A Movement Needs A Song by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonI’m back in Las Cruces, New Mexico, spending the break between semesters in the spot where I plan to eventually retire.  When I was here last summer (2016), I visited the Unitarian Universalist Church so decided to join the people gathered there on Christmas Day.  Not many showed up—about twenty or so.  The service was abbreviated. The emphasis was on singing Christmas carols from the hymnal.  Unitarian Universalists, it appears, love to sing.

Inside the bulletin on a separate sheet of paper, Catherine Massey, the Director of Music, wrote an essay titled “Sunday Music Notes.”  She asks, “How can music help us respond to the needs around us?” She listed several ways we can benefit from singing and chanting. One way is calming the self, enabling us to better cope with life’s struggles. Singing can also bring comfort to the sick and/or dying as well as to their families. She used her final paragraph to write about the necessity of music in social action movements.

…[S]inging has been an integral part of many social action movements, from the American Civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s to the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa.  Ysaye Barnwell, member of the African American women’s a cappella group “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” has said that for a social justice movement to gain and maintain momentum, it needs songs to be sung by the people.  She believes recent movements, such as Occupy Wallstreet, have had limited success because the people on the streets haven’t found their songs.

I am still grieving about the choices many American citizens made during the recent U.S. election. Although disheartened, I know I am not alone in my grief and outrage. I hope that decent people will push back against the misogyny, heteronormativity, racism, xenophobia, and just plain hatred that this new administration stands for and will, no doubt, perpetuate. We need music and songs to carry the “resistance” forward.

Perhaps we can resurrect some of the oldies: Tracey Chapman’s, “Behind the Wall,” Bob Dylan’s, “The Times they are A Changin’,” Billie Holiday’s, “Strange Fruit,” Tom Robinson’s, “Glad to be Gay,” Mahalia Jackson’s, We Shall Overcome,” and Sam Cooke’s, “A Change is Gonna Come.” This is but a sampling of the work done by those musician/artists that have gone before us. Perhaps we can build on the courage and resiliency of their music to create our own music as we work towards a more just world.

When I was a child, I remember accompanying my missionary father to the villages on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as he (and others) preached the gospel to “those in darkness.” The open air street meeting would begin when several of the missionaries (and their helpers) clapped their hands together in order to attract a crowd. As soon as a knot of people gathered, the meeting would begin by singing a song—usually this one:

Cantad en alta voz
Noticias de un amor
Que infunde confianza al hombre pecador.

(Sing in a loud voice
News of a love
That gives confidence to the sinner man.)

It had a rollicking tune and several people would often keep time to the music by hitting their thigh or tapping their foot on the ground.

I grew up in what I call a “cultic expression” of Christianity. Music was considered peripheral, really, to the essential message of my parents’ (and the cult’s) version of Christianity, yet music was reluctantly used as a means towards an end—getting people to hear the “Word of God.”

Protestant Christianity has a rich history of hymnody that undoubtedly propelled the movement forward after Martin Luther (1483-1546) broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther loved music, was a prolific hymn writer, and used many popular bar tunes of the day to accompany those hymns. Perhaps Luther is best known for “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” based on Psalm 46.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal. (1st stanza)

Succinct with its message, singable with its verse.

Even though many Muslims shun music, one cannot deny the musicality of the azan (call to prayer) wafting from the minarets in Muslim-majority countries as the faithful are called five times a day to prayer. The azan is quite simple. The musicality of the human voice gives it its power.

God is great.
I bear witness that there is no deity except God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Come to prayer.
Come to success.
God is greatest.
There is no deity except God.

Islam, like all expressions of religion, has a wide variety of interpretations. Many Sufis unapologetically use singing and dancing in their rituals. Some call their dancing “turning,” noting that “everywhere you turn, there is the face of God.”

I used the above religious examples because they are familiar to me, not because I “believe in” them. I think the examples show how a movement gains legitimacy and power through music and song. Music is an integral part of our humanity. Music empowers us.

