Sunday, 8 August 2010

we shall overcome

a few weeks ago, i was talking to someone about my love of bruce springsteen songs, which started when i was about 18 years old. of course it was him looking & sounding totally hot in the song dancing in the dark which first caught my eye, but from there i went on to discover his earlier music, which meant that i became and have stayed a fan ever since.

the thing with mr springsteen is his ability to tell working class stories, in a way that's accessible. i'd be hard-pressed to pick a favourite song cos i haven't anything from him i didn't like, but my favourites tend to be the slower songs like atlantic city, racing in the streets, the river, independence day. my favourite album of his would be the river. i'd have to credit mr springsteen with raising my consciousness for working class issues, because i have never actually been a working class person nor have i had to face the struggles around poverty and unemployment that he sings about. i am one of the privileged, and he brought that home to me in his lyrics about broken dreams and empty futures.

another thing about mr springsteen is that he has never sold out. throughout this decade, i've watched him campaign for mr kerry and mr obama, and he continues to highlight issues of social justice and poverty, and the struggle of those at the bottom end of society. i don't think you could beat this man for sheer decency & integrity. i remember seeing an old interview from back in the late 70s i think, and a reporter was almost outraged at him singing about the broken american dream, when he happened to be the living embodiment of said dream. she demanded an explanation of what she seemed to think of as hypocrisy, without seeming to realise that while that dream had come true for mr springsteen, there were millions of others for whom it hadn't.

so anyway, i was talking to someone about some of this, and he lent me a copy of the album we shall overcome: the seeger sessions. it's an album full of american folk music, including "freedom songs" sung as part of the civil rights movement, anti-war songs and union songs. i've had it playing in the car over the last few weeks, and just love it.

tonight i thought i'd find out more about the history of the songs, and have spent the evening reading up about them. and it seemed to me, as i read, that in this day and age we don't seem to have that sense of a "movement" - a collective struggle for social justice. when i look at the movements that some of these songs represent, i think that somehow we've lost the plot or maybe lost the will to fight? have we lost the passion and the commitment that earlier generations, particularly in the twentieth century, were able to bring to their struggles?

i guess we saw a glimmer of it recently in the march against mining on conservation land. but in the minds of many people, past battles are over and we have apparently reached equality now. even though there is plenty of evidence to show otherwise. we know that many battles won in previous decades have since been lost (remember the 40 hour working week, overtime, compulsory breaks?), others have never been won (pay equity, discrimination) although some things have improved considerably.

maybe it's a sense of powerlessness that stops us, the fear that our efforts will be fruitless or that those ideals can never be achieved. who knows. but i have to say that i was inspired by the commitment of pete seeger and his band, who travelled around his country raising consciousness through music. and i love that mr springsteen puts these memories and issues back in front of us in a way that continues to inspire.

so here's my favourite song from the album, with bruce springsteen and the seeger band playing live with conan o'brien on his late night show:


Moz said...

Yes, one of my more pleasant surprises a while ago was getting a 3 CD set of Pete Seeger's work and being reminded how many of his songs I know and love. The US does have a strand of decency running through it that's hard to see if you're mostly exposed to its foreign policy.

Anonymous said...

Personally I regard supporting Obama and Kerry as selling out. What has Obama done for the working class lately?

Carol said...

The River and Independence Day are my two favourite Springsteen songs. They tell very moving human stories of failure to achieve the American Dream, and they set them within a social & historical context of industrial decline and economic change.

I think there are young people producing political, or politically informed songs that engage with activism, but the media may not be foregrounding them as much as in past times.

I do like GreenDay's songs for their critical element.

Lucy said...

I think there are young people producing political, or politically informed songs that engage with activism, but the media may not be foregrounding them as much as in past times.

A lot of Steve Earle's songs are very politically oriented - largely around the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but his album "Jerusalem" had some more general social critique. I particularly like his song "Rich Man's War" (

And Green Day are awesome, though not really that young anymore! Pink did "Dear Mr President" a few years ago ( Can't think of anything else new offhand, but it is out there.

What really strikes me is how many of the 60s and 70s songs are completely translatable to the current conflicts - I'm thinking of some of Phil Ochs' work in particular, like "Cops of the World". We seem to be stuck in the same place.

LadyNews said...

Not at all on a large/national scale, but a group of Dunedin musos put together a little number a while ago (when it became very evident that the council in our city is failing us in so many ways)

Hugh said...

Don't forget that RATM are still kicking around, and there are even rumours of a new album.

Anonymous said...

I worry that we don't have political representation of the working class here anymore. The Labour Party has become more middle class and academic whereas when it was begun it was a party of miners.

