How Can We Keep from Singing

Singing at the Wisconsin Capitol.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Singing at the Wisconsin Capitol. Photo by Callen Harty.

For two and a half years singers have been meeting at the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda to sing songs of protest against the Scott Walker administration and the slew of conservative legislation that has passed with the right-wing control of the Capitol and all branches of government. For about the same amount of time–because I cannot get there during the noon hour most days–I have been going almost every day after work during the week and whenever I can get there on the weekends to sing four verses of “We Shall Overcome”. Lately my friend Ryan Wherley has been showing up sometime after 5:00 to sing until the building closes at 6:00. Sometimes he sings by himself, sometimes others join him. I’ve joined him a couple times, though I will not sing with him when he breaks into “How Can I Keep From Singing” because it is too perfect. His voice rises to the top of the dome and echoes back down like a chorus of angels singing a lullaby to the people of the state. It is incredible.

Today I sang after work, but had something else going on at 6:00, so I decided to wait around and see if Ryan would be there to sing. When I came back into the building I saw him up on the first floor with two other friends. As I looked up they started to sing “We Shall Overcome”. I went up the stairs to join them in song. What better, more joyous way to speak our concerns? What more peaceful avenue of protest could there possibly be? Who could resent the beauty of song as a way to say, “I love my state and I’m sorry about what is happening to it, and I must sing truth to power?” Well, as anyone in Wisconsin knows the conservatives in charge of the madhouse that is now our Capitol despise it. In the last two weeks there have been about 200 arrests of people for singing, from an octogenarian couple to a 16-year old boy, from young women to old men, from rich to poor, well-dressed to shabby, clean-shaven to bearded, good singers and bad, and everything in between, a microcosm of the farmers, merchants, miners, businesspersons, and others who make up this great state.

When I sing by myself I do not face arrest, because one is less than a group of twenty, the number Capitol police have erroneously and unconstitutionally determined constitutes an unlawful assembly. When Ryan and a couple others show up there are no arrests because two, three, or four are still less than twenty. You might sense if the right person is on duty that they would love to get the handcuffs out, but they cannot, at least for now. So there is none of the tension, stress, and absurd antics of the Capitol police late in the day, and there are generally few people there to hear the lyrics drifting through the marble halls and settling like dust on the empty desks of legislators who don’t want to hear anything that contradicts their conservative notion of the world.

Today the place was fairly full. There were several couples and small groups wandering around, a large group of people being led on what appeared to be a private tour, a couple families, a few straggling employees, and one cop who looked like the last thing he wanted to hear was any kind of protest, even in song. When I sing I never know how people will react. Sometimes they applaud, sometimes they give thumbs down, most of the time they pretend I’m not there because it’s easier to ignore the protest than to engage and find out what the issue might be. Today the four of us who sang late in the day had several incredibly different reactions to our singing.

As we were singing “We Shall Overcome” a thin woman with fiery eyes kept looking at us from across the rotunda. As we were finishing she, her husband, and little boy came walking by and she said, “How can you sing such hateful stuff in front of children like my son?” I was stunned. “We Shall Overcome” hateful? Even with the added Solidarity Sing Along lyric of “Walker won’t be governor” it is hardly a hateful song. It is a powerful song about hanging onto hope even when oppressors are crushing you under the heels of their boots. It is about patiently waiting for regime change and a better day. It is about taking the high road of wanting to walk hand in hand, even with one’s enemies, and living a life of peace and love even when all you face is hatred. She said something about her little boy getting to meet Scott Walker and Paul Ryan and how great that was for him, then Ryan said something about how Scott Walker told Diane Hendricks that his goal was to divide and conquer. She practically screamed at us, misunderstanding him and thinking that he had said her boy had met this woman. I looked at her and said, “And see, it’s working. You’re calling us hateful without even listening to what we’re singing or saying.” She said something else about the horrible lyrics we write and that she had taken a picture of us that she was going to post online so that everyone could see the hateful things going on in the Capitol, then something else about her boy. I generally don’t goad people, but I couldn’t help but say, “I hope your son outgrows your politics.” She responded with, “I hope you outgrow yours.” It was not very original, throwing back pretty much the same line, but I let it go. She walked away, catching up to her husband who–though I think he agreed with her political opinion–seemed embarrassed by her expression of it.

