We Shall Overcome: Activist Education, Political Movements and Semiocapitalism

Michael B. MacDonald I Social Movement Studies I Analysis I March 5th, 2015

When he foretells the development of creative, artistic and scientific faculties, Marx anticipates the intellectualization of labor nowadays characteristic of the post-fordist era. At a certain point in the development of the application of intelligence to production, the capitalist model becomes a paradigmatic cage, constraining intelligence in the form of wages, discipline and dependence.

- Franco "Bifo" Berardi, The Soul At Work (2009), 65

Contemporary capitalism is transforming public learning and if we are to develop practices to support healthier communities these transformations need to be theorized and historicized. An orthodox Marxist analysis of capitalism, because it does not deal with learning or cultural production, is not complex enough to explain the various ways capitalism is changing our lives. Henry Giroux has pointed to the various ways cultural studies has contributed to the study of the circulation of power in social learning he calls public pedagogy. This might be framed in the context of a wide variety of educational movements, dating back to the 19th century, loosely arranged under the name popular education that have struggled with the role and practices of learning as it intersects with politics. Some movements like Institutional Pedagogy (France) played an important role in highlighting the force of the institution in shaping subjectivities. We need to follow this example to examine the structuring influence of contemporary capitalism. In one case study based on the picture above I want to tell an unhappy story of the way the emergence of semiocapitalism is undermining popular education in America.

Gary Genosko (2012), writing about Jean Baudrillard, says "welcome to the machine... ideology is embedded in the social relations [that] the forms of media dictate and induce. Media are thoroughly ideological" (76). Cognitive capitalism, as a shift after industrial capitalism, "produces and domesticates the living on a scale never before seen" (Boutang 2011, 48) not eliminating material industrial production but reorganizing, remodeling, and incorporating the production of subjectivity under the rubrics of financialisation. We are products of the machinic assemblages of semiocapitalsm. Felix Guattari and Franco Berardi "emphasize that entire circuits and overlapping and communicating assemblages integrate cognitive labour and the capitalistic exploitation of its content" (Genosko 2012, 150) where "the mind, language and creativity [are the] primary tools for the production of value"(Berardi 2009, 21). The move from industrial capitalism to semiocapitalism requires a new theorization. As semiocapitalism incorporates life into its production of value it transforms social relationships like community learning in two observable way: a) by transforming schools in the image of neoliberalism and b) locating learning, culture and political action as specialist fields that reduces the capacity of communities to be autonomous. It is this second aspect that I want to examine because it is here, in the building of community learning in popular education where I locate my activism.

Consider "We Shall Overcome" and its history. According to the Highlander Research and Education Center "I Will Overcome" was sung by Baptist and Methodist congregations before being sung by tobacco workers form Charleston, SC in their 1940s labour struggles. The song was sung at a Highlander Folk School workshop by members of a Charleston white union local who had learned it from members of their "sister Black union local". Highlander was a unique place for activist education because, as the photo above illustrates, worker solidarity was stressed over racial segregation. The school's music director Zilphia Horton learned the song and taught it to Pete Seeger pictured above. Seeger changed "will" to "shall", added a new verse and began including it in his concerts. Guy Carawan, who later took over from Horton, continued using the song in workshops and at a 1960 workshop taught the song to student sit-in leaders from Nashville, as well as members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And while Highlander's portrait of the song explains how it happened it does little to explain why song was thought to be a useful means of activist learning. And when MLK says We Shall Overcome, I hear the kind of solidarity between artists, activists and educators that I find it increasingly difficult to locate today.

Communism, Activism, Music

Charles Seeger became a teacher at the New School in New York in 1929. In 1931 the New School's Henry Cowell began to offer the first North American course in music cultures from around the world. He presented performances and lectures from non-European sources, providing an intellectual landscape that supported a coming-to-terms with the musical world outside of the university's 'ivory tower'. The creation of a non-European music course provided an outlet for the study of musical culture that was outside of the usual school curriculum. During the 1930s, The New School became a major centre for the modernist impulse in the visual and performing arts. Out of this milieu came the Composer's Collective.

The Composer's Collective was founded in 1932 "as a collection of a dozen composers and musicians, working together in New York City to produce and perform proletarian music" (Reuss 2000, 45). It was not necessarily a communist organization, but the Communist Party paid the rent for the room they used to meet and some members of the collective took classes on Marxist-Leninism. The most vocal members of the Collective went by the pseudonyms of Carl Sands (Charles Seeger) and L. E. Swift (Elie Siegmeister). Members of the Collective "had gravitated into the [communist] movement's intellectual orbit as a result of the economic and social upheaval of the Depression" (ibid., 44). Carl Sands wrote, "Music is propaganda--always propaganda--and of the most powerful sort…. The special talk of the Workers Music League (WML) is the development of music as a weapon in the class struggle"(Sands 1934). In a Deleuzian way this could have been rewritten as, "Music is territory--always a force to create territory--and of the most powerful sort".

