“If we deal in anything as artists, we must be promoting empathy. That’s what music can do. It can’t change the world, but it can make you feel things for people you’ve never met. It can make you understand the situation of people you’ve never read about. A song can touch you, a song can make you feel as if you’re not alone.
Empathy plus action equals solidarity. If we’re going to build that cohesive society, the bedrock is going to be social solidarity with people.” (Billy Bragg, FAI, 2017)
“Grapes of Wrath moved millions of people, very few of whom were Okies in the dust bowl. [Steinbeck] was able to make us feel everything that those characters felt. That’s the way you get a better world. It opens up our empathy and our hearts and I think we become kinder people” (Gretchen Peters, 2018)
In these turbulent times I spend spent a lot of time thinking about the power of music to make change, to fight injustice and to point to a better world.
Protest music fueled the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950s and 1960s. They shined spotlights on injustice and inspired millions to persevere and act in the face of terror and hatred. Many of those songs remain cultural anthems today. The contributions to the nation of Dylan, Baez, Lennon, Phil Ochs, Buffy St. Marie, Aretha, Nina Simone and many more are incalculable.
But today is different.
The intensity and level of tribalism, stratification, segregation, intolerance and hatred in the country has shaken the soul of the nation.
Our national empathy deficit, while not a singular cause, makes possible the disregard and contempt for others that leads to criminalizing young men of color and attacking immigrants seeking refuge from war and poverty, or denying basic needs such as food stamps and health care to single mothers and their children.
If empathy according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, America needs musicians more than ever.
Music has that power and potential by telling stories of those we don’t know and understand. Storytelling in song often spreads the basic element of empathy: an understanding of the real experiences of those we don’t or can’t spend time with — to learn not just their story of pain and suffering but also their humanity, their dignity, their strength.
And they blast past our rational minds straight to our hearts. John Prine’s songs Sam Stone, Hello in There, and Donald and Lydia still have exactly the same emotional impact on me as when I first heard them 45 years ago.
To be clear, seeking and fostering empathy certainly doesn’t mean agreeing with or accepting injustice or hate. Nor does it mean that hatred, greed and intolerance should not be resisted and repelled vigorously and relentlessly at every step. It’s just the first step of many towards creating a nation of tolerance, respect and common purpose.
Some claim that ending racism and hatred can’t be done by changing individual attitudes but can only be done by changing the system of laws and institutions that codify discrimination. History shows that it is not one or the other but both. The system changes as attitudes change. Attitudes changes when the system changes. Music can be a fuel that stokes the fire for both.
The following are a few recent songs that, to me, foster empathy. They tell stories that need to be told to help us confront todays challenges. They deepen our understanding even when they stoke our anger and outrage. And they point us towards the human capacity for compassion. They also have the power to break through cynicism to shared human values.
I learned from each of them. These are stories of history, of a child, of a slave, a slaver, an Iraq war veteran, a military spouse and more that helped me see and feel the world from their perspective.
This is a start of what is probably a very long list of songs that can help us all see the world through the eyes of those that are too often considered “the other.” I chose songs that told stories furthest from my own life experience to test the limits own my own capacity for understanding.
I can’t do justice to the depth of each song. I simply give my short take and in, some cases, let the lyrics speak for themselves. So, by all means, listen to each of them. And definitely buy the albums.
Gretchen Peters: Wichita (Dancing with the Beast)
Each song on Gretchen’s new release, Dancing with the Beast, is told by a different woman, in a different circumstance and with a different story to tell. In “Wichita,” a 12 year-old Cora Lee who was born “with something wrong with me” is determined to protect her little sister from the abuser in her home and makes her violent act to protect seem as logical and correct to us as it did to her.
There may be something wrong with my head, but not my heart. I got a little sister, she’s not dumb like me. I don’t want her seeing things she don’t need to see.
Mary Gauthier: The War After the War (Rifles and Rosary Beads)
Mary’s latest album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, is a collection of songs written with Iraq war veterans and spouses at weekend retreats with Songwriting with Soldiers. Each song brings forth the stories of war through the eyes of those who were there and the spouses who waited for them at home. “The War After the War” was written with song-writer Beth Nielsen Chapman and a group of six military spouses (Ashleigh Smith, Robin Kaufmann, Rebecca Sakaki, April Rodriguez, Ximena Raza, Christina Coyle.) It asks a question that we too often forget to ask: “Who’s going to care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?” The spouses describe their own pain of loss, their struggle to adjust to their damaged and different returning warrior and of their own sacrifice that is every bit as real those who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield.
Crys Matthews: One and the Same (Battle Hymn for an Army of Lovers- EP)
“One in The Same” is a journey into an actual family’s genealogical tree that Crys came across. It starts with “ your great-grandpa’s great grandfather”, the slaver at the root of the family tree, then narrates the transference of family viewpoints and traditions through the generations of the antebellum south, and down through the family tree to today. Crys shows us how family values, pride and ultimately hatred are passed from generation to generations in subtle, natural and almost understandable ways.
Great grandpas great grandfather was a proud Virginian. He might well have a been a good man. But it’s so hard to tell through histories lens with that slave ships wheel in his hand.