We continued singing. It is in song that we find strength. By that time she was gone. A man in a suit was standing about a quarter of the way around the balustrade watching and a family of four was in the corner silently watching also. Ryan sang “How Can I Keep From Singing” and the man applauded loudly, as did several others scattered around the first and ground floors. As another song started the boy from the family of four gingerly approached, with his parents and sister coming a few steps behind him. He looked like he wanted to say something so I stopped singing and stepped over toward him. He looked at me and asked, “Can I ask why you’re singing?” “Yes,” I answered. By this time his parents had edged up alongside him. “For the last two and a half years there have been people protesting Scott Walker every day because of policies that we think are hurtful to poor people, workers, common folks like me and most others.” The mother spoke up, “We heard he doesn’t like unions.” I answered, “No, he doesn’t. He has tried to destroy them, but not for economic reasons, but because they are among the biggest donors to the Democratic party. Of the top ten campaign donors nationwide a couple years ago, seven were conservative groups and three were unions, so he wants to destroy the unions so the Republicans have even less opposition. He’s also worked to destroy Medicaid, Badger Care, opening up sales of state property for no bids, and on and on.” It turned out they were from Illinois. They never indicated where they stood politically, but I gathered from their nods of understanding that they supported us in what we were doing.

As we were getting close to wrapping up for the day the large tour group came back out from the direction of the governor’s office. They were all very well-dressed in nice suits and ties or dresses and looked like they might be lobbyists and it looked like they might be getting some kind of private tour. As they were huddled in a group opposite us we were singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and I could see several of them looking over our way. I couldn’t tell if they were irritated or okay with us. They finished that part of the tour and started heading around in our direction. After the first couple passed a man in a black suit looked at us and gave us a thumbs up. A couple people more passed and then another man said, “Beautiful singing,” with a nice smile on his face. A third one tapped my shoulder and said, “Thank you.” The last man in the group reached out to shake my hand and looked me in the eye as he said, “Don’t ever stop.” As he started to walk away I stopped him and said, “Excuse me, who are you? What is your group?” He took a business card out and said, “I’m from Canada. We’re legislators.”

I found out later, when I bumped into him again as he walked past a homeless shelter protest a block away, that he was one of four legislators from Canada at a conference in Madison for Midwestern legislators. He talked about how he appreciated what we were doing and how important it is to keep up the fight. He mentioned that there will be haters as he took his glasses off to show us a scar on his forehead that he earned in the Philippines while working as a labor lawyer. I could tell he earned his scar and carried it with pride. We have earned our own scars from handcuffs around wrists, as well as emotional abuse from people like the woman who called us hateful for singing with our hearts, and we are okay with that. How can we keep from singing? We can’t. The songs will carry us through. The scars will be meaningless when we ultimately overcome.

Addendum (8/16/13):
I sent an e-mail to thank the Canadian legislator who showed us such support the other day when we were singing in the State Capitol and sent him a link to the blog post above. Late yesterday he wrote the following back to me:
“Sing, please keep on singing, for all of us.
“Just posted your blog on my facebook timeline.
“It was but a snippet of time when you and I (and Mr. Spalding) met on the street.
“It was my honor to have heard and seen you. God bless America!!!”

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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12 Responses to How Can We Keep from Singing

  1. Thomas Krajewski says:

    How would you and Ryan and his friends feel if 18 people joined you one day?

  2. Grace Kelly says:

    From the first time I heard you sing from the Uptake coverage, it was magical. It is beautiful every time. Thank you. The best use of right to speak ever.

  3. Michael Leon says:

    Thank you for this, the most eloquent statement I have read yet.

    By the way, if you doods are taking requests, I would love to hear “We should be together,” Jefferson Airplane.

    Some people will never understand the power of music, the logic of a politcal flyer, or the magic created when one’s comforts a child or makes her laugh.

    I think you do.

  4. Pingback: Why The Singing Can Not Stop in Wisconsin : blue cheddar

  5. Here’s another one you should sing there (one of my favorites): Die Gedanken Sind Frei

  6. jasmine says:

    please, keep on singing.

  7. marcea0k says:

    As you wrote of this experience I felt as if I were right there along side you, lending my voice too. In my mind I could see the face of the woman pinched with disdain and anger, and the earnest face of the other young boy asking why you sing and listening to your explanation. One of these days I hope to be there with you so we can sign together.

  8. samantha masterton says:

    I wish I could be there singing with you, but your wonderful descriptions of what it felt like is the next best thing.

  9. What a terrific group of experiences, esp. the watcher family who came up to you and the Canadian legislators.

  10. Wonderful, Callen,
    Keep filling the capitol with song. If the palace guard continues to try to decimate and/or impoverish us, let’s just keep singing, no matter what.

  11. Chris McDonough says:

    Beautiful Callen thank you so much for sharinng this story. Once again you’ve reduced me to tears but in this case it’s good tears.

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