May 1, 2012


On the Ground With Tom Morello’s Occupy Wall Street Guitarmy

Monika Graff
Monika Graff

While businessmen took their lunches in New York’s Bryant Park and a statue of Gertrude Stein silently squatted nearby, the first wave of Tom Morello’s “Guitarmy” began practicing for today’s International Workers’ Day May 1 protest. Operating separate from, but in conjunction with, the polarizing Occupy Wall Street movement, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello called for an army of “about 10,000 guitar players” to join him when he performs for the OWS protesters later this afternoon.

Only a few hundred musicians had gathered in Bryant Park for the noon rehearsal, but hundreds more are expected to join when the protest marches to Union Square at 4pm ET. At that point, guitarist Tom Morello—operating under his protest nom de plume The Nightwatchman—will perform his working class anthem “World Wide Rebel Songs” before the protesters march on Wall Street. Hip hop duo Das Racist, Harlem rapper Immortal Technique and indie musician Dan Deacon will also perform.

Excerpt of protest classic "Which Side Are You On?" rewritten for OWS

“We are the guitar army / Our eyes are on the prize / Musicians have no choice in life / Unless we organize / Oh people can you hear us / Oh people do you care? / You’re either with the 99 / Or you are with the mayor.”

[The mayor in this case refers to New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg. The 99 percent is you. Unless you have many billions of dollars in the bank.]

The Guitarmy itself was clearly made up of veteran protesters. Although a few people skirted around the edges asking when Morello was showing up, the majority of the guitar wielders were focused on the task at hand. While the non-musical protesters chanted slogans at the other end of Bryant Park, the cross-generational collection of musicians—planted directly next to the New York Public Library—planned the specifics of their day. 

A core group of designated organizers advised the Guitarmy players that when the protest began in earnest, the directions given by OWS organizers were for protesters and not for the Guitarmy. Their sole objective was to perform protest songs to amplify the May Day protest message. 

While one of the organizers explained the specifics of joining Morello for the performance of his “World Wide Rebel Songs,” a middle-aged protester leaned in and said to me, “So that’s when the rock stars all show up. Ironic, isn’t it?” There was no malice in her voice, just detached amusement, as if she was resigned to the necessity of celebrity endorsements but still suspicious.

Excerpt of protest classic “We Shall Not Be Moved” rewritten for OWS

“Banks want to take our homes but we shall not be moved / Tear gas will not stop us, we’re fighting for the future / Get money out of politics, the one percent won’t stop us / We’ll occupy democracy / We shall not be moved.”

After that, the crowd broke up into six or seven separate “squadrons” to practice. The mood was optimistic but resolute: Gray-haired guitarists showed college kids the chords to decades-old protest songs like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Florence Reece’s union anthem “Which Side Are You On?” and the traditional “We Shall Not Be Moved.” While guitar was the weapon of choice for most, I spotted a ukulele, numerous banjos and an entire horn section, with the tubas and trumpets covered in handmade green “Tax the Rich” stickers.

A lyrics sheet was handed out to singers and musicians during the Guitarmy's rehearsals: All of them were reworked versions of classic protest songs altered to reflect the concerns of the times—which for them, means the struggle of the 99 percent against the wealthiest 1 percent.

If you're in the market for some rousing working class anthems, Fuse has put together a definitive International Workers' Day playlist featuring Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Tom Morello.