Henry Rollins: The Column! How Music Has Enacted Social Change: A Primer
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
I spoke recently at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. I was mercifully brief, speaking about topics that included the abolishment of slavery by the 13th Amendment in 1865 and the failure of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 -- which was knocked down in 1883 by the Supreme Court, when they decided it was in violation of the 14th Amendment. I also talked about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bitterly opposed by several states), Abraham Lincoln's clear meditations on the true threat to America's security (Americans), that education is the best defense against any threat from anywhere and that literacy is a true equalizer and emancipator. The public library system of the United States is worth preserving.
These are things I think about all the time. 1865 was the year America embarked on its greatest and most challenging journey -- to equality and freedom for all. It's a work in progress and there's a lot yet to be done. There are many frustrating setbacks ahead, but I would like to think we are getting up the road.
I mention all this because, from the early days of America's origins until right now, music has been a vehicle for expression, communication and freedom. It is perhaps music's journey through the American landscape -- and its ultimate triumph and influence -- that is one of America's greatest achievements, not to mention one of its great export items and cultural markers.
If a slave were to raise his voice to his master, he risked all manner of punishment. Yet what was possible in many circumstances was to lift one's voice in song. This was a major ingredient in what is now known as blues and gospel. Slaves may have been regarded as subhuman by their cruel captors, but through music they were proud and dignified.
Songs sung under duress are often very powerful. I direct you, with all confidence, to what I believe to be the single greatest blues album ever released: Angola Prison Worksongs, recorded by Dr. Harry Oster. It's on Arhoolie Records, it's in print, and there's not a second on it that's not perfect. There are other records that have similar titles, so hunt carefully. I heard this one almost 30 years ago, courtesy of the late, great Deirdre O'Donoghue of KCRW. I never thought of music the same way again.