Soon oh very soon, we’re going to change this world.
—From a song by Bruce Thomas, as sung by the Freedom Song Network
For a quarter of a century members of the Freedom Song Network (FSN) have raised their voices for justice and freedom, singing on picket lines for workers’ rights and in the anti-apartheid struggle, bringing their music to prisons, rat-infested stairwells in SROs, BART trains and even performing on stage with a symphony orchestra. They’ve taken their music to Cuba and to the School of the Americas in Georgia.
Their history will be told in stories and song on Saturday, Oct. 13, when the FSN celebrates its birthday with “An evening of hope and solidarity,” 7:30 p.m., La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, $10-$50 sliding scale.
The network grew out of a 1982 workshop conference called Art Works for the People. At first, labor didn’t welcome music on the picket line; that’s when the Secretary/Treasurer of the SF Labor Council was the head of the Morticians’ Union, according to NFS notes on its history. With the advent in 1984 of Walter Johnson heading the SF Labor Council, the singers were invited to the picket lines—and have been ever since.
Bay Area musician and political activist Jon Fromer was among the network’s founders. In a phone interview with the Planet on Wednesday, Fromer talked about the importance of music in political struggle.
During a prolonged action, such as a long strike, when the media’s gone home and spirits begin to sag “music is the life-blood of the movement … It’s food for the struggle,” Fromer said. Music “can capture the beauty and power of a struggle that speakers often can’t.”
One of the picket lines Fromer remembers best is when members of the network joined the longshoremen picketing as they refused to unload goods from ships coming from apartheid South Africa. One of the favorite songs on the picket line of the time was: “I don’t care if I go to jail, if it’s for freedom then I gladly go…”
There were times during the anti-apartheid fight that activists were arrested as picketers sang that song.
It was around 1984 that Dave Welsh, a Berkeley resident and then-member of the Letter Carriers Union, started singing with the network. Some of his favorites are “zipper” songs, where new words of struggle are “zipped” into old songs, Welsh told the Planet in a phone interview on Tuesday. Some of those songs are: “You’ve got to roll that union on,” and “Which side are you on?”
Welsh was the author of “Let the Little Yellow School Bus Go.” He wrote the song in 1993 when a bus on its way through Mexico to Cuba was seized by U.S. border agents. The trip had been organized by Pastors for Peace to confront the U.S. blockade against the Castro government.
People who had been on the bus, including Welsh’s daughter, went on a hunger fast for 23 days until the bus was released. Welsh’s song was recorded by a KPFA reporter and sent to community stations all over the country.
“The song turned into a weapon for the release of the bus,” Welsh said.
Welsh has sung with the network on numerous picket lines. Without the music, people on the street would walk by, Welsh said. “It makes a big difference.” The music makes a “direct connection” with people, he added.
Welsh recalls that connection being made during the first Iraq war, when the Freedom Song Network thundered out its anti-war message at BART stations and rode the trains, where they sung as well. “Almost everyone was cheered by it—people joined in,” Welsh said, underscoring the participatory nature of the network’s activism.
Continuing with song and struggle, the Freedom Song Network is planning its next event: On Oct. 27, the group will march and sing with the labor contingent at the anti-war demonstration in San Francisco.