Moyers: The Amazing Power of Music to Create Social Change

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. You will remember that three weeks ago, a group of parents and others who lost loved ones in the Newtown, Connecticut, school killings went to Washington. They walked the halls of the capitol, meeting with senators and urging them to vote yes for an amendment that would expand the use of background checks for people buying guns. Although a majority favored the legislation, they fell six votes short of the 60 votes necessary under current Senate rules for passage.

But the Newtown families, friends and neighbors do not intend to quit. They are part now of a nationwide movement committed to changing our gun culture. They call it the Sandy Hook Promise, after the Sandy Hook elementary school where the twenty children and six educators were shot and killed.

The mission statement reads: “America is in desperate need of a new path forward to address our epidemic of gun violence.” And then comes the promise: “This time there will be change.”

Francine Wheeler, one of the Newtown parents who has made that promise, is with me now. She is the mother of six-year-old Ben, a Sandy Hook first grader who was one of those slain in December. You may have seen Francine a few weeks ago when President Obama asked her to deliver his weekly radio and internet address or you may have watched her on “60 Minutes” with her husband David, a graphic designer, who will join us later in the broadcast.

But first, Francine and I are with Peter Yarrow, the folksinger and activist. You know him from Peter, Paul and Mary, the celebrated trio who entertained and moved us with their music while tirelessly campaigning for peace and social justice.

In February, Peter was asked to come to Connecticut and appear in a concert to give those still grieving a sense of comfort and solidarity. Francine Wheeler, who is a talented singer and music teacher, performed too, as did her husband David. Francine and Peter, welcome to you both.


BILL MOYERS: The Sandy Hook Promise talks about turning tragedy into a moment of transformation. Was there a moment like that for you after Ben's death when suddenly you realized there was something you had to do?

FRANCINE WHEELER: Yeah, but it was very gradual for me. It wasn't that way for everyone. But for me, it was a voice inside of me that said if you-- because I didn't want to live, okay. And I felt, I had to ask myself “How am I going to live? How am I going to get up and raise my other child and be a partner to my husband, how am I going to do that?”

And it just gradually, organically happened where I said, you know what, I'm going to talk to people. I'm going to tell them about my son. I'm going to tell them what it's like to be a mother. And I'm going to tell them what it's like to find a conversation about change that is love. I'm going to do it without fighting them. And I knew it. It just came to me. And I had hope. And Sandy Hook Promise was a group of people who were helping some of the families who wanted to get this message out. And that's what you have. You have many different people in this community who are in such pain. And you know, we didn't ask to be in this club together, but we are.

BILL MOYERS: You said without fighting them. What do you mean without fighting who?

FRANCINE WHEELER: Well, when you have 26 victims, you have 26 different families. When you have this country, you have 50 different states. You have people who have different values, different lives that are very different from mine.

BILL MOYERS: And different positions on guns.

FRANCINE WHEELER: Different positions on guns. Different positions on mental health. Different positions on the security of our schools. So, I had to talk to them. And I still do talk to them because they're parents. Their kids go to school. They're grandparents. They're brothers, they're sisters, they're aunts, they're uncles. So, they have their perspective, and they want safety. And I think there's a misconception that Sandy Hook Promise is just about the gun debate, it is not.

BILL MOYERS: One of your mission statements is to help the community heal.


BILL MOYERS: And help the country heal.

FRANCINE WHEELER: Yes, that's where Peter came in and just helping us to start to heal. And that's so important.

BILL MOYERS: You've been in many concerts before, but when I watched the first round of this one on tape, I realize there's something different about Peter Yarrow in this.

PETER YARROW: Oh, it's true. I was back in the place that I was when I sang at the March on Washington in 1963. Where Martin Luther King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech and Peter, Paul and Mary sang “Blowin' in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer.” I sometimes say that it was so thick in the air, the love, and the sense of determination with pain, somehow transforming the pain into love that you could literally pick it up and eat it for lunch.


BILL MOYERS: I was there for the March on Washington, and I heard you all sing, heard Martin Luther King's speech. You and David and Peter sang many of the songs from that era, including this one that gives a sense of power and mass action.