I'm not saying that the Labour Party is a problem, but that the working class aren't represented in the way they they once were.

Muerk (my google account doesn't seem to be working)

stargazer said...

obviously i'd disagree with you muerk. the working class used to be organised through unions and their political activity and representation happened through the unions. i think that still happens, and many of labour's front bench come from a union background. they still have a hugely significant impact on and input into policy development.

what has happened though, is the weakening of the unions through the employment contracts act and policies of the early 90s, which means that unions are representing less of the working class now than they used to. not going to be helped by recent proposed law changes that will restrict union access to the workplace even further.

i think this was one of the things i loved most about pete seeger's life detailed in the wikipedia link: that as he travelled around the country, he was not only promoting collective action through the unions, but also creating a link between farmers and the working class in the cities. through his (and the band's) interaction, rural people could start getting a sense of the commonality of the issues and the need for a combined struggle to achieve a better society.

another factor which i meant to mention in the post (but forgot cos it was late) is the rise of neoliberalism and the notion of individual responsibility over the last few decades, at the expense of collective responsiblity and a sense of community. i think that particular mindset has been more destructive to collective action than anything else, and the definition of success as what you own (consumerism) and what you have achieved for yourself, rather that what you have done for others and for your community all exacerbates this problem.

excellent post & discussion at the standard on some of these issues.

Anonymous said...


When the Labour Party was founded the unions were run by people from those industries. Now union leaders often hold university degrees.

In my experience your average coal or gold miner doesn't have a lot in common with the current Labour leadership (at least unless they are management).

Hugh said...

Also, union hierarchies usually mirror workplace hierarchies - those who are high up in unions are often also in management. This has certainly been my experience.

Moz said...

Flip side: a lot of blue collar workers have degrees these days. I've worked as a bicycle mechanic (ME) with a BE, BA(hons), and a couple of BSc's. I'd guess about half the staff had degrees and I wasn't the only postgrad qualification holder.

On the music front, people like Dar Williams, Sarah McLachlan, Ani Difranco and Merryn Cadell mostly cover modern political issues but there's a lot of overlap. It's just that to a traditional class-based analysis domestic violence really doesn't matter politically. So when Merryn Cadell sings about poverty-level employment it's seen as an abberration rather than as her core focus - female-oriented humor. Which itself is humorous now he's FTM'd. Link is to youtube.

Anonymous said...

Moz - that may be true in some areas. I expect highly urban areas to be more like this (degree + blue collar job) but it certainly isn't true where I am - West Coast, NZ. However we don't have a university, people have to leave the area to get uni qualifications and then are unlikely to return.


stargazer said...

pity that a post about building collective action and community responsiblity has descended into dissing unions. nice derail, muerk & hugh. i don't want to add to it, though i have to say that i don't know what unions you two are involved with or have contact with. union leadership is usually elected, and in my experience, the leadership tends to reflect the union. so finsec, AUSA, PPTA etc will have people with degrees which reflects their workforce. the police association has gregg o'connor, who told me he was an undercover officer prior to this role. servos (SFWU), dairy workers, rail & maritime all have leadership that reflects their workforce, and is quite different. some unions are more of a mix, like EPMU.

i think that our unions are doing an incredible good job under the circumstances, and had been making significant gains over the last decade. however, the disastrous reforms of the early 90s haven't been overturned, and the only way that will happen is if there is widespread public support for it.

that's what these musicians have been working on: building support for collective action, raising awareness of working class and social justice issues, and trying to build a movement for change. it's difficult to do in our current culture and with the structures that are in place. but it's nice to see that people like this continue to make the effort, and i think they make a difference.

i'd appreciate it if you'd keep your comments on topic.

Carol said...

When making comparisons between working class activism in the early-to-mid 20th Century and now, it's necessary to take into account changes in the occupational structure. I think there are more low paid "white collar" workers in service and retail sectors & less manual workers, especially less unskilled manual ones.

So I think the focus for activism, and related songs, should be on low-paid and relatively powerless workers. I don't think there's such a meaningful gap between traditionally blue collar jobs and some of the older and newer white collar ones, as there used to be.

This is a result of a shift in developed countries (especially in the US) towards service work, with industrial work being shifted offshore to low wage economies. This is the industrial decline that Springsteen's songs are often about. NZ was never highly industrialised, so maybe there hasn't been such a big shift?

There's also been an expansion in tertiary education, with more skilled manual and low paid non-manual jobs requiring some sort of formal, post-secondary school qualifications.

This shows our occupational structure in 2006:

How easy is it to differentiate "Trade workers", "Clerks", "Sales and service workers" according to the blue/white collar categories, and level of education/training required? and "Agriculture and fisheries workers"?

