Two days after the murderous tragedy in Charleston, S.C., Peter Mulvey wrote a song that began in solitude, and ended up sparking a burgeoning national movement. With just an acoustic guitar, a few chords, and a heavy heart, Mulvey wrote “Take Down Your Flag,” a musical call to arms to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol building.
A protest song in the spirit of Pete Seeger, it came to him after Dylann Roof’s alleged racially motivated shooting rampage, which killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church on June 17.
“Thinking of these families having to bury their [loved ones] while that flag snapped in the breeze at the top of that pole bothered me enough that I knew I wanted to write a song that had the line, ‘Take down your flag,’” Mulvey said. “I’m very aware that I’m being impolite, and I’m willing to offend.”
Mulvey, a Wisconsin-based singer-songwriter with a devoted fanbase in the Boston area, where he once lived and still performs often, wrote the song in the basement of the Calvin Theatre in Northampton. Still raw, he debuted it an hour later in his performance that night opening for folk-rock firebrand and activist Ani DiFranco.
Watch Mulvey play “Take Down Your Flag”:
Later that night, Mulvey, 45, recorded a stark, solemn version on an iPhone and posted the video to YouTube. “Every flag over Charleston is at half-mast today/ Except one,” the song began, before concluding, “Take down your flag to half-mast/ And then take it down for good.”
The video went viral and has inspired both Mulvey’s musician friends and complete strangers to write, record, and post their own versions. As of Tuesday, more than 100 video renditions had cropped up online, by the likes of DiFranco and Pamela Means and several notable New England folk artists including Anaïs Mitchell, Vance Gilbert, Erin McKeown, Mark Erelli, and Melissa Ferrick.
Collectively their versions have racked up close to 60,000 page views and stoked folk music’s historically deep connection to social justice through song. Except this time the movement is happening not at public rallies or concerts, but rather through social media.
“The tune came out pretty quickly, because there just ain’t a lot to say,” Mulvey said, estimating he wrote it in 10 or 15 minutes. “I sang it onstage, and Ani heard it. I almost chickened out, but Ani was right there, and she’s been taking it on the chin for years for stuff that she has written. I knew she was watching, and I knew I couldn’t chicken out.”
DiFranco was stunned, enough so that she performed “Take Down Your Flag” two nights later at her show.
“I loved the song instantly, and I wanted to learn it right away,” DiFranco said. “I feel very strongly that we need to honor the dead and remove this symbol of white supremacy from everywhere in our culture, especially over halls of government. And it’s important to remember those nine people who gave their lives for that change. This is exactly the song that needs to be played right now.”
In Mulvey’s original version – he has since updated the song with new lyrics – he wrote a verse for Susie Jackson, an 87-year-old grandmother. He then asked more than a dozen fellow songwriters to pen a second verse of remembrance for the other victims with details about their lives. Vance Gilbert wrote perhaps the most startling verse yet, a compassionate plea to understand the life of Roof, the alleged killer.
“He and I had an exchange where I said, ‘Vance, this is Olympic-sized forgiveness,’” Mulvey said, referring to the fact that Gilbert is African-American. “And he said, ‘No, this is a song. Forgiveness is a process.’”
“Take Down Your Flag” will undoubtedly strike a nerve when Mulvey performs it at the New Bedford Folk Festival on Saturday and Sunday. And on July 12, Mulvey is planning an online concert with many of the artists who have sung it as a benefit to raise money for Emanuel AME.
“We have a big problem in our country, with racism . . ., with guns. And I don’t have any illusions,” Anaïs Mitchell wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “Bringing down the flag is not going to solve it, and a bunch of songwriters writing songs about it isn’t going to solve it, either. But there was something about Peter’s project that allowed all of us to engage in this tragedy emotionally in a way that oftentimes we in America who have seen so many tragedies on the news have forgotten how to do.”
That doesn’t mean the song has won over everyone who hears it, though. Mulvey mentions how a woman approached him after a concert and informed him that everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion. An online commenter was harsher, claiming that it was your typical liberal dreck, to which Mulvey wrote back, “Sir, I’m not doing this as a liberal. I’m doing it as a human.”
Mulvey has also found allies in unexpected places, including the South. He played a gig in West Virginia last week and gave the venue’s owner a heads-up that he wanted to sing “Take Down Your Flag.” The response? “It’d make me so glad if you sang that song in here,” Mulvey said the owner told him. “And if anybody gets hot, well, we’ll all be in here together to work it out.”
Watch many artists perform “Take Down Your Flag”: