‘Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom’ Opens At Woody Guthrie Center in May

“The Ballad of George Floyd”
by Chicago’s Dave Specter is Featured

“If it hadn’t been for music, the civil rights movement would’ve been like a bird without wings.” –John Lewis

That quote from John Lewis speaks directly to the power of song, one of mankind’s oldest forces of unity. Woody Guthrie exemplified this force throughout his life; to Woody, the airwaves were sacred, and songwriters had an obligation to write songs which lifted people up, and to give them wings of hope. He knew then, as we still know today, that there are few other forces more effective at unifying people than song.

The Woody Guthrie Center have been song champions in their ongoing celebration and preservation of Woody’s legacy of song power. They persist in giving wings to those still doing Woody’s work; the songwriters still fighting the righteous battles, and using song when words don’t suffice.

In May they are opening a new exhibit anchored on the power of a singular song, “The Ballad of George Floyd,” by  Chicago’s own Dave Specter. Written very much in Woody’s spirit of transforming a tragedy of social injustice almost instantly into song. Dave wrote “The Ballad of George Floyd” in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death. 

The new exhibit, “Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom” will open on May 21, 2021. Presented in conjunction with the Grammy Museum, it examines the role of music in informing and inspiring social consciousness throughout American history, and features an array of musicians across decades and genres, all using their art to push toward a more equitable world. 

Dave Specter’s “The Ballad of George Floyd,” which features Dave along with harp legend Billy Branch, has been released on Delmark Records, is featured. Specter spoke about the terrible origins of this singular song and its real-time repercussions in our world. But like Woody, he is a realist. Yet he also envisions a world beyond the sorrow, and hasn’t given up hope in humankind. Not yet anyway.

 I wrote the song a few days after George Floyd was murdered, and the lyrics pretty much wrote themselves. Injustice’s toll from an endless cycle of racist violence and police brutality. And it just happened again with Jacob Blake.I was reminded of a tweet from Congress member Karen Bass, that when mass murderer Dylan Roof killed nine people in church, the police bought him Burger King. Dylan Roof is white. But George Floyd didn’t die in vain. He helped spark a worldwide movement for justice and change.”

Specter echoed the words of John Lewis quoted above, and spoke of his pride to work with Billy Branch, who shares his vision, and faith in the power of song to lift up even those with the heaviest burdens. 

The exhibit explores the power of song in major social movements, but also in the small but significant steps in between. From spirituals that were sung by enslaved people in America, to the labor movement struggles Woody Guthrie wrote about in “1913 Massacre” and other songs, to the mass movement of music and art that stirred action during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, to the continued fight for racial justice in America today, the exhibit spans time and genre to tell the stories of how songs have been a source of ongoing inspiration, education and unification. 

Videos by American Songwriter

It tells the story of how songs of all kinds have played a role in America’s political arena, particularly as a form of protest and as an agent for political, social, racial, and economic change,” said Bob Santelli, Grammy Museum founding executive director and exhibit curator. 

“Though it offers a sweeping view of the history of protest music,” said Santelli, “the exhibit pays special attention to the music inspired by Black Lives Matter and other contemporary struggles for justice and equality in America.”

While at the museum, don’t miss the great “Song Spotlights.” These  tell more stories of the power of song, with focus on such landmark protest songs as “Strange Fruit,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and others., in association with the Grammy Museum, is exemplified the power of song always in their celebration of songs of social consciousness.

Dave Specter

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