Music and Musicians at the Wisconsin Uprising Protests

Music and Musicians

This photo captures one of the more organized musical events at the protest.  By looking at the picture, we can gather that the musicians all came together on the rotunda floor at a given time to play music together.  There are also singers, which leads me to believe there are particular songs being played, instead of people gathering to make musical noise (as a disruption or rally).

Judging from how many pictures capture musicians and singers in one form or another, it is clear that music played a significant role throughout the protest.  Music had the ability to bring people from different political perspectives together.  Even though every person at the protest was against the budget cuts in some way, there were also many differences.  Playing songs brought musicians and singers together, as well as all those who heard the song.  Indeed, it is likely that everyone in the Capitol at the time of this photo was well aware of the power of music as it echoed off the marble walls from the rotunda.


Musicians on Rotunda Floor

(Photo by: Sarah Roberts)

Larger organizations displayed their presence and power through large printed signs, uniforms, and a performance of order.  This pipe and drum corps from the International Association of Fire Fighters uses both audio and visual displays to draw the viewer's attention.  While I do not know the IAFF's connection with Scottish culture or music, the connection was likely known to these musicians and many other protesters.  The bagpipes carry a connotation of militarism and masculinity, as do marching drums and firefighters more broadly.  The background of the Teamsters truck adds to this overall sense of the image.

International Association of Fire Fighters Bagpipe and Drum Core Parade Outside of Capitol

(Photo by: Sarah Roberts)

This ukulele communicates a DIY aesthetic, with its masking tape and marker-drawn message.  The message itself - "This uke kills fascists" - is a play on a sticker Woody Guthrie had on the side of his guitar - "This machine kills fascists."  This musician may have also been riffing off a long line of related slogans, such as a sticker commonly seen on bikes ridden by punks - "This bike kills fascists."

This Uke Kills Fascists

(photo by: Shannon Thistle)



These musicians are gathered in the bathroom at the Capitol to practice songs they will be later performing as The Cyclops for Labor String Band (see image #8 of this exhibit).  They are singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land."  The lyrics of the first verse for the song are as follows:

"This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me."

While the song has been popularized as a patriotic tune, it was originally written as a protest song.  Most people do not know that the second to last verse of the song is:

"In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?"


Musicians in bathroom playing "This Land is Your Land"

(photo by: Shannon Thistle)

Drumming was an essential element of the protest, especially outside during the time protesters walked around and around the Capitol building.  Drumming as an instrument of collectivity and protest has an extensive, global, probably ancient history.  I am most familiar with the ways Black rebels in Haiti used traditional drums to unnerve U.S. soldiers who occupied the country in the late 1910's/early 1920s.  The noise of the drum carries far beyond that of the player, and it can be difficult to know where the sound originated.  Drums played together can carry listeners along with that beat, whether they are marching or singing or working.

I do not know of the significance of Native people's presence at the protest, nor of the particular image on the drum.  This is important further research needed to amply describe this image.

Drummer Playing Native Drum Outside of Capitol

(photo by: Shannon Thistle)

The image on this drum, however, is one I am familiar with.  The Grateful Dead was a band popular during the late 1960s and 1970s, and is often connected to the hippie and protest movements among young mostly white people at the time.  Their music is also associated with drug culture which, for many participants, was part of a broader cultural critique.  This particular drum looks more like an art piece or tour souvenir, rather than seeing much use as a musical instrument.  However, this person grabbed a wooden spoon and took the drum to the protest to join in the musical events.

Drummer with Grateful Dead Drum

(photo by: Shannon Thistle)

This musician did not come to the protest with a factory-made instrument, but rather a handmade one.  Bucket drums are extremely cheap to make, and very easy to play.  For this reason, they are a favorite of protesters, especially for those who are young or low/no-income.  When played with a drumstick of any kind, they can also be very loud, especially when worn over the shoulder with nothing covering the open side of the bucket.  I do not know if this musician had any practice playing the drum, but like the drummer in the other images of this exhibit, it is clear they have brought an instrument that displays who they are as a protester.

Drummer Wearing Handmade Bucket Drum

(photo by: Shannon Thistle)

This handmade sign is an open invitation to anyone who wants to play folk music with the musicians featured in item #4 of this exhibit.  The Cyclops for Labor String Band developed out of a humorous sign created by one of the members:  the musician was making a sign that was supposed to have two eye holes in it, but it ended up having only one.  The sign therefore became a Cyclops for Labor sign, which then morphed into the Cyclops for Labor String Band.  Because the protest lasted for so long, themes, slogans, memes, and other protest materials developed organically into unpredictable other forms of protest. 

Another important aspect of the sign is the location of the announced gathering of musicians.  The basement cafeteria is a place where, at any time of the year, people who need a warm place to be can gather together.  These musicians made a conscious effort to invite people who are an invisibilized part of the Capitol community into the protest.  In some ways, these individuals had the most to lose from Walker's proposed budget, but little was done to formally include them into the protest. 

Sign Inviting Musicians to Play with The Cyclops for Labor String Band

(photo by: Shannon Thistle)