I’ve been listening to music with a message for a long time. It started when I was a little kid in the modern heyday of the message song: the ‘60s. “Meaning” and “music” were synonymous to me sitting on the floor pushing my wooden truck around with songs like Tom Paxton’s “Buy A Gun for Your Son” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” serenading me in the background. Paxton sardonically sang, “Let his little mind expand, place a weapon in his hand…” In Tom’s case, and throughout the country, the most powerful weapon was the music itself.
That heyday of convergence between music and the social and anti-war movements seemed to come to an abrupt end after the Vietnam War. Great music re-emerged quickly though, reflecting the passions, fears, hopes, and angst of each generation. Music with a message survived in nooks and crannies, wrapped warmly in small tribes of intransigent dreamers of a better world. And though times change, bad stuff seems to keep coming, whether it’s the recent senseless and horrific shooting in Orlando, endless bombings and wars abroad, the demoralizing persistence of poverty, looming climate change, or any number of other threats, large and small. We have no shortage of challenges to meet, so why and how can musicians make a positive difference when people look to music for inspiration?
1. Why do it? There are so many reasons for music with a message: raising awareness, celebrating what is while envisioning what can be, and the classic call to action, to name a few. But it’s evoking a feeling – something that resonates deeply inside the listener – that’s the real key. Without that, even the best lyrics or good news fail to inspire. And let’s not forget providing comfort and support. Whether that’s empathy for the suffering of others or a shot in the arm to those working in the trenches for change, a little bit of support goes a long way.
2. A few things to avoid: forcing it (“I really should write a song about…), being pedantic (the very word is unmusical), and raging for rage’s sake (or worse, the third rail – whining) come to mind. Like all the rest of your music, a song with a message has to come from your heart, and find you to be written. If it’s a formula or formality, that is going to show through.
At the end of the day – or let’s stay positive here, at the beginning of the day – music will always play a transformative role in moving humanity forward because it transcends those things that are used to keep people apart. Music literally affects the mind and body differently than other forms of communicating. It builds bridges between people, calling up and reinforcing our deepest emotional longings for acceptance, connection, well-being, peace and dignity. And when things get really tough, great music conjures hope. Not rhetorical, passive hope, but “active hope”, which is something we do. An intention, an orientation to act, rather than an attitude about something we await from outside ourselves. Active music, active hope. More of that, please.
Mike Rufo is a local singer/songwriter and activist. His songs reflect his impassioned engagement with the world. His musical language builds upon powerful lyrics, driving rhythms, and melodic riffs that explore emotional depths and transformation. Mike also plays his original songs in the Bay Area rock group No Exit.
Mike is gearing up to release his brand new album Nothin’ But Now on July 15th. To hear more from him, you can purchase a CD here.