URI series highlights the music of dissent

Sing it loud  
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 6, 2006

Word is getting out. Beginning this week at the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus, there will be a dozen discussions and performances by more than twice that many movers and shakers in the recent history of song. Uniting all this is rage against the machine of social complacency.

“Songs of Social Justice: The Rhetoric of Music” is the URI Honors Colloquium focus this fall. The free events will take place every Tuesday from September 12 through December 5 at 7:30 pm, except Election Day (on Wednesday that week) and during Thanksgiving week, in the 950-seat Edwards Auditorium. For further details about the colloquium, visit www.uri.edu/hc.

Public Enemy founder Chuck D. will launch the series in powerful style on September 12 when he discusses “The Political Power of Hip-Hop.” On September 19, it will be singer-songwriter Tom Paxton, who set the tempo for protest songs and satires of American culture in the mid-’60s. Some will mainly sing — such as Paxton — and some, such as Chuck D., may only speak on the topic.

“The general purpose is not to put on a series of concerts, but to put on a series of artist-activists who will discuss how they do what they do and illustrate it with their music,” says professor Stephen C. Wood, chair of URI’s Department of Communications Studies, who is helping to coordinate the program.

Selecting the musicians was a difficult process, but some names immediately suggested themselves. On October 17, three female icons from the early period of counterculture folksongs will perform — Peggy Seeger, Rosalie Sorrels, and Ronnie Gilbert. “That evening is going to be electrifying,” Wood says, “with the history that they have, the activism they’ve been involved in.”

Particular areas of social concern were first determined, and then relevant individuals were invited.

Anne Feeney and David Rovics (November 8) are carrying on the tradition of political protest songs, with topics ranging from social justice and globalization to the Iraq war. Kim and Reggie Harris, Magpie, and Sonny Ochs (October 24) will trace the path from “From Slavery to Civil Rights.” Native Americans are represented by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Bill Miller (November 14), and Augistin Lira and Alma speak for Chicanos (October 10). The union movement couldn’t be neglected (Utah Phillips and Faith Petric, October 3) any more than could the legacy of Woody Guthrie (the Vanaver Caravan with Nora Guthrie, December 5).

Wood was a good choice to help decide the semester-long bill. With two other professors, he is a member of a trio called the Cognitive Dissidents, who sing songs of social commentary, both covers and originals.

The professor’s academic specialty is rhetoric — employing language to persuade. But having been in one folk group or another since high school, he is quite conscious of music’s ability to cut right through arguments.

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