In late March, Greensboro musician Laurelyn Dossett saw the songwriter and activist Peggy Seeger perform twice. Seeger is part of American folk music royalty, if such a thing can exist. The half-sister of Pete Seeger, she not only grew up in a family that was pivotal to preserving and advocating for the country's antediluvian tunes, but she also confronted the politics of dissent and feminism openly in her music. A 1994 compilation of Seeger's music aptly encapsulated her oeuvre as "Songs of Love and Politics."
Seeger provided an essential spark for Dossett, who had been considering how she could use her music to affect the debate over North Carolina's proposed constitutional amendment to make marriage between man and woman the only legally recognized union in North Carolina. Dossett's first step was to post on Facebook, simply encouraging friends to vote against Amendment 1 on May 8. When people began to respond passionately, she considered hosting a benefit concert to raise funds for the cause. She soon realized, though, that the same vehicle Seeger and legions of protest writers just like her had used—the folk song—stood a better chance of having a lasting, widespread impact and empowering and energizing strangers.
"I was challenged by an article in The New York Times by James McKinley Jr. He said there were no more protest songs, regarding Occupy Wall Street," explains Dossett. "I was like, 'Oh yeah?' I set out to prove him wrong."
And she did: In less than three weeks, the video for Dossett's plaintive and catchy tune, the unequivocally titled "Vote Against Amendment One," has earned more than 27,000 views on YouTube. Dossett subsequently put out the call for other North Carolina musicians to cover the song; so far, at least 24 acts—from top-tier musicians in the state's symphony to folks singing the song into cheap computer cameras in their bedrooms and living rooms—have turned in fresh versions of the anthem. Sometimes spliced with sound bites of area celebrities, politicians and couples sharing their stories or opinions, the videos have generated more than 50,000 online views.
A week before the election, Dossett says, "My inbox is like having Christmas every day. We challenged the music community and they came through—above and beyond. But YouTube views are not votes."
This weekend, a series of shows throughout the Triangle will attempt to raise funds and increase interest to help turn those online views into votes against Amendment 1. On Sunday at Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, comedians David Cross and Tig Notaro, actress and writer Amber Tamblyn, and musical acts including an acoustic Superchunk, Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü and Stu McLamb of The Love Language will share the stage to raise more than $20,000 to fund a series of commercials broadcast statewide on the eve of the election.
Mac McCaughan helped organize the benefit with the hope of pushing the message beyond the Triangle: "We're trying to raise a ton of money for The Coalition to Protect NC Families for their TV campaign to defeat Amendment 1. To some extent, we live in a bubble in this area, and I realize that," says McCaughan, whose Superchunk and Merge Records have long been active in political causes. "I hope the word is getting out statewide. That will be key."
While the show in Saxapahaw is an attempt to raise money in the time-honored form of the celebrity benefit concert, two queer organizers and musicians in Durham—Heather McEntire, of Mount Moriah, and Kym Register, of Midtown Dickens—decided to take a different approach. On Sunday, they'll host a free concert in a parking lot outside of The Pinhook to show not only solidarity but that a vote against Amendment 1 is something about which to be both proud and public. As with McCaughan, Register and McEntire used connections and friendships to bolster the cause with some modicum of star power; Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls will headline.
"One thing that this amendment is motivating me to do is to come out to everyone, like my Grandma, so it can start a dialogue," says McEntire, who has written in her songs for Mount Moriah about the tension between her sexual identity and her religious family. "There's part of me that wants to open Main Street in Durham and invite everyone. I think what we're going to do is to unify people."
That ideal is something Nathan Price has reinforced with his Raleigh record label, Diggup Tapes, in the closing days before the election. Price helped organize two free shows this weekend, both featuring bands you can see in an area rock club most any month (Kings in Raleigh on Friday; Nightlight in Chapel Hill on Saturday). The goal isn't to raise money for ads or to prove to anyone that celebrities care about the cause, too. Rather, it's simply to remind folks that the election is closing in and that, if ever there were a time to head to the polls, it's now. Later this week, Price will upload a nine-track compilation of new material from several local favorites, including Lonnie Walker and Lilac Shadows.
But it won't be offered as a free download; it will cost you a vote.
"I'm going to put it [online] to only download if you vote against Amendment 1, on an honor system," says Price. "Maybe we can get a few more people out."
That sentiment echoes the true strength of Dossett's tune—that is, its simplicity, or its inherent ability to be learned, played and sung by most anyone able to grip a few chords on the neck of a guitar. For all the star-studded benefits and high-dollar fundraisers, that's an instructive lesson; like a vote, every show counts, and everyone has the ability to urge someone else to stand in front of Amendment 1.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Chords and truth."