This Guardian article about Pete Seeger struck a chord with me last week. Here is an extract:
Why did Pete Seeger, who has died aged 94, matter? Because for over 75 years he stood true to his original vision, he never wavered. Even when his beliefs had a huge impact on his life and career: he never sold out. He wasn't just a folk singer, or an activist: he was both.
Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he'd only be making music – but he believed that while music didn't have agency, it did have the power to make a difference.
I spend a lot of my time arguing to singers, to audiences and to donors that singing makes a difference. It's my job, but it's also what I believe.
Most recently, for example, NYCGMC has offered to do a Big Gay Sing in Dublin this June as a fundraiser for 'Marriage Equality', an organization that campaigns in Ireland for the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. We will help raise thousands of Euro to help fund a political campaign. Likewise, last May, we sang a song called 'Home' at the annual 'AIDS WALK' in Central Park front of 10,000 people, two days after the brutal and highly intentional murder of Mark Carson, a gay man out for a drink in the Village on a Friday night. I found myself making a speech about how NYC was our home too. When we sang the song, you could feel the resonance, as we sang what the community was feeling, expressed their fears, allowed their grief and left them with hope.
In fact every time we sing, on the streets, in big concert halls, at gay weddings and fundraisers, our singing breaks down barriers, entertains people, draws them in, makes them think and crucially makes them feel. It happens person by person, as individuals start to tap their feet, sing along with us, or a solitary tear trickles down a cheek. They are moved: physically; psychologically; and ideologically.
Because music is non-verbal, it has that special power. It can transform three dry bullet points about how African American straight women in New York City are the most at risk of new HIV infection into art, into something moving hat hits you at a visceral level and makes you cry before it makes you count. We never know who we affect. The parent who is challenged by having a gay teen might perhaps see our shows and feel only 5% more tolerant than before. But we know from the many stories and emails that it happens.
The language we use is important. For me, many artists and organizations overstate their case. The majority of people come and see a show, enjoy a story, cry, laugh and go home, but their lives are exactly the same as they were before. So to say that we 'change lives through song' is at best hyperbole, and at worst a lie.
But Pete Seeger was right, I know we make a difference. Even better, we move people.