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Revolutionary Music - Music and Social Change

For its annual Lowell Lecture Series, the Boston Public Library explores “Revolutionary Music: Music for Social Change” as a year-long overview of how music has spurred social change in the United States. It is the first in a series of three thematic years leading up to the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution.

"Revolutionary Music" will use a combination of programs and examples from BPL's collections to celebrate music's rich history of catalyzing social change, acting as a powerful conduit for dissent, unity, awareness, and cultural influence. From spirituals to jazz, folk, reggae, punk, and hip-hop, various music genres have echoed societal shifts and served as a voice for some of the protests and movements that have changed the course of history.

Through captivating performances and discussions, curated booklists and playlists, and thought-provoking displays, the BPL is set to explore and celebrate the transformative impact of music on social change throughout the year.

  • Music has always been central to the African American quest for freedom. The Civil Rights struggle and its music provided some of America’s most powerful calls of hope, moral clarity, and equity.

    During the 19th century, spirituals such as Steal Away carried coded protest. In the 20th century, protest became explicit. In the 1930s Ethel Waters sang an anti-lynching song that shocked Broadway and Billie Holiday bravely recorded the stinging song Strange Fruit. Duke Ellington’s long career spoke for racial respect and civil rights in such pieces as Black Beauty and [Martin Luther] King Fit the Battle of Alabam’.

    As political action picked up and in the 1950s and 1960s, We Shall Overcome became the clarion anthem of the Civil Rights movement and central to America’s moral quest for “a more perfect Union.” Old songs like This Little Light of Mine took on new meaning and fresh songs appeared such as If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus. Black and white activists alike sang Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. And great artists—such as Sam Cooke (A Change is Gonna Come), The Impressions (People Get Ready), James Brown (Say It Loud), Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, on up to The Roots—all sang to advance respect and equality.

    Dr. John Edward Hasse, long-time music curator at the Smithsonian and Duke Ellington’s biographer, plays stirring video clips of these songs that inspired, motivated, and advocated for what Martin Luther King called for in his “I have a dream” speech: that we all be judged not by the color of our skin, “but by the content of our character.” He will also play works by W.C. Handy and Duke Ellington that helped lay the musical foundation for the Civil Rights movement.

    Bookselling information
    For in-person attendees, Trident Booksellers & Cafe, one of our community bookstore partners, will provide copies of Hesse's book Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington for purchase and facilitate an author signing from 7 - 7:30 PM following the the audience Q&A. Zoom webinar attendees and any patrons wishing to order copies online may do so from Bookshop dot org by visiting this link.
    Boston Public Library
  • As part of our "Revolutionary Music: Music for Social Change" programmatic theme, join the Boston Public Library and American Ancestors in-person or online for talk about a sweeping and spellbinding portrait of the longtime kings of jazz—Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie—who, born within a few years of one another, burst through racial barriers to become the most popular entertainers on the planet.

    About the book
    The Jazzmen is the story of three revolutionary American musicians, the maestro jazzmen who orchestrated the chords that throb at the soul of twentieth-century AmericaLarry Tye paints a vivid and immersive portrait of the birth of jazz, highlighting the resilience of its trailblazers as they opened America’s ears and souls to the magnificence of their melodies. Each insisted he was a music maker first and last, when in reality all three were cultural and racial insurgents.

    There will be time for Q&A from both in-person and online audiences. After the main program ends at approximately 7 PM, there will be an author signing facilitated by local independent bookstore partner Trident Booksellers and Cafe.

    Online attendees will have a chance to order copies from another local independent bookstore partner (Porter Square Books) during the main program (6 - 7 PM).
    American Ancestors
    Boston Public Library
  • In Person
    Join rock pioneer June Millington and acclaimed indie artist Emm Gryner for an enlightening discussion and performance.

    June Millington—guitarist and founding member of all-female rock band Fanny—will converse with Emm Gryner—independent singer/songwriter, bassist, and pianist—about Fanny, music, and activism. The main content will conclude with a musical performance.

    This program is part of our Lowell Lecture Series and our “Revolutionary Music: Music for Social Change” programmatic theme.
    Boston Public Library