“Which Side Are You On?” Folk Tune Quotation and Protest in Western Art Music





Document Type





Folk songs have long served as a persuasive vehicle for political activism and social change, especially when used to protest war, poverty, racism, or labor conditions. This paper addresses the contemporary expression, through music, of resistance and solidarity among the struggling working class. It emphasizes issues related to poverty, corruption, and class conflict within the Appalachian coal mines of the 1930s, and the ways in which these concerns have been reinterpreted through the lens of contemporary art music. It examines the significance of introducing traditional US American protest tunes into contemporary art music compositions, inviting a short discussion of protest songs, the representation of social issues in art music, and the compositional technique of melodic quotation. The piano music of Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) serves as a strong example of protest expressed through abstract instrumental art music. To demonstrate Rzewski's style, this paper explores the composer's political beliefs as well as his general views on the politics of music itself. An analysis of the piece "Which Side Are You On?" from his North American Ballads (1979) for solo piano focuses the discussion of revolution and empowerment among the working class.

Published in

Music and Politics

Citation/Other Information

Cornett, V. (2021). “Which side are you on?” Folk tune quotation and protest in Western art music. Music and Politics, 15(1), 1-19. https://doi.org/10.3998/mp.9460447.0015.103