The Role of Art in Social Transformation

Bill MalloneeThis week I’ve been looking at the connection between art and faith.  There is good precedence for these two uniquely human forces being a critical concoction behind social transformation.  I received a flyer for the Kairos Conference earlier this week and was pleased to see that Sweet Honey in the Rock will be involved.  Kairos is a gathering “discerning justice & taking action on America’s death penalty” to be held in Atlanta this November, 2010.  Sweet Honey will be doing a public benefit concert at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Tuesday of the conference.  How perfect that this group, so deeply rooted in the civil rights movement and the sacred music of the Black church, will be performing at the church of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we address the injustice of the death penalty.

Sweet Honey in the RockI wish we could say that we are as far along in our planning as Kairos but we do have quite a bit more time still left to prepare.  What I can say is that we do have some amazing things simmering over the wood fires!  Please tune in here every now and then as we share information about the artists who will be involved in the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry.

On Wednesday, as we shared the news about Bill Mallonee, I was struck by the way this artist has increasingly focuses his art to causes of social justice.  Most recently, in the mini-albums he’s been releasing about three times per year.

This past summer Bill Mallonee released his newest Works (in) Progress Administration Ep: Dust Coal Soul.  In the wake of the recent mining disasters, both stateside and elsewhere, this song cycle lifts up the issues of one of the world’s most dangerous professions.  And yet, far from being sterile and abstract, the heartcrafted lyrics do much more to personalize and create an intimate connection characters of these songs.  Bill writes:

Bill Mallonee - Coal Dust Soul Ep“The songs for Coal Dust Soul were written after the Massey Mine explosion, in Montcoal, West Virgina on April 6th, 2010.  There were no survivors.  The death toll was 29 in the country’s worst mine disaster in four decades.  Another mining disaster in China, less than one month later (the facts regarding the number of deaths from this explosion and subsequent flooding were almost impossible to verify), continued to call attention to the perilous conditions miners labor under.

These songs, almost all of them written in the “first person,” took shape over a couple of weeks.  I was deeply moved as I watched the coverage of the disaster, the rescue attempts, the frail expectations of those who awaited better news, and the eventual failings of the team’s efforts to rescue the 4 trapped miners.

But mostly, I was humbled to the point of hushed silence by the faith and courage of the families who had lost loved ones.  The risks their loved ones daily undertook were great; the losses their surving families now bear seem almost incomprehensible.  I sat numb and helpless before the screen every night as I tried to comprehend it.

They now began a different journey: a journey of grief.   It is a journey I know little about in my own life.  But I know enough to say that it will be a journey on a road of confusion; a journey in search of answers; a journey in search of justice that may one day create better working conditions than those miners currently face down every day…

And finally, they are on a journey that will produce all that is noble and imperishable in the human spirit when it must grieve.  I am convinced that those who must grieve give us a “gift.”  It is a “gift” (however fragile) whispered in their prayers, written in their testimony, traced in their tears and offered in their eyes.

That’s what these songs are about… Maybe that’s what the best songs have always been about.  It is my hope that these songs maybe of some comfort to any and all sharing in a similar journey.”

Bill MalloneeIn case you still need some reasons to give Bill a listen – here are a couple:

1.  Bill Mallonee is quite possibly “…the best folk-rock act nobody’s ever heard of…”  – New York Press

2.  Bill came in #65 in Paste Magazine’s “100 Greatest Living Songwriter’s” Poll

3.  Bill has recorded over 23 cds.

4.  Bill’s deep love for early Dylan, Neil Young, Alan Lomax’s legendary field recordings, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, hymnody and other writers of the “American experience” left an indelible mark on his work and vocal delivery.

5.  Blue-eyed soul rocker Edwin McCain (of “I’ll Be” fame) covered two of Bill’s songs “Babylon” and “Welcome to Struggleville”

6.  Bill has played with these artists:

  • Edwin McCain
  • Sean Mullins
  • Sufjan Stevens
  • John Mayer
  • Dwight Yokum
  • Emmylou Harris
  • REM
  • Buddy & Julie Miller
  • North Mississippi Allstars
  • Allejandro Escavado
  • Pierce Pettis
  • Pedro the Lion
  • Denison Witmer
  • Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
  • Peter Case
  • Peter Mulvey
  • Bruce Cockburn
  • Gin Blossoms
  • Derek Webb

Check out this touching Bill Mallonee ode to Autumn posted over at the Heroes of Indie Music blog.

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About urbancongress

The Congress on Urban Ministry is a biennial conference that explores faith, social justice, and urban ministry as we seek a spirituality and a way of life that actively creates peace. Students, pastors, and community organizers engaged in and passionate about peace, social justice, and transformational urban ministry who attend often find this event to be the single most inclusive gathering of resources for ministry in the city and beyond. View all posts by urbancongress

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