Songs for the Journey – Saul Alinsky and Sufjan Stevens

By Nick Coke

Inspiration for the journey comes from many quarters. Some of it is through more obvious means – scripture, prayers, sacred music, religious art – and then there’s the more oblique stuff, like a film scene, an unexpected piece of music on the car radio, the sun reflecting off a skyscraper that suddenly moves you, an overheard snippet of conversation on the street. It’s nuanced for all of us. For me it’s music – not really the kind you hear in a church meeting but something you find on an old vinyl record in a charity shop. A number of years ago I blogged a little on some of my favourite musical gems – songs for the journey. Here’s one I recorded earlier:

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Sufjan Stevens – The Perpetual Self or What Would Saul Alinksy do? (Listen on Youtube here)

Well, here’s to the song with the longest title I’ll probably ever attempt to write about! If you know anything about American singer-songwriter and player of pretty much every instrument you can imagine – Sufjan Stevens – you’ll know that long song titles are one of his fortés. A lot could be said about Sufjan and his religious connections but no time for that right now – what I’m particularly interested in writing about is why I chose this song of his. Mainly it’s because of the man mentioned in the ridiculously long title of this song – Saul Alinsky. And he’s someone who I have become very interested in.

Saul Alinsky is known as the father of ‘commuSaul_AlinskyAP660220130nity organising’. The term was probably not that well known until its most famous proponent started banging on about it on his way to the White House in 2009. Having got involved in community organising in East London through Citizens UK a number of years ago, I read Alinsky’s two short books – Reville for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971) and was gripped by them. They’re not quite like anything I’d ever read – irreverent, funny, passionate, political and ultimately empowering. If you want to do politics or social justice it’s a great place to start. I’ll never be the same again having read that stuff (and incidently, I’ve seen the principles work!).

So what’s this song about? Truthfully, I’m not sure – every version of the lyrics on the internet are different and none of them are obvious in meaning. Having listened to the song carefully a few times I would suggest that it appears to be an Alinsky anthem of sorts. You’ll just have to listen to it yourself – strangely uplifting despite the opening salvo of ‘Everything is lost…’. But then in an odd kind of way that is Alinsky’s message – when you’re down and losing, get organised, act together and you’re on your way up. And make sure you have a lot of fun doing it!