Music has a big impact on our lives. Not only are songs memorable, but they often carry a social message. “Music has always been a vehicle for reflecting political or social issues of the day. Medieval songs – even nursery rhymes – were often used to express a political or social point of view,” said Brad Mahon, director of the Mount Royal Conservatory.
Mount Royal University is one of United’s cultural and educational partners. As part of that partnership, professors and musicians regularly visit United’s two communities, often providing residents with thought-provoking and interesting subjects to discuss. Brad recently visited United’s Garrison Green community to talk about music as a reflection of social consciousness.
Brad used the guitar to help explain that while the guitar existed in classical times, much of the music wasn’t written for it. Jump to the 20th century and the emergence of Delta blues and musicians such as Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. “Patton was the first true rock star,” said Brad. “He was a real showman, throwing his guitar into the air, playing between his legs. These early songs acted as historical records. Often, as with his song High Water Everywhere, recorded in 1929, these were the only records of major events and how people were affected. This song recorded the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927. It was a strong message about an important social event, not just a love song about teenage angst.”
Brad told residents about Big Bill Broonzy, a blues and folk artist of the 1920s, who used music to protest social injustices and race inequality.
“Such early singers later influenced folk singers Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.” Brad played This Land Is Your Land on the guitar, and encouraged the residents to sing along.
“In the case of Dylan and others, music supported the message,” said Brad. “Music was seen mostly as entertainment, but more often it was used to say something the writer thought was important. More importantly, the music and the message combined to evoke an emotional reaction in the listener.”
Brad noted that when Bob Dylan used an electric guitar for the first time in concert, fans weren’t pleased. And when Jose Feliciano rearranged the Star Spangled Banner at the opening of a baseball game in 1968, some fans wanted him deported. When Jimi Hendrix did the same thing at Woodstock in 1969, it was considered a turning point in music.
“Playing these songs for the residents brought out the emotional reaction they were intended to produce when they were first played in the 60s,” said Brad. “While some didn’t like it, I think many of them got the message that music – and the emotion it brings out – affects us all. Whether it’s a political message by Green Day, a hummable tune by Frank Sinatra, or a Beethoven symphony, they all elicit emotional reactions, and that’s the message I was conveying to the residents.”
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To learn more about life at United’s Garrison Green, watch this short video.