Social Justice Through Sound Examines Past Musical Eras

Evi Arthur
Reporter

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Colter Schmidt and KJ Sheldon perform “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. Photo by Evi Arthur

Throughout history, music has played a role in social justice movements and the effect they’ve had on America. In order to demonstrate this important role music has had over the years, Paul Wertico, an associate professor of jazz studies at Roosevelt University, joined with the Chicago Public Library to create the Social Justice Through Sound series. This series goes through important eras of social justice in America and the popular music that accompanied them.

The series was based off of a class by the same name, a non-music major class taught by Prof. Wertico. All five of the students performing at the seminars are also enrolled in the class.

The songs played in the seminars are chosen by the students and a few are even performed by the students themselves. All five students involved performed a few songs including “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles, “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield and a few other songs from the 1967 musical “Hair.”

“The role music has played in the history of social justice throughout the world is astounding, and I believe it speaks to the powerful and important impact art has had and can have on the lives of people everywhere,” junior musical theatre major Jonah Cochin said.

This most recent seminar covered the music of the Vietnam War and the ‘60s, including songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Beatles. The previous seminar covered the music of the civil rights movement, including songs by Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday.

The purpose for this series, as well as the class, is to talk about the importance of music in shaping our society and continuing social movements.

“Many of the lessons of tolerance, justice and equality that I have learned have been taught to me through music and music history. Music is truly a universal language, and a powerful format through which to fight for social and political justice,” Cochin said.

“Music’s always been the way to get the word out about social issues,” Wertico said.

Most notably, Martin Luther King and his fellow protesters used to sing gospel songs while they marched. One of the reasons why they did this was to interest the white-led news outlets and get them to cover their protests.

“Singing gave them the courage to continue,” Wertico said.

Third year musical theatre major Katherine “KJ” Sheldon, one of the students who performed, said protest music and social justice allows others to understand their communities. “Protest music and social justice songs have given me insight into what life was like for certain communities of people and helped me understand how they felt,” Sheldon said.

The purpose of the class and the related seminar series was to keep past social justice issues in the public eye, especially with many of the big recent protests such as the March For Our Lives protest last month.

“Those that don’t know about history are doomed to repeat it,” Wertico said. “You have to keep on fighting for it, you’re never going to cross the finish line for it.”

“I decided to take part in this event because it was a chance to sing for a public audience, as well as to help out the University and to celebrate music history and its intersection with American history,“ Cochin said.

“Music has a way of bringing people together which is crucial for social justice movements,” Sheldon said.

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