The Power of Song

Solidarity Sing Along, Madison, Wisconsin, 2014.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Solidarity Sing Along, Madison, Wisconsin, 2014. Photo by Callen Harty.

In honor of the third anniversary of the Solidarity Sing Along.

There is power in a song. Music can change the world. Art in its myriad forms can change the world. It can threaten the status quo and instill fear in those in power. It can comfort the oppressed and offer encouragement and strength to those fighting for the dignity of their fellow man. It can enlighten and offer hope.

It is because of the power of art that one of the first impulses of fascist governments is to take action against artists. Rulers will ban certain types of art or threaten to imprison those who do not produce “acceptable” art. Fascists will do their best to quash dissent in any form and artists tend to be particularly adept at fomenting discord and encouraging discourse through creative expression. When art is outlawed, then artists become outlaws—willingly–and also remain the outsiders they have always been. Artists must create art. It is in their nature. When the consequences of their work can land them in jail they have no choice other than to become outlaws by being true to themselves and their beliefs. As a result artists are often the first to be imprisoned, beaten, or killed by repressive governments.

But artists tend to be fearless. Throughout history playwrights, composers, painters, and others have undermined authority through blatant exposés and subtle irony. In more repressive and dangerous times their radical ideas have been expressed through allegory that reveals the hypocrisy of kings, governors, and others. A single artist can be more dangerous than an entire regiment of guerilla soldiers. A group of artists can be more dangerous than an entire army of trained killers. A gun can kill one man at a time, but a lone artist can affect the hearts and souls of millions, eventually leading to the collapse of a government not truly supported by the people.

A song or other work of art can also bring incredible happiness, an ecstasy almost. There is a special kind of joy that comes from sharing songs, from gathering in a group with people of diverse backgrounds and singing together as one voice. When singing is used as protest it creates a bond that is as great as any soldiers’ bonds in battle. Deep and lasting friendships are formed. When many disparate voices join together as one in song human connections are enhanced and there is a power that reverberates and echoes across the hills and valleys of the human experience. It is the power of a unified people. Every day that the artist stands against oppression is another hammer of justice pounding at the walls of the oppressor. Like trumpets bringing down the walls of Jericho, songs of protest can cut away at those walls of oppression until they finally come tumbling down, and then the songs of freedom can be sung.

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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1 Response to The Power of Song

  1. Kevin Lynch says:

    Callen, My comment apparently didn’t take down in the comments section of your blog page, perhaps my failing. I wanted to let you know I thought you wrote magnificently about the power of song, the cultural act. Your words are song power in prose. Best, Kevin Lynch I also shared your post on my Facebook page.

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