FRANCINE WHEELER: How many times must the cannon balls fly Before they're forever banned?

PETER YARROW: Sing it to us now, my friends.

ENSEMBLE: The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind The answer is blowin' in the wind.

BILL MOYERS: Was the concert the first time you had sung publically since Ben died?

FRANCINE WHEELER: Yes. Yes. And that concert was very difficult to do, but… and I, by the way, I was in bed for a couple days after that. It was tough. It was hard. Yeah, no, it was hard. But the music helps me, prayer, community, my church, my family, my friends, and playing. I'm going to sing in a couple weeks again. You know, I mean, I don't know all the answers. I don't know how I'm going to do this. I take it each day. And today, the answer is music.

PETER YARROW: An act of positive movement forward is singing together. This is not a benign thing. Woody Guthrie had his guitar and said, you know, “this machine kills fascists.” This is not something—“Oh, let's bring on the entertainment.” Hardly. This is so powerful a tool that when you galvanize people's hearts together, and they create that movement, moment, by singing together, you're not saying, “Oh, look how prettily I can sing.”

They are making that moment together singing as Francine did, and it just created a moment of a catharsis when she said, “How many times can the cannonballs fly before they're forever banned?” We were not talking about war. We were talking about the war that we have to stop, which is the injury to our children that allows them to become violent against themselves or others. And when that was understood, in a totally different context from the anti-war movement, from-- that audience roared with a sense of commitment. That is activism in and of itself. You need to create that spirit of determination.

BILL MOYERS: The Sandy Hook Promise pledge talks about being open to all possibilities and having conversations where even those with sharply opposed views, I'm quoting, “can debate in good will.” Now, the debate we've been having has come down to the NRA versus gun control advocates. Do you really believe that you can have a debate with the NRA?

FRANCINE WHEELER: Well, I don't think that Sandy Hook Promise is trying to debate the NRA. I think that what Sandy Hook Promise is saying, and forgive me because I'm not a politician, I'm coming from a parent's point of view, is we're trying to say, okay, you own a gun, you don't own guns. I've never owned a gun. I don't know what it's like to own a gun.

But there are a lot of responsible gun owners out there, some of whom are NRA members. And they want safety for their children and for their grandchildren. So, the common sense and what we're talking about is, hey, why don't we find a way to not debate and fight about what you believe guns are and what I believe guns are, let's come together and figure out a way to make them safer?

Why don't we do that? Why don't we take them out of hands of people who shouldn't have them, like background checks, common sense. And you know, we're talking about the bulk of the Americans who believe this, whether they own guns or don't. I mean, we had a number of families go to Washington and have, in my opinion, quite wonderful discussions with a lot of people, a lot of senators who, by the way, were respectful, kind, listened and took the time to listen to me talk about my son.

BILL MOYERS: In private.

FRANCINE WHEELER: In private. But they did. And that's change.

BILL MOYERS: But then of course, you lost the bill. The bill was a positive step forward, wasn't it? The bill that was introduced in the Senate, it was one of the, sort of, specific actions that you were hoping for.

FRANCINE WHEELER: Senator Manchin and Senator Toomey, I have to point them out because they took the courage to say, “Yeah, I'm from West Virginia, a lot of gun owners here." "I'm from Pennsylvania,” a lot of people have passionate feelings about this. And yet, they were willing to stand up and say, you know what, I'm a human. I'm a person. So are you. I'm a father. I'm a grandfather. It--

BILL MOYERS: And yet, a minority of senators defeated the bill.

FRANCINE WHEELER: Well, this time. But, you know, I already had a gut feeling the vote was not going to pass that day. I called that day, I called about 25 senators who had, some of whom had already said they were going to vote no. And I spoke to a lot of their staff. And I spoke to a couple of senators on the phone. They knew in that moment, even though they were voting no, they knew I wasn't going to go. They knew that I believed in this and that I have hope. And I do have hope. And I heard Ben's voice that day and he said to me, "Don't worry, mama, there is hope and love here. Don't feel discouraged." And I, honestly, I'm not going to speak for any other parent, but for me, I didn't really lose hope that way that day. I felt like it was, it was a good step.

BILL MOYERS: So, you're not finished with this.

