Over half a century ago, three idealistic musicians joined forces in New York, and proceeded to lend their time and talent to the civil rights movement, protests against the Vietnam war, and countless campaigns for human rights over the following decades. Peter, Paul & Mary became icons – “the gateway drug to the folk revival of the ’60s” in the words of one critic – with their renditions of songs like If I Had a Hammer and Blowin’ in the Wind.
A generation later, from her home in Wilder, the daughter of Paul Stookey carries on her father’s legacy of using music as a tool for social change. Liz Stookey Sunde is not a musician, but has clearly inherited his passion for activism and social justice. As the executive director of the non-profit Music to Life, she’s grappled with making music matter in an age of social media and short attention spans.
“How does that even look?” she asks rhetorically. “In my Dad’s day, an anthem or a single rally could attract and capture the attention of so many. But how do you deal with this new, more complicated world?”
When Music to Life asked musicians what skills they needed, the answer was, “how do I extend my impact beyond the stage, how do I sustain my work?” And that, then, is the approach that Music to Life is taking: providing artists with the tools, connections, and skills to further their own goals as musician activists. “The way you do it,” says Sunde, “is by empowering the artists that make the music.”
“The artists have the ideas, we just get to help them make their dreams happen. We don’t drive the work, so much as facilitate it. That’s much more empowering for the artists, and it’s incredibly rewarding,” says Sunde, “To see the transformation when artists who are used to struggling on their own are pulled into collaborations and given networks and opportunities.”
Accelerators, Brave Troubadours, and Mentors
“We’re working with three levels of artists,” explains Sunde. “Next generation, established mid-career, and seasoned legacy mentors.”
Their local accelerator programs target newer social change artists with weekend incubators – community workshops. They teach local activist musicians tips and tools for developing music-driven programs and partnerships, and allow the Music to Life team to discover a handful of artists ready and willing to move on to do more intensive work.
The national Accelerator then trains that group of artists from around the country how to turn an idea into a fundable program. “Once they’re done, they have an entrepreneurial approach to music-driven community change work – unlike before, when they felt they had to give it away for free or had to compromise. Now, they’ll know how to collaborate with stakeholders, nonprofits and allies, and be smart about it,” explains Sunde.
Future national accelerators will be centered around key themes: poverty, climate change, civil rights, and human rights. “That way,” says Sunde, “No matter if you’re an artist in San Francisco or Cleveland, you’re on the same page. We can bring in thought leaders and speakers, and help identify partners and companies with an interest in that theme.”
An eco hip-hop curriculum for elementary kids and a mind, spirit, and music project to heal from Parkinson’s Disease are some of the projects from the Music to Life universe. But, when I ask Sunde for an example of an artist that Music to Life has worked with, she doesn’t hesitate.
“There’s a Native American rap artist in Portland, Maine, Myles Bullen, who works with suicide prevention and addiction recovery among incarcerated youth,” she explains. “So, how do you amplify his impact? You connect him with a non-profit organization so that instead of one-off events, he can be plugged into an ongoing program. Robert Bernheim, a professor from University of Maine, teaches about the holocaust to inmates; he pulls in Myles with his creative writing work and expression through rap and hip-hop. Now, the inmates not only learn the material, but can express what it’s bringing up for them. Music to Life connected them all – the state prison system, the professor, and Myles, and helped them secure a grant to make the project sustainable. Best of all, now, the wardens are getting interested – they’re like, ‘wait a second, we really appreciate what’s happening and would like to do it, too.’”
For artists with a bit more experience, Brave Troubadours is an educational series showcasing their talents and stories. Each live episode is billed as “60+ minutes of song and conversation, an entertaining and inspiring virtual roundtable that explores music’s capacity to move the needle on the issues of our time.”
“These shows provide seasoned artists who have done this work before with a platform to raise awareness, reach new fans, and help them collaborate with each other. So we offer them this shared performance space,” explains Sunde.
“Finally,” says Sunde, “We work with a third tier of artists through an ambassador or mentorship program. Some are legacy artists – my dad’s generation – but others are contemporary, seasoned social change artist celebrities. They can offer their wisdom, tips, and tools to artists in our network.” The goal is to pass the torch across generations, and to further the ‘craft’ and impact of social change music as it supports communities in need and furthers social justice.
Reigniting that Torch
The Upper Valley is hardly the center of the activist musician universe, but Sunde says it’s actually been a strength to run Music to Life from here, teaching her and her network to be nimble and embrace the virtual. Serendipitously, it brought her in touch with Bill Stetson of Norwich, who over the past few years has become a staunch ally of Music to Life. A veteran philanthropist and White House art advisor for New England under President Obama, Stetson believes the Music to Life model is a great fit to help musicians use their insights and notoriety to act as catalysts for creating a better world. “What Peter, Paul & Mary did in the ’60s was so impactful. This is one way to bring that flame up-to-date and relighting it,” he says.
And as Sunde’s father and co-founder of Music to Life, Noel Paul Stookey, reflects on his experience in the pivotal ‘protest music’ scene of the ’60s, he too appreciates this vision for music for change. “Uniting people in song could be the first step toward realizing positive community goals; the second step is to join that community in action. Music to Life’s broad and inclusive outreach reminds us of this historical context while providing a support system for the contemporary activist musician,” he says.
Music for change has, indeed, made incredible strides since the ’60s and there’s more to come. “We may be standing on the shoulders of the work of my Dad and his ’60s contemporaries, and we’re certainly building on their legacy. But the new generation of social change artists are DIY entrepreneurs who are super fired up, with new tools and unprecedented reach through social media. With the right training and support, there’s no limit to how these musicians can revitalize our communities.”
Visit musictolife.org to learn more.