Pete Seeger sings at the opening of the Washington Labor Canteen, Washington D.C., an event sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, the United Federal Workers of America, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), February 14, 1944. The canteen was integrated in defiance of the segregation laws of the District at that time. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is in the audience, seated between two sailors. Photo by Joseph A. Horne. Prints and Photographs LC-USW3- 040956-D.
Americans from the colonial period to the present day have often practiced their right to freedom of speech through song. American songs have called attention to social causes, both criticized and advocated governmental social policies, and provided a means of personal complaint on social issues. Songs are easily carried, demand attention, convey emotion, and can be performed in many contexts, with or without instrumentation, so they are a useful tool for the furtherance of causes. The message they carry can be direct or veiled, so giving power to people whose power may be socially restricted.
Tradition holds that the song Yankee Doodle originated with a British insult taunting the Colonial Americans for their country ways and dress. During the Revolutionary War the British were reported to have played it as a way of showing contempt for the Americans, while Americans turned this insult into a badge of honor. Many new versions of Yankee Doodle emerged in the early days of the republic, from patriotic anthems to political campaign songs. (Select this link for more information and a list of online recordings and sheet music of and related to "Yankee Doodle.")
The United States democratic system of government creates the need for frequent elections, and so frequent opportunities for songs to be used to represent various points of view, both political and social -- not only to put forward particular candidates, but to air the views of the people (for more on this topic see the article, "Songs of Politics and Political Campaigns").
Full rights to vote, serve in office, and to hold and inherit property was generally limited to white males in the colonial period and the early formation of the Union. There was a great divide between the social status of poorer citizens verses wealthier land holders as well. Even when the law granted rights to land ownership to groups such as indigenous peoples or Hispanic settlers in the west, these agreements were often disputed or cast aside as pioneers moved westward. So efforts of many groups to acquire equal rights under the law has been an ongoing process from the formation of the United States until the present day. Protections for working Americans and national standards for working hours and a minimum wage led to social conflict and change, especially during the mid- to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Groups seeking civil rights and the protection of working people have frequently used song as a way of building solidarity, conveying their message, and taking their grievances and goals from the streets to the halls of government.
Select the links from the left menu for short articles on different periods of social change and social causes from United States history illustrated with examples of songs.
- J. A. Leo Lemay (1976), "The American Origins of Yankee Doodle," The William and Mary Quarterly , Third Series, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 435-464. [back to article]