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A Curator's Perspective on the Rock Hall's Latest Exhibit, Louder Than Words



The Rock Hall's new exhibit, Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics, explores music's power to change "the attitudes of patriotism, peace, equality and freedom." It covers eight political topics: civil rights; LGBT issues; feminism; war and peace; censorship; political campaigns; political causes; and international politicals. Artifacts range from guitars played by activist-oriented musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Pete Seeger, Tom Morello and John Lennon to concert posters and handwritten lyrics. Video, multimedia, photographs, periodicals and artifacts help tell the story of the ways in which music and politics have interacted since the birth of rock 'n' roll. Karen Herman, the Rock Hall's vice president of collections and curatorial affairs, recently walked us through the exhibit, which essentially traces the history of rock 'n' roll, and explained the significance of some of the more politically charged artifacts.

Little Richard Concert Poster, 1957, and Chuck Berry Concert Poster, 1958

Bluefield, West Virginia

As you can see from these two vintage posters, segregation of rock 'n' roll concert audiences was commonplace in the 1950s, particularly in the Southern states. Promoters marketed concerts to either "colored" or "white" audiences, with the separated group admitted only to the balcony. Singer-guitarist Chuck Berry famously opposed such divisions; he once said, "I made records for people who would buy them. No color, no ethnic, no political — I don't want that, never did.'' "These posters are from our archives collection, and they're very rare," says Herman. "People don't realize that there were roped lines between audiences in the '50s. Much of the anti-rock 'n' roll sentiment was against the music because it was associated with African-Americans. You can see what a difference there is now."

Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar

1968 Fender Stratocaster

Guitar hero Jimi Hendrix played this guitar when he and his band performed the last set of the Woodstock Festival on the morning of Monday, Aug. 18, 1969. The Rock Hall exhibit includes video of him playing it as well. "When Jimi played that concert, the country was at war, and he was making a statement," says Herman. "If you listen to his playing, you can practically hear the machine guns in it and that uncertainty in the air. It still resonates today." The guitar is on loan from Experience Music Project; it's part of millionaire Paul Allen's personal collection.

Bill Clinton Saxophone

When he was campaigning to be president, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, a guy who loved jazz, played "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Arsenio Hall Show. The saxophone that's on display in the Rock Hall exhibit was given to him as a gift. "He wouldn't have been able to keep it without purchasing it, but he was so enamored with it that he purchased it," explains Herman, who adds that Clinton hand-carried it from his home to the Clinton library, so it could be transported to the Rock Hall.

 Josh White Acoustic Guitar

Martin 00-21, c. 1943

Odetta Acoustic Guitar

Gibson Body, National Neck, c. 1951

Odetta performed and recorded with this guitar, which she nicknamed "Baby," throughout her career; she famously played it during her performance at the March on Washington. A friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, blues, folk and gospel singer Josh White became the first African American artist to give a command performance at the White House. He also played this guitar during his performance at the March on Washington. "When Odetta plays at the March of Washington, it's a key moment when music and Civil Rights come together," says Herman. "People often don't realize it, but that was during the Kennedy Administration."


Jimmy Cliff Vest, 1972

Design by The Governor

Jimmy Cliff wrote his 1969 song "Vietnam" in the form of a letter from a soldier. Cliff wore the vest on display in the motion picture The Harder They Come, a film that introduced reggae to a wider audience. "He wrote the song to tell the story about someone who lost his mind in Vietnam," says Herman. "It actually happened to a friend of his."


Johnny Cash Shirt, c. 1970

Design by Nudie's Rodeo Tailors

In 1965, country singer Johnny Cash offered a critique of protest songs by folk rock groups with his "The One on the Right is the One on the Left." Written by Jack Clement, it reached No. 2 on the Billboard country singles chart. "He wasn't pro war, but he questioned what people were protesting," says Herman. "He was pro-military but not necessarily pro-war. Much of the outrage had to do with the draft. No one was pro-war, but we've tried to balance our artifacts related to the Vietnam War."


John Lennon Acoustic Guitar

1964 Gibson J 160E

John Lennon originally acquired this guitar in 1964 to replace an identical one that was stolen. In 1967, the Fool, the Dutch art cooperative that also painted Lennon's Rolls-Royce, painted it psychedelic blue and red. When Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono held two "bed-ins" for peace in March and May of 1969, Lennon played this guitar. He commemorated the event by drawing caricatures of Yoko and himself on the guitar. "John and Yoko did two famous bed-ins and invited their friends to come and sing with them," says Herman, adding that the guitar is on loan from Ono.


Written by Neil Young

Recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and released as a single, 1970

This tribute to the victims of the Kent State shootings was written, recorded and rush-released to radio in just a few weeks' time. "We have a whole case devoted to the Kent State shootings," says Herman. "We have things from the May 4 Visitors Center, and there's a yearbook that includes photos most people haven't seen before and a watch from someone who was wounded and a flag that was flying on campus that day. It was a national touch point and people still know about it today. They rushed into that song. David Crosby handed Neil Young the Life magazine that had a photo from the shootings on it. He didn't say a word and came back with this song."

