The Secret History of ‘Wokeness’

The idea of ‘wokeness’ was actually coined by a black musician who traveled the backroads of the Jim Crow South, Lead Belly.

In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There,” Humpty Dumpty scornfully declares that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” So, what does “wokeness” mean?

“Woke” has become the pet political aspersion that today’s kooky right-wing hucksters hurl at liberals, but the hurlers would be whopperjawed to learn that it’s was actually coined by and for progressives! Indeed, it admonishes people to be awake to the dangers posed by hate-filled bigots and reactionaries like… well, like today’s right-wing extremists.

Surprising historical tidbit: The first person reported to have used the word was Huddie Ledbetter, the legendary black blues artist known as Lead Belly. Among his many classic songs was “Scottsboro Boys,” about nine black teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two Alabama white women. As a black musician who traveled the backroads of the Jim Crow South, Lead Belly warned others to pay attention when in a viciously racist state: “Best stay woke,” he cautioned.

But — out of blind ignorance, blind arrogance, or both — today’s adapters of the Jim Crow mentality have perverted common-sense wokeness into a verbal whip to lash African Americans, immigrants, Democrats, women, LGBTQ+ people and all others they don’t like (pretty much everyone who looks, thinks, prays and acts different from them).

How kooky? They’ve declared librarians, science, Mickey Mouse and Bud Light to be their evil enemies. “Don’t be woke,” they bark, demanding autocratic, plutocratic and theocratic laws to coerce compliance with their own retrogressive bigotries.

This is Jim Hightower saying: Bear in mind that this is no longer a fringe cult, but the mainstream of the Republican Party, including its top congressional leaders, presidential wannabes and state officials. Actually, you can easily comprehend what these Humpty Dumpties really mean by their “Don’t Be Woke” war cry. Just substitute the word “sane” for “woke.”

The Most Influential Musician You Never Heard Of

When you think of Americans whose music has made a lasting difference, you might think of Scott Joplin, Woody Guthrie, Maybelle Carter, Harry Belafonte… or Roger Payne.

Who? I came across Payne in a June obituary, reporting that he’d died at age 88 (yes, I occasionally scan the obits, not out of morbid curiosity but because these little death notices encompass our people’s history, reconnecting us to common lives that had some small or surprisingly large impact).

Payne’s impact is still reverberating around the globe, even though few know his name. A biologist who studied moths, in the 1960s he chanced upon a technical military recording of undersea sounds that incidentally included a cacophony of baying, shrieking, mooing, squealing and caterwauling. They were the voices of humpback whales. What others had considered noise “blew my mind,” Payne said, describing them as a musical chorus of “exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound.” His life’s work shifted from moths to whales… to the interdependence of all species.

At the time, whales were treated by industry and governments as dull, lumbering nuisances. But Payne’s musical instincts came into play, sensing that the “singing” of these magnificent mammals might reach the primordial soul of humans. So, he collected their rhythmic, haunting melodies into a momentous 1970 recording titled “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” It became a huge bestseller, altered public perception and spawned a global “Save the Whales” campaign — one of the most successful conservation movements ever.

So, without writing or performing a single musical note, this scientist produced a truly powerful serenade from nature that continues to make a difference. To connect with Roger Payne’s work and help extend his deep understanding that all of us beings are related, contact the global advocacy group he founded, Ocean Alliance, at

Jim Hightower