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Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello on May Day 'Guitarmy' and the Occupy Spring

Morello says working-class folk and union people shouldn't just fight bad legislation -- they should put forward their own agenda for a better world.

Photo Credit: Clark Jones for Sidney Hillman Foundation


For Tom Morello, the activist and guitarist best known for his work with Rage Against the Machine, May Day was a busy day. First there was a "battalion" of guitarists to lead through the streets of New York, and then an award to receive from Harry Belafonte, the legendary performer and activist who put his career on the line in the 1960s, when he joined with Martin Luther King to march for civil rights.

After taking part in a day of protest actions that flooded the streets of Manhattan with thousands of people (reported here), Morello took the stage at Manhattan's TimesCenter to accept an award for public service bestowed by the officers of the Sidney Hillman Foundation at its annual Hillman Prizes awards ceremony for outstanding journalism. (This year's winners include Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, and Seth Frees Wessler of Colorlines.com, whose content is frequently featured at AlterNet.)

After telling the TimesCenter audience that his 88-year-old mother was "freaking out" (in a good way) to learn that none other than Belafonte -- a previous recipient of the same award -- would bestow the honor on her son, Morello confided that he actually wasn't sure he would make it to the ceremony.

"There was a moment today when I was marching in the streets with the Occupy Wall Street 'guitarmy,'" he said. "I was a commandante… But there was a minute when the tear gas was flying." Indeed, he was still dressed in his commandante get-up, which consisted of an olive-green military-style shirt, worn collar unbuttoned over a black tee. The look was finished off with black jeans and a black cap with a red bill.

Later, at a press availability with a small group of bloggers, I asked Morello to describe the guitarmy concept.

"I got a call a couple of weeks ago from my friends at Occupy Wall Street who asked me to lead a battalion of the Occupy Wall Street guitarmy on May Day, and I thought it would be great to be part of what we then dubbed the Million Guitar March, and then joining the larger May Day international workers holiday here, with song -- sort of galvanizing with song," he said. "And so, in the democratic way that things are done with Occupy Wall Street, four songs were nominated as ones that we would, as an enormous group, rehearse, from noon to two, and you have the little cheat sheet on the guitar, and we strummed them. We started as a mighty group to begin with, then we sort of infiltrated the larger march and got separated from one another."

"It must have been tough to tune up," offered another blogger.

"The tuning is a secondary matter -- as always," Morello said, laughing. "Tear gas and pulling the plug are the things you can almost always count on."

He went on to describe how, at "the epochal moment" of the guitarmy's rendition of Woody Guthrie's iconic "This Land is Your Land" at Bryant Park, the public address system was turned off "by our union sound man" because "we went over our allotted 11 minutes."

"But that's my dream come true," Morello said. "I'm ready…I'm a seasoned plug-pulled-on performer. There's a whole set of contingencies for that that makes everybody like it more…I'm not sure what the official police count is -- by my count it was tens of thousands of people were there doing an a cappella version of 'This Land is Your Land' and all jumping in unison like it was a huge festival show -- with no PA. I thought it was pretty cool."