Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and the ‘Guitarmy’ fill Bryant Park with old protest songs

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Tom Morello talks to Fuse. (Dan Rosenblum)
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As what looked like about a hundred guitar-wielding protesters filled the Upper Terrace of Bryant Park, no fewer than 17 cameras were turned to activist and Rage Against the Machine guitarist, Tom Morello.

“There’s certainly a preponderance of journalists here,” he said after a reporter asked whether the day would be a success. “In some regards it’s already happened.”

Morello was at the park leading the “Guitarmy,” the stringed companions of the group that had been marching down 42nd Street toward the park. Guitars,  mandolins and small keyboards were drumming out union standards like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” Willie Nile’s “One Guitar,” and Florence Reece’s “Which Side are You On.” Some had flowers tucked into their instruments here and there.

At Bryant Park, they rehearsed for a walk to Union Square where Das Racist, Dan Deacon and Morello would play a short concert. As a mic check and chords rang in the ears of the crowd, Morello laid down his philosophy.

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“The great double-edged sword that we can reflect on on May Day is freedom of choice,” he said. “Some people are free to choose between Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces while others are free to choose which dumpster they’re going to have their next meal out of. Some people are free to choose which farms and houses they’re going to foreclose on, while others are free to choose which bridge they’re going to spend the night under.”

Morello said he was inspired recently by the battle between unions and the government in Wisconsin, which he thinks opened up an opportunity to make class a real issue again. As we were talking, a reporter for MTV introduced himself to ask a question.

“My question for you is, why don’t you play my videos anymore?” Morello asked him back. (He went on to later say he admired The Arcade Fire, Conor Oberst and Ben Harper.)

It was a looser crowd and more family-friendly than the contingent on the fountain side of Bryant Park, which had settled in from picketing a Chipotle across the street. Here, a confetti bomb went off sending colorful paper into the air and fluttering to the ground, and a small child sat on the head of a bust of Gertrude Stein. Some dedicated office workers even picked at salads, seemingly heedless of the uneven chorus of protesters around them.

One of those protesting was Brooklyn resident Tim Hartman, 33, who practiced with a Seagull guitar. He said he was an amateur musician who'd been playing for five years.

“You’re trying to fight oppression with something beautiful,” he said. “Friends of mine have been blocking off foreclosure auctions and they do it by singing songs like these, spiritual songs. It kind of shows the contrast, watching people singing and happy joyous and then being arrested.”

Another 'guitarmy' member was Karl Appuhn, a history professor from the Bronx. He said though he’s been to a couple of protests, it was the first time he’d seen the "people's mic" in action. He learned the songs yesterday and practiced them on his Yamaha before coming to Bryant Park.

“I’ve never seen this many guitars in one place,” he said.

By 2 p.m. rehearsal was over, and the crowd geared up to march downtown. Morello made a final announcement to the crowd.

“This is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth,” he yelled, as others passed him words along through the crowd. “If he were alive, even at 100, he’d be in the streets with us today singing this song. Singing our song, because this land is your land.”