Freedom Highway:
Songs That Shaped a Century

directed by Philip King
(Hummingbird, 2001)

"The whole of traditional music, by its very nature, is political with a small 'p'," says Dick Gaughan. Music deals with the lives of ordinary people, and politics are inseparably intertwined with everyday life. From human rights to wars to political systems to the effects of Big Business ... so it goes on.

Freedom Highway is a 90-minute documentary that looks at the role music has taken in the fight for liberty and human rights. It travels the world, stopping in Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa to look at situations that have arisen over the years and the songs that helped confront the injustices. Modern-day interviews and performances, combined with old photographs, newsreels and films, help make this a poignant, relevant experience and essential viewing.

Whether talking about civil rights in the United States or Margaret Thatcher's ascent to the rank of prime minister, music has documented and commented on events. But more than that, it has also united people as it helps remove the feeling of standing alone against injustice, it unifies groups in their struggles for freedom, and it rallies thoughts into coherent courses of action.

Ruben Blades points out that a song shows you are not alone as you declare your outrage to a situation. Through the music of Victor Jara, who was murdered by the Pinochet regime in Chile, people could see that others felt the way they did. This is why the government there regarded Jara as such a dangerous enemy. But, they miscalculated: "they can kill the person, but they can't kill the idea."

"We Shall Overcome" arrived slowly on the streets of Ireland, according to journalist Eamonn McCann. But it's establishment was like a juggernaut, encompassing all in its path. Once a song of civil rights in the U.S., it soon became a unifying anthem oceans away.

Woody Guthrie became the "newspaper" of the people with his interpretation in song of events in life. As Emmylou Harris explains, he reached into the human aspects of stories that were almost dismissed by the authorities as being too mundane to care about. "Deportees," a song she sings magnificently, concerns a plane crash in which migrant workers are killed -- "goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria -- you won't have a name when you ride the big airplane and all they will call you will be deportees." These "scattered dry leaves" were human beings.

The film succeeds on many levels as it simultaneously presents different aspects of music. Michael Masote is director of the Soweto Symphony Orchestra. His touching story of himself as a small boy in apartheid South Africa is revealing. Stopped by police in a white neighborhood on his way to violin lessons (unheard of -- a black boy playing violin? The case must hold a gun) he proves he is telling the truth by playing a tune -- not Bach, which the policemen wouldn't understand, but one of their Afrikaner folk tunes.

Through June Tabor, one is able to understand more of the mentality of men at war and how they deal with intolerable situations. Paul Robeson Jr. provides a historical observation on who were the anti-freedom people his father had to struggle against, leaving you with a most uncomfortable feeling.

Civil rights, apartheid, Pinochet, Vietnam, world trade ... the movie covers a wide range of subjects; from the earlier days of the last century up to modern times, and traveling all around the world, director Philip King and writer Nuala O'Connor succeed in drawing everything together in a logical and watchable fashion.

With commentators as disparate as musicians Tom Waits, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Hugh Masekela and Ani DiFranco, as well as McCann, author Robin Denselow and composer Jonas Gwangwa, King coherently brings together a wide range of experiences, views and attitudes.

From the dirt roads of the Deep South to the streets of Seattle, across continents and through time, music has brought people together and helped express their protests, their outrage and their sense of injustice. It has helped solidify movements and register beliefs and thoughts. It has also helped make life tolerable. The last word goes to Pete Seeger, a grand master of music and of helping to make the world a better place:

"Nobody living can ever stop me as I go walking my Freedom Highway
Nobody living can make me turn back. This land was made for you and me."

- Rambles
written by Jamie O'Brien
published 2 November 2002