Joni Mitchell Electric Guitar

1978 Ibanez George Benson GB10 NT

Joni Mitchell's 1972 song "Woman of Heart and Mind" provided an "introspective look at the personal psychology of feminism." Mitchell purchased this guitar in 1979 when she started playing electric guitars and exploring jazzier sounds. "Music from the civil rights leads to music about women's rights," says Herman. "We want to show the progression that takes place."

Dee Snider of Twisted Sister Vest and Shirt, c. 1985

Dee Snider wore this vest when he testified at a U.S. Senate's Committee on Commerce hearing; he wore the shirt at a Parents Music Resource Center-related press conference. Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" had been chosen as part of the PMRC's "Filthy 15," and Snider was asked to testify.  He recently donated the outfit, including a pair of snakeskin boots, to the Rock Hall. "He swaggers in to the hearing wearing this outfit even though the other artists who testified wore suits and had briefcases," says Herman. This part of the exhibit includes PMRC warning pamphlets and a copy of Prince's Purple Rain, the album that instigated the entire controversy regarding putting warning labels on albums.


Letter from the F.B.I. to Priority Records, Aug. 1, 1989

On its 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. addressed themes such as police brutality and racial profiling, especially on the tracks "Straight Outta Compton" and "Fuck tha Police." Many mainstream U.S. radio stations banned them, and the F.B.I. investigated the group. This letter from the F.B.I. to Priority Records shows just how concerned the bureau was. "It shows the government does have a sense of the power of music," says Herman.

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine Acoustic Guitar

Applause AE-38, c. 1992

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello used this guitar to write the politically charged L.A. band's 1992 single, "Killing in the Name." "He's a key player in telling this story all the way through," says Herman, who adds that he appears in many of the exhibit's accompanying videos. "He understands the history and feels that all music is political."

Bono Jacket, 2002

Design by Todd Lynn

Performing at the 2002 Super Bowl in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, U2 paid tribute to the victims by projecting their names on a massive backdrop as it played "Where the Streets Have No Name." Bono wore this jacket during the performance; the jacket's stars-and-stripes lining serves as an additional homage to the victims. "He spent a lot of time talking to us about issues releated to the exhibit," Herman says of Bono.

Al Jourgensen of Ministry Electric Guitar

2004 Schecter Flying W

Al Jourgensen played this guitar on the three "anti-Bush" albums that Ministry released. Jourgensen considers the instrument his "favorite 'anti-idiot' gun of choice." "He outfitted it to have a 'W' and he wrote this great piece about what caused him to do it," says Herman. In the note, which is on display with the guitar, Jourgensen says he was enraged about Bush's election as he watched results roll in back in 2004.

Lady Gaga Outfit, 2010

Design by Franc Fernandez

Lady Gaga wore this dress made out of raw meat at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, where she won five awards, including Video of the Year for "Bad Romance." After that event, the dress was taken to American Taxidermy in California and placed in a vat of chemicals to preserve it. "It's about LGBT rights but it goes beyond that," says Herman, adding that Gaga donated the dress to the Rock Hall after she wore it. "She's trying to say that she's not just a piece of meat."

Berlin Wall Fragment, Germany, built 1961

Taken from the Newseum collection, this chunk of the Berlin Wall represents one of the only international items in the exhibit. The East German government called the wall the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall. As resentment toward the wall grew, acts such as David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen played concerts near the Wall to support freedom for East Germany. "You can build a wall but music can go past the wall," says Herman. "Also, bands would play concerts on the west side and turn the speakers so the people on the other side could listen. That's the rebellious nature of rock 'n' roll. It was uniting people who were at the wall."

"Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)"

Written and Recorded by Alan Jackson and released on the album Drive, 2002

Inspired by the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Alan Jackson wrote "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." At the time, Jackson said, "I've had so many people come up to me, and I don't know what to say, other than that I just feel like it was a gift from God. I don't know why he picked me to send those words to, but I'm glad it's been a healing song for some people. I think it was Hank Williams who said, 'God writes the songs, I just hold the pen.' That's the way I felt with this song." "He wasn't going to record the song because he didn't want to profit from it, but he was really inspired by the situation," says Herman.

Musical Arrangement for "Alright," 2015, Written by Kendrick Duckworth, Mark Spears and Pharrell Williams

Rapper Kendrick Lamar wrote the song after a trip to Africa. At the time, he said, "I got to see other people's problems." The tune has become associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The artifact speaks to the contemporary nature of the exhibit. "It's critical," Herman says of the piece. "We want to continue to tell the story and change things as the show travels. There's one monitor with current happenings that's continually updated. The story doesn't end. We happen to be in a time where music is political again. Baltimore and Ferguson have started a new awareness. Artists you think wouldn't be political, like Beyonce, are becoming political. We want to trace this connection between music and politics as it continues to happen. It's not stopping and never will."


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