The Most Potent Weapon in Democracy's Arsenal


On September 11th, 1973, within hours of the brutal coup d’état that left Chilean President Salvador Allende dead and La Moneda (the Chilean White House) ablaze, General Augusto Pinochet’s army began to round up, torture, and execute the major threats to his new military dictatorship.

By the end of the day, 40-year-old Victor Jara became one of the first victims abducted by the military. Why did the military so fear Jara? What weapon could the 40-year-old with a beat-up poncho possess that could threaten a fascist hierarchy?

A guitar.

The songs of Victor Jara, a Chilean folksinger, inspired the Nueva Canción Chilena, a politically conscious neo-folkloric movement that provided the soundtrack to Salvador Allende’s historic rise to power in 1970. Partially thanks to the Nueva Canción Chilena, Allende’s forward-thinking campaign attracted the support of millions of younger Chileans.

"My song is a song of freedom, and we continue singing together, for all of humanity," sang Jara in his influential "Canto Libre."

Within 24 hours of the coup, the military herded Jara, along with thousands of others, into a soccer stadium on the outskirts of Santiago. In front of the youths who had come to idolize him, the military tortured Jara unmercifully, breaking his fingers and taunting him to try playing music with his mangled hands.

The defiant Jara, in turn, used the final minutes of his life to compose a few verses that were later smuggled out of the soccer stadium:

The blood shed by our comrade President
Has more power than bombs and machine guns
With that same strength our collective fist
Will strike again some day.

On September 15th, 1973, Jara’s tormentors grew frustrated with the singer’s insubordination and riddled his body with machine-gun fire before dumping the corpse at the city morgue. The way that Jara died, however, confirmed two fundamental truths: Firstly, the junta acknowledged that no greater threat exists to dictatorship than a man with an acoustic guitar, determined to sing a song of freedom. Secondly, Victor Jara reaffirmed that, even in the face of horrific intimidation, the power of the poet and the voice of the musician can never be silenced.

While Jara's story remains a poignant example, it is by no means a unique tale. Any government that has attempted to limit freedom has simultaneously imposed censorship on artistic creation. The tendency of humans to rally around music leaves the medium altogether too dangerous for any political scheme that does not depend on the will of the people.

Democracy offers the unique circumstances required for politically conscious music to flourish. In America, politics and pop music share a long-standing relationship. In the 1960s, pop music exploded as a political force, as performers demanded civil rights, equality, and peace. And they weren’t subtle about it either. In "Masters of War," released in 1963, a 22-year-old Bob Dylan spoke directly to elected officials:

You that never done nothing
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn, and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Similarly, in the last days of the 1960s, before ripping perhaps the greatest rock-and-roll solo of all time, Jimi Hendrix dedicated "Machine Gun" to "All the soldiers fighting in Chicago, Milwaukee, and, oh yes, all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam." In just 12 minutes, Hendrix employed his guitar to elicit the chants of civil rights workers as well as the cries of young men dying abroad in the name of a misguided international war. Hendrix, along with his Band of Gypsies, gave perhaps the greatest State of the Union address in history without uttering more than 20 words.

These are two examples from a couple of decades in which music underscored everything that was honest and revolutionary about democracy. But along the way from the I Threes to the iPhone, something has been lost.

Perhaps it began when Ronald Reagan tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen’s song of American rust, "Born in the USA," and turn it into a right-wing anthem. Perhaps it began when politically active musicians like Springsteen stopped seeming cool to young audiences. Perhaps it occurred when rap mega-stars like Tupac Amaru Shakur (who observed, "When it rains, it pours / they got money for wars but can’t feed the poor,") gave way to rap mega-stars like 50 Cent, who recently observed that he does not care much for politics.

Whatever the reasons, the relationship between American pop music and American politics has become estranged. This estrangement does not suggest that people don’t care anymore. Rather, the lack of politically conscious pop music reflects an industry driven by the quest for dollars. Why risk alienating half of the record-buying public by taking a tough stance?

But as a nation plods through a quagmire of a war, squandering thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, as the economy approaches recession while global temperatures top off at frightening heights, musicians have begun to realize that now is the time to fire one of the most potent weapons available in the arsenal of democracy: the acoustic guitar. Music. With this website, we will ensure that musicians have the forum to do so.