And this page briefly outlines some of the changes in the occupation structure over the last century & a half in NZ.

More women in the workforce is part of the shift, with women less inclined to do many of the traditional blue collar jobs, but many still do low paid work. So I think we should expect political songs to reflect any of the above changes.

And I would hope many would also show an awareness of the underclass, including those left high & dry by industrial decline... and then what about the exploited workers in non-Western countries, whose exploitation benefits our economies? Any songs about them?

Hugh said...

Stargazer, I think discussing whether or not unions can play a role in such community acitivism at the moment is within the scope of the post. I'm not 'dissing' unions just because I want to diss them, and I'm actually a fan of the concept of unions - it just seems to me that capitalists generally see the threat unions represent and have worked quite hard, and quite successfully, to prevent unions from posing a threat to their economic plans. That's why I feel sceptical about the idea that unions as they stand right now should be targets for reform, not vehicles for activism.

My experience is chiefly with the PSA, the TEU and the union that represents bank workers (I forget the name). The TEU has generally been OK, but the other two were very bad. I don't object to union members having degrees or earning more than the population at large - if the union represents workers who are comparatively well paid, it's only natural that union members will be well paid too.

What I don't like is the situation where union leaders tend to also be members of management. In my opinion the role of unions is to advocate workers in disputes and conflicts with management. I've seen many circumstances where unions have simply signed off uncritically on measures which badly hurt workers. On one occassion a new performance management system which would dramatically slow wage growth was uncritically approved by the union. On another occassion the union actively discouraged a worker who was wrongly threatened with dismissal for breaking a company regulation (a regulation which was later removed after a review found it frivolous and providing no benefit) from complaining so as to not 'disrupt operations'.

These are only my experiences and they may not be representative, but at the same time it is hard for me to simply disregard them. This is what makes me sceptical about the idea that unions are problematic as a vehicle for community activism.

Oh, and @ Carol: RATM are pretty solid when it comes to musical solidarity with people in Third World countries, particularly Latin America.

stargazer said...

thanx for your comments, carol. one of the benefits of a strong union movement is that links are built with unions in other countries, and there is international advocacy. of course i'd like to see much more activism on international labour issues, and i think some of that happens already. but union workers are so stretched at the moment that it's hard to fight on all fronts. i certainly would like them to be playing a much greater role in free trade negotiations, and ensuring some strong provisions about improvement in labour laws for the countries we sign these agreements with. it's an area i think the last labour government could have been stronger on.

hugh, i think the union you mean is finsec & i don't have much personal experience with them. the main thing i remember is them coming out against bank targets for workers, pushing them to push more debt on to bank clients. i thought that was a pretty strong & effective campaign. in terms of the other issues you mention, i can't comment on specific instances. but i think that the solution is to actually have more people signed up and involved, especially since most union positions are elected ones. the greater strength they have behind them, the greater bargaining power they'll have and also the greater ability to protect workers.

of course unions are only one form of movement, particularly for issues in relation to low-paid workers (and i like your point carol about the blue-white collar divide maybe not being as useful these days). my other personal priority would be a much stronger peace movement.

Anonymous said...

Stargazer et al, you are in for a treat - there is a fantastic musician touring the country in two weeks time! He sings union songs, songs about collective action, movement building, tells the stories of those who are usually silenced - he is a powerful performer too. He even comes recommended by Pete Seeger himself. His name is David Rovics, check out his website for tour dates.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to diss unions - I am very pro-union and I'm right behind unionisation of workers to bargain for improved conditions.


stargazer said...

thanx anon, i shall keep an eye out. i didn't see any nz dates on the website when i looked, but he certainly seems interesting. and thanx also to all those other contributions earlier, giving examples of singers bringing us valuable messages.

sorry muerk, i guess i get touchy because i know quite a few union workers and leaders from labour party interactions, and i have yet to meet one who isn't overworked yet totally committed to the betterment of the people they represent.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stargazer,
if you look again at David Rovics' webpage the dates are right there on the home page you just have to scroll down on the side bar by his picture - he arrives in NZ on the 20th August and is here through till the 1st September - see also

katy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
katy said...

There is an event listing for Dave Rovics in Auckland on Sept 1 on Facebook which can probably be found with a search.

Anonymous said...

David Rovics tour dates are on his homepage, just need to scroll down the side bar by his photo, or see

Anonymous said...

Stargazer - That's okay. Because I am pro-life it a bit unusual that politically I am left wing (I couldn't vote for ANYONE in America) so you may have thought I was right wing because I am conservative about abortion.

All the union people I have met have been hardworking and incrediably supportive of workers. They have done a brilliant job.