Lennon and McCartney weren’t the only ones who wanted a revolution—to change the world. I do believe that more people are in favor of a better world for others than are against it. Are those people generally in charge? I don’t know. The evidence isn’t often encouraging. But sweeping change is possible—the words “the revolution is at hand” seem to have been born on our lips. We revolve. The French did it. Americans did it. Industry did it. Doors at fancy hotels do it. And of course, the Russians did it.
I don’t know a ton about revolutions, but the vague hunches I use to navigate through life tell me they are usually bloody changes of hands in which the powerless realize they have been powerful all along, and then they send their oppressors the way of Alice Kramden (whose inevitable destination was incidentally the lofty finish line in a heated race during that cold war, now that I think about it). Today I got to put my finger on the pulse of a stretch of history that I knew mostly though the lens of movies like Rocky IV, Red Dawn, and Goldeneye. It was maybe not our most sensitive treatment of a sensitive time, but can we forgive our simple, overblown Reagan era patriotism? I challenge you to listen to James Brown and Neil Diamond and Fozzie Bear sing “Livin’ in America”, “Coming to America” and “America the Beautiful” respectively back to back to back and not feel a king-sized eagle of pride sitting on your chest. I forgive it. So sue me. And am I proud that we beat the Cosmonauts, Alice Kramden, et al. to the moon? I am proud. Sue me twice.
I jest, and I don’t mean to belittle human suffering; those forty-five years were humorless times for a lot of people living in certain parts of the world. During the Soviet occupation of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania in the late 80s (in my own lifetime, which is strange for one who often thinks of the world as a largely informed and free place) the people banded together figuratively and literally as they linked hands across some four hundred miles and across three borders and sang illegal songs of solidarity and hope in three different languages. The powerless were, for those minutes, very powerful.
A revolver isn’t revolutionary; people use guns to kill people all the time. But people use songs to start the fires of hope, or at least keep the embers glowing. And I think that’s amazing and special. For four decades, a group of four people, for example, singing a folk song at a bus stop while they waited for lift might have instead found themselves in the back of a van en route to the national oubliette or worse. For singing? For singing.
Cantus—a professional choral ensemble here in the Twin Cities—put together two hours of musical and storytelling traffic to help us feel what it might have felt like to have your spirits and your culture crushed under the heels of totalitarianism. It’s a place our empathetic imaginations don’t often or easily go. I can stand on any corner and sing whatever song I feel like, and people might even throw some money in a hat or guitar case for me (they wouldn’t—at the fault of my voice and not their lack of charity). I can go to any church I want to, or any temple, or any mosque, or any Kingdom Hall, or any center for Scientology or Church of the Subgenius and no one in a uniform will beat me up for it. The idea of freedom is a kind of invisible part of American culture. We’re used to it. We wear it all the time. We assume we have it and that we will always have it.
But we are not the people of these beautiful, lake-filled countries. Although between the hours of three o’clock and five o’clock this afternoon, I got glimpses. The voices of the singers—which included my college roommate and friend for life, Matthew—were superb. The voices of the people interviewed in the film that played between sings were superb. I mean, the music would have held its own as it is, but my faith in context is unshakable, and the knowledge of why and how these songs fit into the story of these people made the program moving, haunting, inspiring, revolutionary even.