Musical Solidarity and Compassion for the Continuing War on Poverty

Today is the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s famous inaugural address in which he declared a War on Poverty, which culminated in Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and an expansion of Social Security from the New Deal. While we have made progress in a lot of areas, compared to what would have happened without those programs (explained here with a nice graphic), we still have over 40 million Americans fighting through the grittiness, blight, and despair of poverty every day. People don’t have enough food. Their kids’ clothes are too small. Two jobs just isn’t paying rent every month. Medical debt becomes insurmountable. It’s real. I myself am not that far from it, with many members of my extended family on public assistance for as long as I can remember, and having myself left food stamps behind only about six months ago.

So the need for solidarity, strategic policy and expanded assistance remains. I think music can build that solidarity and help compassion grow. “We Shall Overcome” is only one example of a song that helped launch an entire movement that changed the country for the better. If a person’s or group’s story can come to life for us, we begin to care. And when we begin to care, we begin to notice and act. Here’s a few selections that highlight the stories, strength, and resolve of America’s poor through the last half century or so.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime? – Bing Crosby

With lyrics from the historic poem by Jay Gorney, here is one crooner’s  take on a poor man’s pleading from the Great Depression. (Better than Crooner Christmas, I promise) 

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there, right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Ghost of Tom Joad – Bruce Springsteen

I was first introduced to this one via Rage Against the Machine’s cover. At that time I thought Bruce was basically mainstream 80s radio power pop (all because of Born in the USA). I now know much better. Grapes of Wrath, if you can get through it, is one of the most stark, painful, and exquisite representations of poverty in America.

“Got a one-way ticket to the promised land 
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand 
Sleepin’ on a pillow of solid rock 
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct”

Fanfare for the Common Man – Aaron Copland

This one’s instrumental, a stirring tribute to the people and causes Copland championed. His organizing work eventually found him blacklisted by the likes of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn.

This Land is Your Land – The Nightwatchman with Anti-Flag

I didn’t know about the additional lyrics to this until I saw The Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) in 2007. Very enlightening to Woody Guthrie’s visionary writing.

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.” 
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

h/t Huffington Post


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