With a trip to Marseilles Elementary School on Thursday, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello will bring together two elements that helped shaped who he is.
Music and Marseilles.
After Morello received an award from Music Will, the non-profit organization that establishes music programs in schools challenged him to implement 20 new units across the country with its partnership.
Thursday, Morello, a Libertyville High School graduate, will return to Marseilles – where he spent summers and holidays growing up – to introduce the elementary school there to a program he believes can make an impact.
“This program, on the one hand, it provides a great way for kids of any age to immediately begin engaging with music and programs are tailored to schools,” Morello said in an interview Monday with Shaw Local News Network. “If kids are into country music or interested in making beats or writing rhymes or interested in heavy metal drumming, whatever it is, there’s an easy path to starting that. For me I took French horn lessons when I was 9 or 10 years old and it made me tell my mom I never want to play music again. … It felt like a job. Music Will is the exact opposite of that. It starts with loving to play music from Day 1.”
Music Will provides instruments and the instructions to educators for developing the program for young people to express themselves via music. That open approach is what Morello likes about the program in particular.
“Music has been so important in my life and I saw how close I was to not being a musician,” said Morello, who was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame with Rage Against the Machine. “You know, I took two guitar lessons when I was like 13 years old. I wanted to learn Led Zeppelin and Kiss songs and they wanted to teach me how to tune the guitar and play the C major scale and I stopped playing guitar for four years. I almost was not a guitar player, because of the way I was instructed. Music Will is the exact opposite of that. It’s called playing music, so we play from Day 1.”
Marseilles Elementary will be the third school Morello has selected for a Music Will program. He also chose Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles, which had no music program, and a school in Harlem, New York, near where he was born.
“My family is still connected to Marseilles and it’s an opportunity to give back to a community and stay connected.”
Though he was born in Harlem, New York, and raised in Libertyville, Morello’s family has roots in Marseilles.
“It’s where the Morellos are from,” he said. “It was five Italian brothers who moved there to work in the 1800s to work in the coal mines. I’ve spent every summer there as a kid, won the 1973 Little League Championship there, had a lot of favorite memories of holidays all throughout my youth and into my adulthood, so yeah Marseilles is a very special place to me. It’s gratifying to be able to come back there and help start the music program at the school.”
Morello said he’s observed the economic fluctuation the city has undergone since when he was younger.
“It was more Norman Rockwell like and now there’s a few more abandoned homes,” Morello said. “A few years ago I went there and met some kids who were out hanging out by the courts and they described their lives as their choices seem to be between the Army, Walmart, maybe selling drugs. It made me think anything I can do to help give back to the community so important to me and my family, I’m happy to do.”
Along with introducing students to a different path or a new interest, Morello said music programs can be positive in many ways.
“In the schools where these music programs exist, the graduation rates are higher, student engagement and academic engagement is higher, college acceptances are higher,” Morello said. “It’s just young people finding a way to connect with others, express themselves and to gain self confidence. All of the things music provides beyond the ‘it’s awesome to learn a Luke Bryan song or something.’”
Morello’s visit will be 19 months since he performed in Marseilles to commemorate a 1932 labor riot that led to the death of Joliet’s Steve Sutton, a Croatian immigrant and father of four children.
In that April 2022 appearance, Morello performed songs from his solo project as The Nightwatchman, joining members of Laborers 393 and about 500 people in attendance. The event included a number of speakers, including Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker.
His song “Night Falls” is written about “Big Steve” Sutton, specifically, and how Sutton was killed on July 19, 1932, while protesting with other laborers in seek of work and a better wage. Morello said Sutton was a labor martyr.
Beyond that performance, Morello said he’s made several visits to Marseilles, bringing his children there to show them some old stomping grounds, putting flowers on relatives’ graves and hanging out with friends and family for chicken dinners at the Illini Lounge.
“I drive (my kids) by the old Little League field and whatnot. And the coal mines now which are all overgrown,” he said. “My family is still connected to Marseilles and it’s an opportunity to give back to a community and stay connected.”
Morello said he’s also placed flowers at the Radium Girls statue in Ottawa, noting his grandmother remembers helping the women while she worked at the Ottawa hospital. Even during a Zoom interview Monday with Shaw Local News Network, he wore a Chicago Cubs hat.
“My Aunt Isabel who worked at (The Daily Times in Ottawa), she’s the one who got me into the Cubs,” Morello said. “She didn’t live to see it unfortunately. The day after – I was actually at Game 7 in Cleveland – before I went home, I stopped by the Marseilles cemetery, and I went and planted the W flag on her grave and a bottle of champagne.”
On Thursday, Morello said he will say a few words to students, take questions, then show them the instruments that are being donated.
“I’ll play some music and there will be a chance to do something together with the kids,” Morello said. “We’re coming in hot, we’ll start right off the bat with doing something really fun.
“This one will probably be a couple of acoustic songs, depending on whatever resources are available.”
So does that mean no electrified songs, or even a little bit of guitar feedback – something to rattle the gym windows? He wouldn’t rule it out.
“I’m not afraid of that,” he said. “Perhaps not on this trip.”