heart of the people, reminds us of who we are and who we can be. It can echo a political message, give voice to the marginalized, and offer us hope by reminding the better angels of our nature that “all is not lost.”
Throughout the world, singing is a natural way for people to come together, create community, and share what they care about in such diverse settings as the fields of Mali, the streets in Soweto, or ashrams in India. But in the United States, many of my colleagues who once were glued to Dylan’s words often decline the invitation to sing with others today, muttering “I can’t sing.”
It’s time to put aside such notions! Singing together is not about having perfect pitch, but claiming the voices we have.
What’s more, making or even listening to music is one of the best things we can do for our brains. Neuroscientist and saxophonist Charles J. Limb has extensively studied the way music engages the mind, and he says, “Musical experience, musical exposure, musical training, all of those things change your brain.” Making music together is one of the best brain gyms we have.
Petr Janata, professor of psychology at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, discovered that the brain stores music in the prefrontal cortex, which he notes is one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer’s disease. This may explain why many dementia patients still respond to the music they heard as youth.
The music of our early adult years appears to live in a special place in our brains. Songs from the 1960s like Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone eventually jumped generational divides to become part of popular culture, sung by people of all ages. Yet as we savor the deep memories living in music from the past, we can continue to open our ears to new voices that emerge from other generations to address the challenges of our times.
At the recent Women’s March on Washington, the song Quiet by 30-year old Connie Lim (performing as MILCK) became the unofficial anthem of the march. Grandmothers and their granddaughters learned her sad but cathartic lyrics:
I can’t keep quiet
Who knows where the next songs will come from to carry us forward?
As we ponder what it will take to stay alert to the times that are still “a changin’,” let’s remember to make music and sing. It will help us work our brains, move our hearts, support our causes, connect with each other, and work together. And for some of us, it will help us remember with the commitments we made in our youth and take them into the years ahead.
Sally Fox is a coach, consultant, speaker, and podcaster who is helping individuals and organizations to bring their best stories forward. She lives on Vashon Island with her horse, husband, and the inimitable Barry-the-cat. Read about her work and find her blog at engagingpresence.com. You can also listen to her podcasts at 3rdActMagazine.com.