Press-Citizen article about Saturday’s concert

The Press-Citizen ran this column on Thursday, May 19. Hope to see you at the concert!

by Jean Littlejohn

The Family Folk Machine presents a free concert this Saturday, May 21, at 2 p.m. at the Englert Theatre with the Senior Center’s Voices of Experience. We’re calling the concert “Hard Times Come Again No More: Songs of Struggle and Hope,” and the program features songs about social justice in order to present a community angle on the University’s “Just Living” theme semester.
The notion that songs can help further the cause of social justice is an old idea, even if it’s not a straightforward one. Even though you can’t scientifically prove that songs can move the cause of justice forward, many people agree that they have played a powerful role in social movements—things like helping slaves maintain their dignity and spreading secret messages about the Underground Railroad, giving workers the courage to organize into a union, galvanizing the African American community to fight racist policies in the deep South in the 1960s, and cleaning up the polluted Hudson river. Some of our concert songs honor past struggles for human rights, and others call us to action.
The concert will be framed by the rhetorical device of the hammer as the means of action in the world. We’ll sing the classic Pete Seeger/Lee Hays song, “If I Had a Hammer,” where the tools for working for a better world are the “hammer of justice,” the “bell of freedom,” and the “song about the love between my brothers and my sisters.” The concert ends with the recent Steve Earle tribute to Seeger, “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete),” where we imagine laying the hammer down once peace and justice are achieved. In between, we’ll sing “John Henry,” which seems to have begun as a true story about this heroic steel-drivin’ man who beat the steam drill with his hammer and then came to represent the dignity of human work.
One recurrent problem in the struggle for social justice is the feeling that the world’s problems are large and systemic and that individual actions can never prevail against them. But past struggles teach us that, as we’ll sing on Saturday, “step by step the longest march can be won”—by working together: “Many stones can form an arch; singly, none.” When Patti Smith performs her song “People Have the Power,” she often ends with the entreaty, “Use your voice!” If you’re ready to use your voice, you can believe her words: “People have the power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools.”
The Family Folk Machine is pleased to be sharing the Englert stage with the Voices of Experience for this concert, swelling our numbers to around 80 singers of all ages. The concert is free and open to all, and we try to make it easy for the audience to sing along on many of the song choruses. After the concert, there will be time to gather and socialize at a reception at the Senior Center celebrating the Center’s 35th anniversary.