The Composers Collective did not however employ folk music in its compositions. It is also plausible that they constructed their assemblage on the Soviet model which looked toward artists and art (another assemblage) for revolutionary (modernist) music and refused to use the folk song form. Carl Sands (Charles Seeger) wrote, "Many folksongs are complacent, melancholy, defeatist, intended to make slaves endure their lot--pretty but not the stuff for a militant proletariat to feed upon" (Sands 1934). The Collective folded in 1936, and to Seeger's apparent dismay the workers on the front lines of the labour battles had been using folk songs across the United States for some time. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an influential and musical union of the period, was actively publishing and distributing The Little Red Songbook. The Wobblies, as the IWW members were known, were famous for bringing Joe Hill ballads and newly composed folk songs to picket lines in various parts of the United States (Rosemont 2002).

The folk song was expressing something that the Composer's Collective singing choruses seemed to be unable to do. As Elie Siegmeister lamented, a folk song is "the natural expression of our people who 'don't know anything about music,'…the deepest, most democratic layer of our American musical culture" (Siegmeister 1938, 681-82). No matter what the Workers Music League tried to do, people kept singing folk songs. This is not to say that the work that the Collective did was all wasted. They began to establish a connection between the musical intellectual class and the working class. As Alan Lomax said, "These were passionate people, you must understand; dedicated to their music, and to their political ideals" (Dunaway 1979, 2). The contribution that stands out more than any other is their skill at centralizing and organizing and members helped to set up a system of dissemination to propagate folk songs.

During the 1930s and 1940s a series of labour disputes in Gastonia, North Carolina and Harlan County, Kentucky would recast American folk music into a form an urban socialist could champion. Aunt Molly Jackson traveled to New York City to sing and to solicit funds for the strike activity, pro-labour and communist circles welcomed her warmly. At a single concert at the Bronx Coliseum she sang for 21,000 supporters. In the audience were many young members of the American folksong revival, among them the Almanac singers.

The Almanac Singers, built upon this new image of the contemporary and radicalized folk, were the best-known group to emerge during this time. Pete Seeger (pictured above), Lee Hayes, Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Agnes 'Sis' Cunningham, Millard Lampell and Arthur Stern were the main players. Lee Hayes and Woody Guthrie had both been working within labour movements as organizers for a number of years and brought the southern labour tradition to New York. Pete Seeger and Bess Lomax Hawes were the first generation progeny of Charles Seeger and John Lomax, "The Almanacs were the end product of the rural organizational campaigns and the intellectual political concerns of the 1930's. The function of the group was propaganda, which was not limited to ideology but also had a musical dimension" (Denisoff 1971, 102).

People's Songs was created at the end of the World War II, "a logical extension of the mission of the Almanac Singers" (Reuss 2000, 180). The goal of the organization was to produce music for people to sing and secondly, as a political movement to create a better world. Pete Seeger was the founding director of the group. He brought his personal beliefs in the value and political use of folk song to this new group and established participation as a guiding ethos. It connects back to the idea of the folk as a participatory and creative community built upon the sharing of social codes. In the urban context of twentieth century America how this folk experience takes place would be itself a creative endeavor. Maybe Seeger imagined the folk as a people who placed value on participation. Participation values are much different than the modernist values Charles Seeger and the composers collective championed, "participatory values are distinctive in that the success of a performance is more importantly judged by the degree and intensity of participation than by some abstracted assessment of the musical sound quality"(Turino 2008, 33).

The postwar period in the United States is well know for the anti-Communist reaction and the McCarthy Senate Committee on Un-American Activities. The pressures that led to the formation of the committee were already at work by 1946. People's Songs worked within Labour circles, at rallies, at strikes, to educate unions to use folk songs in their struggles. When the McCarthy committee started watching the group, many members were scared off or cut off from Peoples' Songs. People's Songs was sold across North America and was part of a North American mass cultural movement. However, with the reduced ability to actually get a copy of the song book and the stigma now attached to selling them, many bookstores backed away. The reaction was a deathblow for the group.

