NPR | By Ann Powers / Published April 12, 2023 at 11:36 AM ET
It takes a while for protest movements to establish original soundtracks; in the meantime, folks turn to what I like to call the People’s Songbook. That’s what happened Monday at Nashville’s Legislative Plaza (now colloquially known as People’s Plaza or Ida B. Wells Plaza) when word came down that the city’s Metro Council had unanimously reinstated the embattled freshman legislator Justin Jones to the state Legislature after his brief removal. Jones, Justin J. Pearson and their fellow legislator Gloria Johnson, collectively known as the Tennessee Three, have galvanized local activists after Jones and Pearson were ousted from the House for allegedly violating the decorum of the chamber. Jones’ reinstatement was expected, but the announcement still lit up the crowd. And so the songbook opened.
In the People’s Songbook, spirituals sit next to Woody Guthrie‘s union songs, punk barnburners and hip-hop anthems like Kendrick Lamar‘s “Alright.” Bob Dylan looms large within its pages — he was the right guy at the right time throughout the 1960s’ Days of Rage, and even after he retreated into private life, he kept releasing songs that begged to be sung by ragged choirs hastily assembled to meet a historic moment. So it made sense when a group led by Margo Price and Emmylou Harris offered a wildly messy, supremely free version of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” as the sun set on the crowd that would then accompany Jones back to the Statehouse a short walk away.
This recording is an imperfect bootleg recorded by a protestor; it’s not a polished charity single or the big finale at an official event. Andrew Smith, who committed the moment to immortality on a hand-held Sony voice recorder, is a local teacher who blogs and podcasts at Teacher on the Radio. “I am not an engineer, editor or Deadhead-level taper,” Smith said after sharing the recording on SoundCloud. But he felt he had to bear witness to the moment, one he describes as “a giddy chill-bump and crazy-crying day.” What he captured is musically imperfect yet unforgettable — voices colliding and coalescing, choked with emotion, reinvigorating a song that has sometimes felt overused and making it feel as bracing as the wind.
Price was present at the protest leading up to the expulsion, though contrary to initial reports, it wasn’t her megaphone that Jones and Pearson used on the House floor. Harris has given her time to many progressive causes. Joining them were a multi-generational group of fellow travelers, including the bluegrass icon Sam Bush; Price’s husband, the indie artist Jeremy Ivey; and the singer-songwriters Mary Gauthier, Melody Walker, Becca Mancari, Jaimee Harris, Crys Matthews and Heather Mae. In a town where celebrities perpetually appear at “once-in-a-lifetime” events with the best sound systems and lighting, this resurrection of a folk-rock chestnut in the name of a forming movement feels genuinely special. Like the spontaneous mini-folk concert that Jones and Dylan’s old mentor Joan Baez gave when they met by coincidence in the Nashville airport, this performance made that old songbook come to life.