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Peter Yarrow

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The Role of Song in Advancing Health Care Reform

Posted: 09/02/09 03:28 PM ET

A physician-activist, Dr. Rick Lippin, knowing my deeply held belief that songs that touch peoples' hearts can bring them together to advance causes such as social justice and societal equity, posed a question to me about which songs might appropriately be applied to advance the health care reform movement in America. Dr. Lippin, a leader of national, significant, dialogue correctly cited "We Shall Overcome " as the signature song of the Civil Rights Movement. Peter, Paul & Mary and many others sang this song on behalf of that historic effort during the 1960s, a movement that culminated in landmark legislation and a sea change in what Americans came to realize might be accomplished through grassroots activism which, in those days, was inevitably accompanied by song.

Here was my response to Dr. Lippin just a few days ago.

Dear Rick,

First, congratulations on leading the most important kind of discussion that one can have in a democracy, one that we have seen falter in recent years, only to be resurrected by the "miracle" of the last presidential election. It was proved, then, that the hearts of Americans have, on balance, lost neither their essential decency nor their ability to think. ("On balance" is the active qualifier here.)

The question you pose as to what songs we might sing at this point as we address the reform of medical care in our country, is an important one. In my opinion, corresponding to your own, we are at a point at which the arc of history might be bent -- but only if we do not falter now and if we seize this most propitious moment. To my mind, the most important focus that we, those of long determination and commitment to a just and equitable society, need to maintain in song and in spirit, is an observance of our gratitude for what is good and is so exciting that is re-emerging in our country. Pete Seeger's choice of song in the context of President Obama's inauguration, "This Land Is Your Land", was exactly right, in my opinion.

Equally so, was the choice of the songs that spontaneously arose from the throats of hundreds of congressional staff people who were honoring the passing of a great, great, American, Senator Ted Kennedy, a champion of all that is decent and good in our country and society. Songs from the mouths and hearts of the long "loyal opposition" such as "My Country Tis of Thee" and "America the Beautiful" might resonate most powerfully now, in these times.

They proclaim us to be patriots, as indeed we are, we who believe that patriotism is embodied in the ceaseless asking of questions and engaging in the dialogue of ideas and differing perspectives, both of which are essential to the successful functioning of a democracy.

These songs of gratitude to our country and democracy proclaim us to be joyous our nation's choices support the common good, as opposed to the "good" of the haves over the good of the powerless and those in need. Conversely, singing these songs affirms our commitment to justice and equity, and to our belief that it is our patriotic duty to challenge the policies of our country and rightness of our national path when they do not reflect justice, fairness and equity.

In song and in our hearts, we can now celebrate a time which promises at least the beginning of our country's capacity to engage in self-reflection upon, not only the things of which of we can be proud, but upon what we need to view as our long-unexamined failures to ourselves and our promise to guarantee "liberty and justice for all" and also peoples of other lands with whom we engage, in friendship or, alas, with hostilities.

Therefore, this is the time to sing songs together that affirm our gratitude for what has recently occurred in our country with the election of a person of color to the presidency, one who in former times might well have been the target of segregationist fury, or even a lynch mob, rather than the leader of our nation.

In song and in spirit, in these times, we who hold the above perspective need to identify ourselves to each other and to others with whom we may not agree, as the citizens of America that are carrying the banner of faithfulness to the spirit of our nation that is once again, on balance, making us proud. Let us sing together so that we can begin to heal our nation's bruised heart by choosing a course that affirms the dignities and rights of all our citizens to enjoy the basic human right of affordable, good, medical treatment, regardless of their good fortune to have or, conversely, to not have, the means to pay for it.

When we are sick we are most vulnerable and, in truth, a nation's decency is most truthfully revealed in the ways it treats its most vulnerable and needy. We are the only nation that fought in the second World War (WWII) that does not yet have universal health care (except for the elderly through Medicare). Now is the time for America to join with other nations in this humane and just perspective, not only for our good citizens, but also to show the world that we are not so mean-spirited as to withhold treatment from those who cannot afford it. Through Medicare we who are older get the care we need, no matter what. Should we not extend this fundamental right to all? To children, to the poor, and to all who need it? Let us sing "This Land" and other such songs that express our gratitude for our country, not to confront or protest the absence of an equitable health care system, rather to affirm our commitment to allowing all Americans the right of affordable medical care.

"This Land Is Your Land"- by Woody Guthrie
Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking down freedom's highway
Nobody living, can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

Let us keep the faith and move forward, my friends, and let your songs reveal the strength of your gratitude for the opportunity to reveal your heart's determination.

In Solidarity with all peoples of our country and the world,
Peter

Dr. Lippin especially resonated to my suggestion about focusing on Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" (a song I have also sung publicly on many occasions) and wrote back saying:

Singing now together Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" as a means to express our gratitude for history being made last November and the story continuing to unfold to include health care is a good one. You and Pete Seeger and others leading us in "This Land.." would be a remarkable event if a venue should arise on the health care issue either before or after a passage of health care bill.

Dr. Lippin correctly pointed out that a healthy land, after all, in a very literal sense and "land" as comprised of our fellow citizens and the ideals upon which our great nation was founded provides us very literally with sustenance and health.

So let up use the power song and singing together to help our new young president bring health care to all of our fellow citizens.