Singing for Change: Five Facts About UU Musical Activism

Jane Perry

Tony Turner

The Western Region Fall Gathering in Calgary is coming up, and one of the highlights will be the presence of Jane Perry and Tony Turner, two of Canada’s well-known Unitarian musicians. The two will be leading a workshop called Singing for Change, a chance to explore the importance of songs to social action related to our seven principles. Turner and Perry will share historic and recent examples of how song can aid the cause of social change, but for anyone curious, here’s a sampling of what Unitarians have already achieved with music.

  • Harperman: It may have become his best-known song, but Tony Turner says he “wasn’t an activist per se” before composing the ditty, which targets the former prime minister on everything from Mike Duffy to omnibus bills. And despite the song’s lyric that “it’s time for you to go”, he doesn’t claim the song had any tangible impact on election results. But there’s no denying Harperman captured a certain spirit of the times, drawing more than 775,000 views during the 2015 election campaign. Harperman also got Turner suspended from his day job at Environment Canada — he ultimately retired before the investigation was completed — but it didn’t silence him. He recently completed another protest song, this one about the 45th US President.
  • Pete Seeger: Seeger didn’t officially become a Unitarian until the early 90s, but as UU World observed in a 1996 article, “if ever there was a progressive cause Pete Seeger didn’t sing about, the record doesn’t show it”. He went South to oppose segregation in the 1960s, and performed at university protests against the Vietnam War across the country (his “Where Have All the Flowers” became a global anthem of peace). He continued to advocate for change by forming the New York City Street Singers, a group designed to sing at protest marches that rehearsed at the UU Community Church of New York.
  • Ysaye Barnwell: Well known as a member of the African American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Barnwell got her start in music when she wandered into Washington D.C.’s All Souls Unitarian Church. Although she “wasn’t thinking of herself as a singer” when she joined the church, that soon changed with her founding of a new choir at the church, the Jubilee Singers. Three of Barnwell’s songs are in the UU hymnal Singing the Journey, and she continues to offer musical workshops at Unitarian churches. “Music has the power to send out your message,” she says. “It can be your shield and your sword.
  • Raging Grannies: Although the Raging Grannies aren’t formally affiliated with Unitarianism,  chapters of this group — known as “gaggles” —  do often share members with the local Unitarian congregation. Founded in Victoria in the winter of 1986-87 in response to the presence of nuclear-powered US Navy ships in Victoria Harbour, the Grannies continue to sing for the environment, the peace movement, and other causes, all while wearing clothes that mock stereotypes of older women. A mainstay at liberal protests, the Grannies believe, as a lyric composed by the Calgary gaggle goes, “the opposition has got a mission to keep alternatives in sight”.
  • Emma’s Revolution: An award-winning “activist power duo” of Pat Humphries and Sandy O, Emma’s Revolution performed at the 2016 UUA General Assembly and continue to perform at Unitarian congregations. Named after the anarchist political activist and writer Emma Goldman, the duo’s songs of social conscience touch on themes of peace, justice, LGBTQ rights, and immigration.

This is just a sampling of Unitarian musical activism. Know of others who have harnessed the power of music? Please share with communications@cuc.ca