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Man reading war news aboard streetcar. San Francisco, California

[Detail] Reading war news aboard streetcar. San Francisco, California

Music Responding to and Commenting on Current Events

Momentous events in history often motivate musicians to compose songs expressing popular feelings. The lyrics of "The Martins and the Coys" by Peter Bowers (better known as folk singer Pete Seeger) were adapted from a song written in 1936 by Ted Werems and Al Cameron. Seeger used the story of a feud among mountaineers in Appalachia to make a point about the war:

"Oh, the Martins and the Coys have quit their feudin'.
They don't live in West Virginia anymore.
You won't never find the men,
'Cause they're headed for Berlin.
And they're fighting in a different kind of war."

From "The Martins and the Coys," (AFS 6408B, Cut B3)

Seeger's "Talking Blues Song" is both humorous and serious, as the following excerpts suggest:

"Dear Mr. President, I set me down, and send you greetings from New York town. Send you the best wishes from all the friends I know in both the AF of L and the CIO, and unaffiliated. My brother, he's a member of a shoplifter's union....

Now as I think of our great land — its cities, its towns, its farming lands, with millions of good people workin' every day — I know it ain't perfect, but it will be someday. Just give us a little time.

This is the reason that I want to fight, not because everything's perfect or everything's right. No, it's just the opposite. I'm fighting because I want a better America and better laws, better homes, and jobs and schools, and no more Jim Crow and no more rules like 'You can't ride in this train 'cause you're a Negro.' 'You can't live here, 'cause you're a Jew.' 'You can't work here 'cause you believe in unions, young man.'"

From "Talking Blues Song," (AFS 6408A)

Both songs were recorded for a documentary broadcast of "Dear Mr. President" recordings. Listen to the two songs and answer the following questions:

  • What is the message of "The Martins and the Coys"?
  • How did the songwriter appeal to patriotism in the crisis?
  • What are the issues of the day that Seeger relates in "Talking Blues Song"?
  • How did he use humor to put forth a serious message in both "The Martins and the Coys" and "Talking Blues Song"?
  • How are the two songs similar musically? How are they different? Why might Seeger have chosen different forms for the two songs?

Try composing a "Talking Blues Song" addressed to the president and reflecting on a current situation in the United States or world. Is it more difficult or easier than you thought it would be? Why?