Music that Changes the World
By Carl Kozlowski
July 20, 2009
Music can be pointless fun, providing a mindless soundtrack for dancing or singing along, or just plain offering background noise for all moments of life. But some artists use it to change the world—raising awareness and funds for causes that are vital, yet would otherwise languish unnoticed.
And it’s those artists who invest their music with meaning, from Woody Guthrie to Bono, who are honored by the current exhibition “Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom” at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles. When the museum opened last December to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Grammy Awards, it chose the exhibit as its first-year centerpiece because it made it clear the new institution would strive to show how music affects the world at large.
“It may be the most important exhibit the Grammy Museum does in its early history, because it sends a message that we’re going to tackle thorny and controversial issues and how music has played a part in 200 years of political process,” explains Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum. “When we took [highly political former Rage Against the Machine guitarist] Tom Morello through and he gave it a thumbs-up, we knew we hit something. I’ve never been asked to do so many private tours of an exhibit ever.”
“Songs of Conscience” explores how music has long provided Americans with a fundamental means of enacting political values. The exhibit uses artifacts, images, multimedia kiosks, film and music to draw the seemingly endless connections between music and politics.
Among its more than 100 artifacts and 70 rare photographs, which were provided by wide-ranging sources that included both government archives and private collections, are guitars belonging to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, as well as folk legend Pete Seeger’s banjo and guitar. Turn one corner and you’ll see hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash’s turntables, then turn another and find an 1848 edition of the abolitionist handbook The Anti-Slavery Harp.
Add in handwritten lyrics from Morello, punk legend Patti Smith and country superstar Tim McGraw with former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s secret files on activist rock band the MC5, and it becomes clear that this is an exhibit to remember.“This exhibit was one we intentionally made very broad, because it covered the 230-year history of music and politics in the US,” says the exhibition’s guest curator Daniel Cavicchi, who also serves as an associate professor of American Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. “In the past, other exhibits focused solely on the folk movement or music and the labor movement. But not one that looked at the big picture of many genres and historical contexts together, into one story.
“We were focusing on politics in the U.S. and did want to touch on bigger well-known stories like music in the civil rights movement,” Cavicchi continues. “But we also wanted [music that] people didn’t know as much about, from music in the anti-slavery movement to Muslim punk. We’re covering a rich foundation from which people could think about the role of music in America’s political life. We basically included stories that would spark thinking.”
Among the most striking artifacts in the exhibit is Pete Seeger’s banjo, which he loaned the museum after playing it for the past 60 years, and on which he wrote “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Elsewhere are the lyrics Jimi Hendrix wrote for the song “Machine Gun,” in their original form on hotel room stationary, and a letter that the FBI’s Hoover wrote to former President Gerald Ford while Ford was still just a Michigan congressman, ranting about the MC5 while calling them “the house band of the radical White Panther Party” and complaining that music was fueling the decade’s radical politics.
Yet Cavicchi, who scoured the Library of Congress and the archives of the Smithsonian Folkways record label to compile the exhibit, found his personal interest piqued the most by the tales of Muslim punks.
“I’d never heard of them before, so that helped make it interesting because young Muslim-American kids felt stereotyped and people were making judgments about them simply because they were Muslim,” Cavicchi says. “They didn’t have a voice or outlet, so they created satiric punk songs that put them on the map and gave them a voice about what it’s like to be a practicing minority in a country where there’s suspicion about their loyalties. They sent us a Stop sign from their tour bus, on which they’d stenciled the word ‘Lies.’”
There’s plenty more to do and see at the Grammy Museum, for those who wish to observe and hear a stunning lesson in the world’s musical history from the past five decades. Special rooms and interactive screens throughout enable visitors to access the recordings of nearly every award-winner ever, while other exhibits feature an array of Michael Jackson’s flashiest costumes and booths in which visitors can learn several defining moments of the recording process.
“Even though we’re a music museum, we’re different in vision than the Rock Hall of Fame or the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where I came from,” Santelli says. “We’re more about illuminating people about the creative process behind great music and the idea of the Grammy Award that signifies excellence is center stage in the story we tell in the museum.”
T he Grammy Museum is located at the intersection of Olympic Blvd. and Figueroa St. at the LA Live complex in downtown Los Angeles. Call (213) 765-6803 or visit www.grammymuseum.org.