In 1950 Sing Out! Magazine was started to continue the work. Irwin Silber compiled a magazine that dared to explicitly combine political statements with a lot of music. The music would all be notated so people could learn and sing it at home: "Irwin Silber, in 'Notes from an Editor's Diary,' recalls he borrowed the name Sing Out! from the third verse of 'The Hammer Song' written by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, which incidentally was printed on the cover of issue number one. It seemed to the publishers an appropriate aim to 'sing out danger…sing out a warning … sing out love between all my brothers (and sisters) all over this land" (Moss 2000, 20). The new magazine published songs stored in the former People's Songs archive. The archive was maintained by the Weavers, Alan Lomax and Paul Robeson. Silber, with the help from Oscar Brand, was active in collecting and publishing songs that spoke about issues that interested regular people. The initial, and continued, success of Sing Out! had a lot to do with good timing. Indeed renewed interest in folk music was dawning: "For the most part, it seemed that young people were the ones who were hungry to assimilate old and new folk songs. Now, they could spend a quarter and pick up an issue of Sing Out! to find all manner of songs by the likes of Malvina Reynolds, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie" (Silber 1951).

The magazine was bolstered by the interest it received from a new generation of folk music enthusiasts. It was not the labour unions that helped it succeed this time. It was the young college crowd that became interested in a different form of expression. This new youth movement found its voice in this fledgling magazine that worked as a connecting point between the older radicalized pre-war activists and the post-war and Korean War activists. Sing Out! formed a long lasting alliance with Moses Asch and Folkways Records by 1958. The timing was perfect; the Kingston Trio was about to make 'Tom Dooley' a number one hit on the pop charts, a moment considered by many to herald the beginning of the Urban Folk Revival. The combination of Folkways Records and Sing Out! magazine meant that folk songs were supported in print and on record and housed in the same place in New York City. Many new folk enthusiasts would be able to receive both the magazine and the albums from the same source. Sing Out! had succeeded in finding a place inside North American mass culture.

Civil Rights and the American Folk Revival

In 1952 Folkways Records released the Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith. This compilation contains, "Eighty-four recordings made between 1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932 when the depression halted folk music sales" (Smith 1952). For the first time audio material, originally commercially released by Ralph Peer and others, was put back into circulation. Unlike the books that the Harvard scholars, including Lomax, had been publishing, this aural document provided the sounds of America at the dawn of the recording age. Smith's intentions were not far from the Lomaxes as is apparent in this note from the 1952 release:

Only through recordings is it possible to learn of those developments that have been so characteristic of American music, but which are unknowable through written transcriptions alone. Then too, records of the type found in the present set played a large part in stimulating these historic changes by making easily available to each other the rhythmically and verbally specialized musics of groups living in mutual social an cultural isolation…During this five year period American music still retained some of the regional qualities evident in the days before the phonograph, radio and talking pictures had tended to integrate local types (Smith)

While the Lomax collections tended to straighten out or fix irregularities in words or meter, the Anthology recordings re-introduced the raw sounds of the early recording era. The aesthetic of the cleaned-up folk music played by leading folk music performers of the time ran in contrast to this recorded document. Greil Marcus wrote of the 1997 reissue, "The whole bizarre package made the familiar strange, the never known into the forgotten, and the forgotten into a collective memory that teased any single listener's conscious mind", and he continued, "A confrontation with another culture, or another view of the world, that might include arcane, or unknown, or unfamiliar views of the word, hidden within these words, melodies, and harmonies--it was like field recordings, from the Amazon, or Africa, but it's here, in the United States!" (Marcus 1997, 7).

By the early 1960s the latest folk music territory had Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger (New Lost City Ramblers), Woody Guthrie, Irwin Silber, and Moses Asch at its center. This folk music territory, centered in New York City, had established a BwO for itself, which incorporated elements of the ballad field, 1930s radicalism, and popular music. The sound of folk music was acoustic guitars, sing-alongs, and social lyrics. It was also the sound of participation. Participation is the socially open and engaged musical performance that values engagement over professionalism and musical perfection. The Civil Rights Movement was developing at a rapid pace, especially after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown VS The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. The organizing skills that had been developed during the labour school movement in the 1930s were brought to bear by members of the older and radicalized folk music territory. Civil Rights now trumped labour interests in folk music. The folk music territory connected to the civil rights assemblage and the battles that some older members of this territory had fought, of American Communism, World War II and McCarthy, radicalized the folk in ways that it had not been since the 1930s.

The civil rights movement and particularly the March on Washington in 1963 had a significant influence on the position of one particular agent within the folk field, Bob Dylan. Dylan would again redefine the BwO of the folk and folk music. As a leading, and high selling, singer-songwriter, he ushered in a new period of folk music. This is the period of singer-songwriter as creative artist who embraces the marketplace and create themselves in the image of the folk. Artists come to terms with their economic stake in the production of folk music.