To be effective, a movement needs a song to carry its message.

I plan to go to the women’s march in Washington DC on January 21, 2017. Perhaps those who are organizing the event will encourage us to sing our way through the streets of Washington as we use our songs to bring into being a new creation. The “oldies, but goodies” wouldn’t be a bad place to start.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

33 thoughts on “A Movement Needs A Song by Esther Nelson”

  1. Lovely Esther thank you … the power of music not only in sound and beauty and culture and history, but in the bringing together of people, with common cause. All good wishes for the Washington march – in deep and meaningful song!


  2. Some great feminist lyrics that come to mind —

    “I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman.”
    (Helen Reddy)

    “Yes, and I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty.
    All I’m saying is I’m not ready for any person,
    place or thing to try and pull the reins in on me.”
    (Linda Ronstadt)


  3. Thank you, Esther. So many wonderful Goddess chants come to mind. (She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes) I also thought, while reading your post, of an old Shaker hymn that does not specify a deity or a gender.

    Tis the gift to be simple
    tis the gift to be free
    tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
    and when we find ourselves in the place just right
    we’lll be in the valley of love and delight

    Goddess, I am remembering so many songs. You inspire me to start up a singing circle again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love this post! You and the previous commenters are sure right about the power of music, which, even when it’s sung by people who don’t usually sing well, has the power to overcome sadness and feelings of injustice. Keep singing!


  5. After the election, I attended a demonstration for human rights. As part of the Raging Grannies (a national group with local participants) we sang some simple protest songs (some verses made up, simple and repeatable). I watched as the countenance of the people marching changed from slow and steady determination to high-stepping, open-mouth singing, we-are-here-and-not-going-away attitude. People felt lifted up and brought together. Music needs to be a part of the resistance. Thanks for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember someone saying about our hymns: “we have changed from military marches (A Mighty Fortress…) to dances. (Turn, Turn, Turn) I’d love to see new songs added for this time. Songs and melodies that not only remember our history, but help us evolve through this time of crisis and build ………..what will we build?


  7. Thanks, Esther, for this great post! As a singer who has sung at many demonstrations and rallies, during many rituals and religious services, and just recently sang Christmas carols for my dying mother (a devout Christian), I KNOW the power of music in its many varieties. In fact, an article of mine will be published about the power of chant to bring people together, connect us with spirit, and with Mother Earth Herself this spring (“Earth’s Song: Pagan Music in UU Churches” in the volume _Born of the Earth: UU Pagan Voices_ published by Skinner Press).

    I’m also a composer of sorts. Usually I write songs for specific occasions. The song of mine that came to mind while reading your post is “Womanspirti, Sisterspirit.” The lyrics were written by my best friend Farrell Collins. I think it would be a great chant for the Million Woman March, which I will be attending with my pregnant daughter (Maybe I’ll see you there. I would love that). It goes like this:
    “Womanspirit, wise in spirit, free our minds.
    Sisterspirit, rise in spirit, free our hands.
    Make the world as we perceive it.
    Change ourselves as we believe it.
    Womanspirit, sisterspirit, hand in hand.


  8. Wonderful post, Esther. You are spot on with your observation that we need songs. I’ve been in a women’s singing circle for 3 years now and I love it! The songs are so uplifting and empowering and I love my singing sisters!


  9. A wonderful and very true post! Lately I have found myself singing The March of the Women written by Dame Ethyl Smyth for the British women’s suffrage movement. It starts “Shout, shout, up with your song! Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking; March, march, swing you along, Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking” and ends “March, march, many as one… shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend…”


  10. Yes, a movement most definitely needs music. As Emma Goldman said, “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” I was thinking about music and its connection to the civil rights movement last Sunday, after my UU minister spoke in her sermon about the power of music to “shatter us.” She then gave the example of Duke Ellington’s song “Come Sunday”, which was written during the civil rights era, in 1965. I hope you don’t mind if I reblog this.


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