It’s not everyday that you turn on the radio and hear a song so poetically empowering, it sets you in motion for considerable cultural change. I mean, this is the kind of song that makes me want to roll down my ’87 station wagon windows and sing it for every car in rush hour traffic to hear!
“The Body Electric” is the name of this contemporary protest song written by the Americana folk singer, Alynda Lee Segarra. Based out of New Orleans, Alynda is the leading lady of Hurray For the Riff Raff and released her new album called Small Town Heroes in 2014.
Why does this song matter? Think back to the traditional country music you might have uncovered in your grandfather’s old vinyl collection. If you’re like me, your grandfather preferred big band and jazz music… No matter. Go ahead and take a quick listen to “Delia’s Gone” made famously frightful by the one and only Johnny “The Man in Black” Cash.
Delia, oh Delia, Delia all my life/If I hadn’t have shot poor Delia, I’d have had her for my wife./Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone (Cash, 1962)
Murder ballads are common within traditional country music, which is a foundational roots genre of American music. These ballads often express grief, regret, and pleads for mercy because of the ghosts that subsequently haunt the homicidal narrator.
Alynda’s lyrics perfectly capture the deep cringe you may be feeling when you realize how murder ballads reinforce blaming the victim for her (or his) death. Listeners learn the lesson that somehow the woman in the story had it coming because she was being “devilish.” (Like anyone could use that term as a valid argument, or even say it with a straight face!)
Said you’re gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river/While the whole world sings, sing it like a song,/The whole world sings like there’s nothing going wrong (Segarra, 2014)
Alluding to the poem, “I Sing The Body Electric,” by Walt Whitman (1855), the song shares a similar sentiment celebrating the sacred nature of the physical body as a miracle in and of itself, never to be disposed.
Have you ever loved the body of a woman?/Have you ever loved the body of a man?/Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth? (Whitman, 1855)
Alynda repeats her commanding chorus for all women, men, and oppressed people, including the LGBTQ community, to unite in musical solidarity against a cultural fortification of violence. She begs answers to the questions we all want to know:
Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s just dying slow?/And tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for his daughter when it’s her turn to go? (2014)
Effective protest songs are relatable, powerful, and contagious. We can directly impact our cultural perspectives on gender equality and violence, especially now when our nation is demonstrating in the streets to prove that all lives matter. Singing a song of resistance is a courageous and powerful first step.