FRANCINE WHEELER: Our hearts are broken, our spirit is not. And as Mark Barden said in the Rose Garden the day that-- he's one of the dads. I love him. He got up there and he courageously said, we're not going because where am I going to go? I have to live without my six-year-old here anymore for as long as I'm on the earth. So, what am I going to do? I have to still parent him. I have to still honor him. I still have to be there for him.

BILL MOYERS: So, you're in this, I won't use the word fight. You're in this--


BILL MOYERS: --transforming struggle.

FRANCINE WHEELER: Movement. Right.


BILL MOYERS: Movement, that's an interesting word. This is a movement you've started, that has been started, right.


BILL MOYERS: And where is it going to take us in your mind?

FRANCINE WHEELER: I think it will take us to a more loving and safe place, generally. I mean, that's the quick answer. Specifically, you know, maybe it will help communities to be able to be more aware of each other, and supportive of one another. I think one of the regrets that a lot of us in Newtown have about this tragedy is that we didn't know. We didn't know that this man was troubled. We didn't, we didn't know. So, that's a problem. We have to, we have to change that. We have to know.

PETER YARROW: To me, the real power that made the civil rights movement happen is going to be the power that makes this Sandy Hook Promise take place. And, just as I dedicated it myself to-- it shaped my whole life, being at that March on Washington. I dedicated myself to not only eliminating that horrific unfairness, but other unfairnesses. And celebrating the wonderment of what happens when you do confront it. What will change this country are two things. Number one, it's not just the passage of a bill.

If people don't have it in their hearts, if we don't believe in ways that you've been talking about, that we care about each other and we can find common ground, and we can reach across the divide, then we're not going to get there.

We need to build love. And frankly, in the adults, that's a tough thing to do. But if we concentrate on our kids, giving them a loving environment, I'm telling you something, this Sandy Hook Promise is going to be fulfilled.

BILL MOYERS: There is one song in the concert, “Family.” Can you talk about that a moment? And then, I'd like for my audience to hear it.

PETER YARROW: "Family," was the moment of catharsis for me at the concert. It was astonishing.

FRANCINE WHEELER: And you know, Ben was there. Ben was there. You know, I've listened to Dar Williams for, I don't know, 15 years, and I had never met her before the day of the concert. And she said, through Peter, you know, what does Francine want to sing? And she suggested Pierce Pettis' song “Family.”

And when I listened to it, after I cried for a while, I realized it was the perfect song. I mean, the word I say in the second verse is: “We stood outside in the summer rain, / different people with a common pain.” And that’s what you have.

PETER YARROW: And it also says, there's a line, "[he's] just a child, that's all.” That is, to me, such a powerful line, it's a child, yeah, he's, you know, in a box in the cold.

FRANCINE WHEELER: He's just a child.

PETER YARROW: He's just a child. That's all. We're not talking about sophisticated political dilemmas. Can we just have some empathy for that child who is gone?

FRANCINE WHEELER: Or the teacher that was trying to protect that child.

PETER YARROW: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: We will play that song for our audience as we say farewell. Francine Wheeler and Peter Yarrow, thank you very much for joining me. And thank you very much for your witness.


DAR WILLIAMS: Can you fix this? It's a broken heart. It was fine, but it just fell apart. It was mine, but now I give it to you. Cause you can fix it, you know what to do.

DAR WILLIAMS & FRANCINE WHEELER: Let your love cover me, Like a pair of angel wings, You are my family, You are my family.

FRANCINE WHEELER: We stood outside in the summer rain, Different people with a common pain. A simple box in that hard red clay, It's where we left him to always remain.

DAR WILLIAMS & FRANCINE WHEELER: Let your love cover me, Like a pair of angel wings, You are my family, You are my family.

DAR WILLIAMS: The child who played with the moon and stars, Waves a snatch of hay in a common barn.

DAR WILLIAMS & FRANCINE WHEELER: In the lonely house of Adam’s fall Lies a child, it’s just a child that’s all, crying

DAR WILLIAMS & FRANCINE WHEELER: Let your love cover me, Like a pair of angel wings, You are my family, You are my family. You are my family, You are my family.

#story_page_ below_article

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.