Home / Features / Duet performers showcase history of early labor movement, social change

Duet performers showcase history of early labor movement, social change

Ashley Thompson | Features Writer

History can be taught in a great many formats and one of those is a musical presentation, much like Nell Levin and Michael August’s performance on Joe Hill. Hill was an artist activist of the labor movement, and his involvement in the early labor movements during the 20th century.

Nell Levin and Michael August, who are formally known as the Shelby Bottom Duo (a name based off a park in East Nashville), performed a presentation of “A Musical History of Joe Hill and the Early Labor Movement” in the MUC Room 303-305 on Monday March 27.

The duo sang a variety of Joe Hill songs with a folk genre and taught the history backgrounds of Joe Hill’s songs, as well as the many struggles during the labor movement while they created an active, sing-along atmosphere for the audience, Levin with her fiddle and August with his guitar.

The two have been performing together for seven years, starting off in a band, according to Levin, and eventually splitting up into a duo.

“We make more money and it was fun, but we enjoy being in a duo quite a bit,” Levin said. The group was then invited to work with the Joe Hill Roadshow in 2015, in honor of the 100 year anniversary of Joe Hill’s death.

“A friend of a friend gave a call and referred us to the show because they knew we were interested in that particular topic,” August said. He also said Nell is “kind of a Rebel Girl herself,” and these are the kinds of songs they perform at a variety of concerts

The term Rebel Girl refers to a song written by Joe Hill about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a leading activist and fighter for women’s rights, playing a leading role in the Industrial Workers of the World.

This term would pick up as calling, those women who fight for such beliefs as Rebel Girls. “I’m a rebel girl,” Levin said at the mention of the term by her fellow performer.

With such a strong topic and piece of history, the Shelby Bottom Duo’s presentation opened the question of why such a topic is important.

“I really think that with the current situation we have in the country, there is going to be a lot more songs written and art created,” Levin said. “I feel like art and music can be very powerful forms of protest for social change. That’s what Joe Hill was, an artist activist. He got more points across through his songs than any pamphlet. With music and arts, you can reach people at more of a heartfelt level.”

Levin said she has been an activist since the 1960s and merged that into her career as a musician. August agreed to this and mentioned how much research the two of them put into Joe Hill and the labor movement to create their performance. Both Levin and August said they were amazed at how little Union members now actually know about their history.

Through a musical presentation, Levin and August taught a historical lesson to their audience.

The Shelby Bottom Duo contributed knowledge as well as active entertainment to the audience, creating an open sing-along and discussion.

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