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Musician Jen Chapin Strikes a Chord with Students on Social Protest Music

October 07, 2010

Category: Academics, Events, Music, Sociology


ChapinFor one class period, musician Jen Chapin turned professor and led some Catawba College honor students through a discussion about social protest music.

She and the students talked about "Amazing Grace" and the history behind the well-loved and familiar hymn. They touched on Charles Mingus, a jazz musician who used his music to "speak" of segregation in the late 1950s. They listened to Stevie Wonder's "Village Ghettoland" and discussed its ironic lyrics and singsong, happy rhythm before arriving to a dialog about Bruce Springsteen's "41 Shots."

What all of the songs had in common, regardless of the time when they were composed, Chapin explained, was that each told a story of a social situation affecting that time. Each of these songs, she said, was born from "the whole discipline of civil disobedience and passive resistance."

Chapin's visit to Catawba began with an evening concert open to the campus community on Monday, October 4, and wrapped up Tuesday, October 5, after guest appearances and discussions in several classes and lunch shared with students, faculty and members of her ensemble. At her concert, attendees paid homage to Chapin's longtime involvement in WHYHunger by participating in a food drive. They brought food items to be donated locally to Rowan Helping Ministries.

ChapinHer dialog with students about social protest music happened during her guest appearance in one class, "The Sounds of Silence: Music as Voice for the Oppressed," a course team-taught by Dr. Julie Chamberlain, a professor of music, and Dr. Maria Vandergriff-Avery, a professor of sociology. One of the main objectives of it, according to the syllabus, is for students to "examine structured inequality and oppression and how music communicates feelings,Events and issues often ignored or spoken about in quiet whispers." As the students listened intently and participated in the discussion, Jen Chapin seemed the perfect choice to drive that examination home.

Chapin, who described her music as urban folk, noted that she had themes of folk music in her songs but the rhythmic tension of the city. She said she struggled with the music lyric thing because while she wanted her songs "to be musically interesting" more complicated lyrics put up obstacles to audience participation." She cited how easy it was for an audience to join in the singing of a song like, "We Shall Overcome," due to its easy, repetitive lyrics.

She said both Bruce Springsteen and Bob Marley had a way of drawing their audience in to their protest songs with their particular styles of music. She made the point that often at his concerts, Springsteen has to alert his audience with a "Can I get some quiet please?" admonition that his lyrics contain an important message. "His audience comes for an escape, but his lyrics don't offer an escape," she said of Springsteen. Marley's music, on the other hand, she described as "sneaky protest music."

Accompanying herself on the guitar, Chapin, who noted she had majored in international relations in college, shared one of her songs, "Insatiable," with the students. She described it as "a camouflage protest song" and said it was born after theEvents of 9-11 and deals with the whole idea of "security and the military industrial complex." "Where do you draw the line when it comes to the new type of racial profiling?" she asked, noting that the U.S. is now profiling against potential terrorists.

The female subject of the song "is kind of we — our country," Chapin said, and this female subject, like the U.S.,  is insatiable "for the tough guy stuff." One lyric of the song makes this point:  "Vengeance is the drone, bluster is the tone."

"It's really irrational [our national attitude toward security]," she said. "I wrote this song and still am trying to understand. I don't really know what the truth is and through the process of writing this song, I've tried to get closer to it.

"Countries have personalities," she continued. "We [the U.S.] were the beacon on the hill and able to own that. Now, the terrorists are winning and they've made us insecure. We need moderate institutions that advocate diversity — we need to build their strength and collect their voices. We're still struggling with these issues."


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