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Protest Music for a New Generation

Even before the Bush administration embarked on the current war in Iraq, many musicians were speaking out in opposition. Music veterans of the antiwar movement from a generation ago say that society and the media have changed significantly since the end of the Vietnam War -- and that's changed musical protest.

In New York City recently, NPR's Rick Karr attended a musical happening that straddled that generation gap. The show at the Public Theater brought together some of the biggest names of protest music in the 1960s with a younger group of musicians -- this time, to come together to speak out against another war.

They performed songs from The Vietnam Songbook -- a volume of protest music compiled in 1969. The concert was organized by musicians Don Fleming and Kim Rancourt, with the support of The Alan Lomax Archive and The Smithsonian Institution.

The Alan Lomax Archive is named after the late ethnomusicologist, record producer and radio host/writer who played a huge part in preserving the American folk song tradition.

The show kicked off with a group of songs performed by the dean of protest singers, 83-year-old Pete Seeger.

Not everyone believes that music alone can change the world. As editor of the folk music magazine Sing Out! in the 1960s, Irwin Silber catalogued scores of Vietnam War protest songs. Silber says that while music provided a focus for opposition to the Vietnam War, he doesn't think it changed many people's minds.

"It's not the music that changes people... there was a cultural change," he tells Karr. "And the music egged it on, but also became a reflection of it at the same time."

Silber's wife, singer and activist Barbara Dane, was one of the featured artists at the Joe's Pub gig. She says mass culture has never been very good at transmitting the messages that are included in pop songs. "So much of it gets sidetracked or watered down or confused," she says. And some of Dane and Silber's fellow antiwar musicians say that's exactly what's happened to American culture since Vietnam.

Bill Homans -- AKA Watermelon Slim -- is a Vietnam veteran who became an antiwar activist and musician when he left the Army in 1970. "The people in this next generation have not had an issue to coalesce around for... 20 years, or more. It is difficult when a culture has behaviorally modified kids these days, such that their most important concerns are titty rings and tattoos."

However, the new generation is protesting in its own very modern way -- by recording protest-oriented music and posting it for downloading on Web sites, for free.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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