Guest Blog: Arlan Feiles on Activism and Songwriting

photo by Kyra Kverno
photo by Kyra Kverno

Arlan Feiles is an award-winning songwriter, performer, producer and political activist. He has recently written songs for The Academy Award winning Dallas Buyers Club and Adam Sandler’s The Cobbler. Visit for more information. 

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A few weeks ago I returned home from singing at a memorial service in Alabama for Viola Liuzzo, Civil Rights martyr. On the flight home I began to reflect on the role activism has taken in my music career and my personal life. I realized how entwined they were; woven together tightly with just the slightest fraying at the ends. One action was always resting heavily on the other.  How did I get here today? When did I decide that my music could play a role in activism and not just entertainment? How did I know if I was activated? Am I activated?

When I was a young man I discovered that writing songs had unusual powers. I discovered that a song could get someone on their feet to dance, or quickly leave a room. A song could make a girl swoon and invoke a blush, or a stream of tears. A song could quiet a room to a pin drop, or start a small melee. A song could also annoy your big brother, and a song could entertain your buddies with off-color humor.

Wow! A song has that much power?!? Once I figured out how to harness those powers, I decided that there was only one thing to do with them … Change the world.

Yeah, I know; lame huh? I didn’t mean to write songs to get laid, be popular, or get the girl. All I wanted to do was change the world. Make it a better place. Fight the good fight. Bring the bad guys to their knees and save the fucking world. That’s all. Not too much to ask for, right? Unfortunately, it’s hard to quantify just how much I’ve managed to change the world in the 30 years I have been writing songs. I may not have changed it at all, not one bit; but my desire to change the world is why I do it to this day. Songs activate me. I am activated.  I am an activist.

Songwriting as Activism in 2015 

Songs have been used for activism since the beginning. In recording history there is no shortage of popular songs calling for peace, the end of greed, or the taming of power; no shortage of songs that shine a brighter needed light to a social ailment or community concern.

Every notable American era that saw a shift of social conscience and change boasted a share of wonderful activist songs to inspire the fight, expose the inequality, and spill the dirty secrets of power and greed.  They were sung in the church, the cotton field, and the campus. There were sung from the stage and from the rally pulpit. They were sung on the steps of state houses and out of the sides of barns. Activism through song helped pave the way to change, and continues to remind us that darker times can return.  They warn us with songs from the past and remind us that we need to take care of the now, and of the future. These songs gave hope and continue to inspire and inform us.

“Oh Freedom” demands the abolition of slavery, Joe Hill’s “The Preacher And The Slave” calls for labor to unite,  Holiday’s beautifully sung  “Strange Fruit” exposes the horrors of lynching, Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” reminds us that there are two American experiences and inspires us to reclaim the ideals of America lost. Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” begs us to ask the question, how long must we wait for peace? Lennon’s “Imagine” asks us to imagine the possibilities of a future with no hate, greed or war. Neil’s “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World” rallies against corporatism and corporate greed.  Rage’s “Killing in the Name Of” exposes the horrors of government oppression and hypocrisy and Conor Oberst’s “When The President Talks To God” blasts the policies of the Bush Administration. John Legend and Common perform “Glory” to remind us we are still a long way from true equality for all Americans, and Willie is singing for our weed to this very day. From the beginnings of sheet music publishing and music recording, up to this very day, there has been a call and a need for the activists’ song. Songwriting as activism was relevant then, and it is relevant in 2015. I am an activist.

Activism from the Stage: Singing to the Choir or Feeding the Fire?

Every audience is unique. And so is every performer. I am quite sure that there are many folk who don’t want to be “preached” to from the stage. They are the “entertain me” crowd. They think entertainers should play music to help them take their minds off the troubles of the day; not remind them of them. They are correct. They are looking for an escape. Escapism in music is as age old as activism in music. It is also as important. I certainly seek it out as well from time to time. Who doesn’t like to be entertained by the likes of Maroon 5 or classic Madonna? They are great entertainers. They are not activists.

I am not an entertainer. I am an activist. When I hit the stage with my song “Viola” in the set list, you are going to hear me talk about Viola Liuzzo, Civil Rights martyr. Her story, how she died for our right to vote, and how her family continues to carry her torch for economic equality and the equal rights to vote for all American citizens. I will likely add that we need to continue the fight against corporate tyranny masking as persons who attempt to contain and sway the vote. If my song “Workers United” ended up in this evening’s set you will also likely hear about the many state legislative bodies that are passing laws designed to weaken the Unions, drive wages down and destroy the middle class. “Come Sunday Morning” in the set list? We could talk about the hypocrisy of greed. “Sign Up”? The sadness of losing a loved one to war. “Wake” on the list? We might talk about the need to find strength to rise up when you have been bullied. Whether bullied by a parent, a loved one, or your govern—  Oh ….. Sorry, was I preaching? Ok … yeah; maybe. I can’t help but remember a couple of the amazing powers of songwriting: Songs can fill a room, and songs can empty a room. I’ve done both. I am an activist.

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