“Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair”.
Lee Hays opening line to a song I sing on the new EP.
It sounds naive, almost childlike, but that is why I sang it; because it isn’t Hays’ lack of insight which makes it that way- it is our cynicism.
We have become so embittered as a society, so beaten down, that this cynicism has embedded itself in our belief system and become so entrenched that our solution to a loss of faith in politics is to elect a proven liar as prime minister. Johnson isn’t there on hard-earned merit, he is there because we have given up.
I believe songs are there to press our reset button; not to tell us things we think we already know about the times we are living in, but to take us back to the distilled essence of what we believe and why we believe it.
They are a message from the past, yes, but they are something more- they are the key to unlocking the future.
Hays didn’t write that lyric because he was an innocent. He wrote as a man who was physically and verbally assaulted for his politics, who was blacklisted as a musician and tried under McCarthyism. He wrote because the purity of those words took him back to why he chose to fight in the first place, like a prisoner alone in a cell finding hope in the light creeping through a crack in the wall.
The same is true of many of those songs.
“Solidarity forever for the union makes us strong” Ralph Chaplin wrote. Yet he wrote it at a time when being a trade union member made it harder to find work, and could get you beaten, ostracised and even killed by armed thugs in the pay of bosses and under the protection of the police. We may look at our unions today and see leaders more concerned with protecting their OWN jobs than they are ours, but it is our cynicism doing that; Chaplin’s message remains the same, if we DO stand together, if we DO demonstrate unity in the face of exploitation, the union STILL makes us strong. We have just lost the ability to believe it.
And that is where the secret lies.
The original protest songs often took their music from well-known hymns of the day and in doing so subliminally transferred some belief in a better future from the churches to the fields and the factory floors. As we have become more secular as a society, so have we lost that belief, not just in an abstract concept like God, but in a collective purpose, and ultimately in ourselves.
We need to press reset.
We need to remind ourselves we stand on the shoulders of giants who took the insults, the beatings, the jail time, the misery, the death and the war and were STILL able to sing “We Shall overcome some day”.
And maybe then we will hear what so many miss.
That the emphasis in that song is on the word ‘shall’.
We SHALL overcome.
It was not written in a moment of whimsical fancy.
It is a threat.
So put down your baggage. Pack away your cynicism. And press reset.
Tomorrow IS a highway broad and fair.
A brave man devoted his life to making sure future generations heard that and stayed strong.