Dylan and Semiocapitalism

Robert Zimmerman had transformed himself in New York's Greenwich Village in 1961. He made himself into an orphan, inheritor of Woody Guthrie's rambling-man aesthetic, and took the name Bob Dylan (Dylan 2004, 1-8). Dylan quickly gained prominence in the Village's flamboyant counterculture. Dylan also styled himself on the rough sounds in the American Anthology of Folk Music : "Mr. Dylan's voice is anything but pretty. He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch. All the "husk and bark" are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs" (Shelton 1961). Dylan's self-titled release on Columbia Records had only two original songs. The first was a talking blues in the Guthrie style and the second was a tribute to Woody using a well-known Guthrie melody. He was celebrated as the successor of Guthrie and supported by the Seegers and many of the other powerful agents in the folk territory. He was able to accumulate a significant power by positioning himself in Guthrie's shoes. This investment opened doors for Dylan both in the popular music world and within the folk field. The politically active singer songwriter Joan Baez supported him and Pete Seeger brought him on the road and helped to position him as a successor.

In the summer of 1963 Pete Seeger organized a folk festival in Greenwood Mississippi, "In the yard of a Negro farm home on the edge of a cotton patch three miles south of here. The song festival or hootenanny, was sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which has been conducting a voter registration drive among Negroes in Mississippi delta towns for more than a year" (Times 1963). Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Theodore Bikel and the Freedom Singers played to the nearly 300 people in attendance. The Times reported that, "One of the most popular songs presented by a local singer was one dedicated to Medgar W. Evers…. The refrain of the song was…only a pawn in their game" (ibid.). Dylan was invited to sing the song at the March on Washington one month later. He rapidly established himself as the most significant political songwriter in the United States.

Two years later at the Newport Folk festival Dylan symbolically broke away from the folk field by wielding an electric guitar, playing with a full band, and singing "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm No More". More than half of the audience booed. Dylan was not invited back for decades. Dylan became the archetype of the American singer-songwriter and the political movement of music and labour seemed to get lost or at least diluted by the mass production of cultural products by the culture industry. Or perhaps, Zimmerman's transformation into Dylan was made possible by the emergence of semiocapitalism, the folk revival itself a commercial innovation that emerged from the coextension of youthful energy, the sounds of resistance, the personalization of capital accumulation. It was now conceivable to sing an activist song for a roomful of young people who will applaud and then respond by buying a copy of the recording. Political organization and community capacity, singing as a way of learning and organizing is replaced with the individual pleasures of enjoying and consuming music.

To what extent do people use music as a form of community learning? I didn't grow up on politicized folk music but on Rage Against the Machine. And while I learned a great deal about politics I'm not certain I learned anything about organizing, about being an activist, about resistance. I learned about rage and injustice. But I also learned to use consumption as a mode of self-expression, using mass-produced products to shape my subjectivity. Clearly the Highlander Folk School played a central role in supporting transformative and politically potent social movement but so too did the social movement play an important role in radicalizing music. In each of the period above political activists and artists worked together to educate and share. I wonder how this is happening now? Is it even possible to imagine?


I received a political education listening to Rage Against the Machine. I mean not exactly by just listening. In the liner notes of "Evil Empire" there was a very extensive reading list, or at least a photograph of a library. It was mind expanding for me to get such an education when all I really wanted to do was use the pounding music to express my rage. Very soon the overwhelming crash of RATM was the sound of politics. I soon discovered Adbuster's magazine that fed and expanded my learning. I was deeply committed to producing autonomous culture free from the constraints of the culture industry. I played in bands, organized events, directed choirs, worked in music education programs and then after 9/11 when Canada was considering backing America's so-called "War on Terror" I helped organize an inter-faith peace movement called Friends for Peace in Ottawa, Canada. Once again I used music as a way to make autonomous and peaceful community. During the years I spent with the peace movement I worked with, or hired, many local musicians but there was never a moment when an organized political movement reached out to support my work. There was no solidarity built between musicians and unions. As a matter of fact at union rallies where musicians played rousing pro-labour songs, the musicians and the technicians who helped program the event were the only non-unionized people in the building. And rarely did anyone ever notice the sad irony. Consequently, in my community work I never considered looking for organizational support from 'professional' organizers. Not only had I never imagined musicians working directly with organizers and leaders of social movements but never had I considered a space where activists and artists gathered to learn how to be more effective community facilitators, to help build community autonomy and political capacity. So this photo released by the Zinn Education Project gave me pause. Has the political subjectivities of artists been so colonized by capitalism that we can no longer find the location in society to work hand in hand with activists to change the world?


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