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Dave Douglas: Witness

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Songs are effective vehicles for the delivery of outrage, and the history of protest music is only slightly shorter than the history of music itself. Musical expression of political protest reached its greatest concentration in the 20th century, which provided not only inexhaustible fodder for it but also the technical means of delivering protest messages to the masses. From Joe Hill and the I.W.W. through Woody Guthrie to Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine, music has shaped the way that populations think about issues. Can anyone doubt the influence of popular music on America’s civil-rights struggle or its turn against the Vietnam War? Further examples abound in Pakistan, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia and dozens of other countries.

Two decades before the civil-rights movement, the stark power of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” stirred indignation about racial injustice. Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Archie Shepp and others created angry and effective protest songs in the ’60s, but for the most part protest music in jazz has been instrumental and therefore, inevitably, an abstraction rather than a statement of political ideas. John Coltrane made “Alabama” a wordless and indelible commentary on the struggle for civil rights. Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra addressed repression around the world, from the American South and El Salvador to South Africa.

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