Don’t you take down my rebel flag – they say it’s heritage not hate. But what they don’t seem to understand is that sometimes they are one in the same.
Birds of Chicago: American Flowers (American Flowers EP)
The twitter profile of The Birds of Chicago (Alison Russel and JT Nero) says: “Empathy is our currency.” It is infused deeply in all of their songs. “American Flowers” is a set of simple, yet moving, examples of human compassion about and between strangers and the basic human decency that can point the way towards hopefulness. JT’s drive across the American heartland shares stories of the patient love of grandpa for grandson, an underage driver who chooses not to leave the scene of an accident and a homeless woman’s regret about a life’s path taken.
I have seen American flowers all across this land, From the banks of the Shenandoah, along the Rio Grande
Do not fear the winter blowing in the hearts of men, I have seen American flowers they will bloom again
Jason Isbell – White Man’s World (The Nashville Sound)
“White Man’s World” is Jason’s attempt to deal with his white privilege in a country racked by the pain of racism. Jason (source) described his intent in a recent interview: “I was trying to get to the root of my feelings without bringing shame into it, because I don’t think shame does a whole lot of good. But I was trying to address what I see around me, and trying to make it clear that I see it, and that’s about the best that I could do with a song.”
There’s no such thing as someone else’s war. Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for, If you’re still breathing, it’s not too late. We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.
I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes; Wishing I’d never been on of the guys; Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.
Rhiannon Giddens: Julie (Freedom Highway)
Rhiannon, at a recent Women in Music conference and concert, described her calling to tell the stories for those who couldn’t or weren’t allowed to speak for themselves. The album, Freedom Highway, is her anthology of some of those stories. “Julie” is a conversation between a slave owner and her soon to be ex-slave—Julie–in the face of the approaching Union Army. Julie, about to be freed, makes clear that their relationship is based on oppression, rather than family and powerfully articulates the hell of bondage.
Mistress, oh mistress, Don’t you cry, The price of stayin’ here is too high
Mistress, oh mistress, I wish you well, But in leavin’ here, I’m leavin’ hell
Ordinary Elephant – Scars We Keep (unreleased)
“Scars We Keep” by Ordinary Elephant (Crystal and Pete Damore)’s is a son’s powerful testimony about his struggle through reckoning and rejection (and the scars that remain) of his family heritage handed down by his father’s racist and violent sins.
How can I keep my mind open if my eyes are closed? It’s hard to hide the hate when there’s no love to show. How can I nail a man up for the color of his skin? Knock him down, make him pay; For my father’s sin. And I’m starting to see; We are all the color of the scars we keep.
These times are hard, And it’s harder to heal, When where you were born, Decides what you fear. It’s time to be a brother, Not my father’s son. I was born to be a bigot, But that don’t that mean that I’m one.
Rosie and the Riveter: Ask A Man (Ms. Behave)
When all else fails, humor and sarcasm may be best way to open our eyes to the experiences of others. “Ask A Man” is a hilarious and somewhat brutal missive to us mansplainers. If we don’t get it after listening to this song, then we never will. I’m not excerpting lyrics because sarcasm needs context – so listen to the whole song. (note: I think I finally get it but I still won’t ask for directions when I’m lost.)
Of course, there are many, many more songs that could be included. Here’s a few more and I’m hoping others will add to the list.
Mercy Now (Mary Gauthier) – A powerful song that speaks for so many, “We all could use a little mercy now.”
The Navigator – Hurray for the Riff Raff – an album-long story of the day-to-day impacts of gentrification on the Puerto Rican community in New York.
Chosen (Rose Cousins) – the private self-doubt so many feel; even the publicly successful.
Cory’s Song – Yola Carter – a yet to be released song that will hopfully be on Yola’s upcoming album.
Bone Hill: The Concert (Martha Redbone) – a powerful story of Martha’s Appalachian and Cherokee family history.
Sahfiyah’s Smile (Billy Bragg) – memorializes a moment at a neo-fascist rally in the UK where by Saffiyah Khan “smiles down” a hater. A local Labour MP tweeted the image that went viral with the caption “Who looks like they have the power here?”
A final note to the artists, musicians and songwriters. Have no doubt about the power of your music to make the world a better place. Crystal Damore of Ordinary Elephant shared a moment at Kerrville Folk Festival this year that erased the self-doubt that often plagues artists, writers and other creative people:
Even with evenings as magical as last night dotting our calendar, we still get doubt that creeps in about whether this is what we should be doing. And then a random man walks up to you in the campground at 2am, with watery eyes, and says “I want to thank you for that song you did on main stage tonight, with the lines ‘my father’s sins’ and ‘born to be a bigot but that don’t mean that I am one’. You changed my point of view.” That is why we do this. Songs speak, and they can heal.
Yes, as we used to say way, way back in 2008, “you betcha,” your songs speak, heal, and we need them more than ever. Thank you Mary, Gretchen, Crys, Allison (Russel), JT, Rhiannon, Crystal, Pete, Faraday, Alexis, Allyson (Reigh), Jason, Alynda, Rose, Yola, Martha, Courtney, and Billy.