“People Have the Power”


Some of the songs we’re singing this spring come with a rich background. I thought I might say a few things here about the history of some of the songs or about why these particular songs are appearing on our program (out of the hundreds of possibilities).

First, “People Have the Power,” by Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith.
Some of the songs on our program are songs that have been used in past movements for human rights (like the spirituals-turned-civil-rights songs “O Mary, Don’t You Weep” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and the union song “Union Maid”). Some address the lack of racial or economic justice in our society, like “Midnight Special” and “Unwelcome Guest.” Others are reflections on our role in the struggle for a better world, like “Shine On” and “If I Had a Hammer.” “People Have the Power” is a vision for making society more just: the song proclaims that by dreaming it, we can do it because the power to make things better is with the people.

Patti Smith has been a unique voice in the American rock and punk rock scene since her first record came out in 1975. I heard “People Have the Power” on the radio in early December and realized that I hadn’t heard it for a long time. The chorus is so catchy that I began to wonder if it would be a good song for the Folk Machine. It’s a little farther into the rock world than we usually hang out, and it presents a challenge to the soloists who will sing the verses. Patti Smith is first a poet and only second a songwriter; the verses to this song are full of poetic images that depend on a strong rhythm rather than an easy melodic contour.

As I thought about the song more, I looked it up on YouTube to listen to it again. It has been performed by many different singers and bands, including this “super group” of Bruce Springsteen plus various other rockers:

More recently, I discovered, it was the song that was sung by U2 and the Eagles of Death Metal when U2 was performing in Paris this December 7 and they invited the Eagles of Death Metal to come back and share the stage with them in response to the tragedy that took place at EODM’s show at the Bataclan on November 13:

“People have the power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools.” As Patti Smith proclaims in some of her live versions, the people have the power “to vote, to occupy, to strike . . .” We can fill in the blank for ourselves.