When President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” in 2015 at a eulogy, he was mourning a minister murdered with eight others in a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Yet Obama’s choice of music was more than just a song—it was a kind of musical shorthand that transcended the moment he was marking. Everyone knows “Amazing Grace,” a spiritual with particular resonance in the black community. As a plainspoken hymn about redemption and forgiveness in the face of sin (or, from a more secular standpoint, oppression), the tune has the specific connotation of offering comfort at times of bereavement.
Popular music is full of songs like that, tunes that come to represent something more expansive than their original contexts. When participants in at least one local offshoot of the Women’s March in 2017 sang “This Land Is Your Land,” or people protesting in the Wisconsin state capitol building against anti-union measures in 2010 joined together in “Solidarity Forever,” they were communicating in a similar shorthand, evoking sentiments that are immediately identifiable to most people.
All three songs are among 83 tracks on The Social Power of Music, a new four-CD boxed set from Smithsonian Folkways divided into “Songs of Struggle,” “Sacred Sounds,” “Social Songs and Gatherings” and “Global Movements.” The songs collected here help to show us where we come from, and where we are now. Some of them—the Civil Rights spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” Peggy Seeger’s pointed anti-rape song “Reclaim the Night” or the United Farm Workers theme song “De Colores / (Made) Of Colors,” to name just a few—serve as reminders that change is possible, even if it’s often incremental and frustratingly slow.