Art Drives Activism: One Musician's Response to Charleston

06/24/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

I moved to Chicago seven days before September 11th. There is a lot that is unforgettable about the weeks that followed, but what stands out in my memories are the musicians. Guitarists, bucket drummers, small quartets, beat box slam poets--they leaked out onto street corners, onto El platforms, or in front of the glassy storefronts of Michigan Avenue. I must have heard every iteration possible of "Imagine." I remember traveling home to Boston to visit my boyfriend at the time and going to see singer/songwriter Ellis Paul at Club Passim, his voice a singular raw nerve, the phrase "Anti-terror machine" scrawled in black sharpie on his guitar. I remember crying silently watching Paul Simon perform "The Boxer" on the first broadcast of Saturday Night Live. I remember how every hair on my body practically levitated hearing Ani DiFranco recite the excoriating and mighty poem "Self Evident," which split the national wound wider in a gesture of dialogue and healing.

In the wake of unspeakable terror, unthinkable violence, I am grateful for the way musicians allow themselves to feel called to put in a pin in the hustle for a livelihood and, instead, turn their gifts into opportunities to shift thought and make meaning out of what is unfathomable. It's a responsibility that I don't envy, but deeply appreciate it. Milwaukee-based musician Peter Mulvey seems to agree with a song that is quickly becoming a kind of grassroots anthem of compassion and change titled "Take Down Your Flag."

Mulvey wrote the tune two days following the Charleston shootings in response to South Carolina's refusal to remove the Confederate flag from the State House. "Every flag over Charleston is half-mast today except one," sings Mulvey. "Take down your flag to half-mast/and then take it down for good." Trafficking in the legacy of Utah Phillips and Woody Guthrie, Mulvey offers a simple, provocative refrain that includes a tribute to one of the shooting victims, Susie Jackson: "She is survived by her children and grandchildren/Her name is Susie Jackson/She was eighty-seven years old." He performed the song live at a show in Northampton, Massachusetts opening for Ani DiFranco. She carried the song with her to her next shows at the Clearwater on the Hudson Festival, adding a tribute verse of her own.

In less than a week, Mulvey's call to action has been shared relentlessly on social media and now bears the imprint of other musicians--Anais Mitchell, Vance Gilbert, Mark Erelli, Kim Richardson, Pamela Means--who have added their own tribute verses to commemorate those impacted by the shooting, including Dylan Roof. Wednesday, Pastor and politician Clementa Pinckney will be laid to rest, and Mulvey has reshaped the song again to urge politicians to stand on the side of peace and hope and lower the flag before Pinckney's funeral.

Art drives action. It's not the glamorous part of the business or the craft, it's not what makes it into glossy pages of Rolling Stone, and it's not the selling point for young musicians forging their way in the industry: "You mean someday I might get to write a song in response to some kind of horrible event? Sweet." It is actually the very hard thing that not every musician, writer, painter, or creative can do, but the ones who can, like Peter Mulvey, like Bob Dylan, like Joan Baez, are the ones we need to hear from the loudest and most urgent in times when we're all most afraid and feel most alone in our helplessness.

Mulvey sings: "It will take all the love in our hearts/and it will also take something more." This song project is not the answer to that "something more," but it is a beautiful place to start.