Changing the world, one song at a time

By Anna Kramer
Mercy Bell volunteering with Oxfam at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

Singer-songwriter and Oxfam volunteer Mercy Bell believes that music can make a difference, for both artists and fans.

When she performs, Mercy Bell sometimes channels the spirit of past decades. “Her voice is rich, clear, and pure; close your eyes and you are transported to the ‘60s where Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary are putting on late night concerts for people looking for a change,” wrote one reviewer in the New York Examiner.

But when Bell played at an Oxfam event at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee last month, she recalled an even earlier era, performing a song dating back to 1854: “Hard Times (Come Again No More).”

“It’s an old folk song by Stephen Foster that talks about life being hard, and persevering,” said Bell, who included a cover of the song on her 2011 album All Good Cowboys. “It’s about justice.”

Bell, 29, has a passion for justice that goes far beyond her song choices. Since 2008, the Nashville resident has volunteered with Oxfam America and recruited fellow music fans to the movement to fight poverty and hunger.

“It’s really easy for musicians to sink into this narcissistic spiral. You’re always doing self-promotion and it’s easy to get a big head,” said Bell with a laugh. “I was raised to make a difference in one way or another, so I always volunteer for something. It’s just part of who I am. And Oxfam makes it really easy for me because there is the music connection.”

Bell’s love of music helped her connect with Oxfam six years ago, when she sought out the organization after hearing one of her favorite artists, Missy Higgins, mention Oxfam on stage. As a volunteer with the Oxfam Action Corps in New York City, where she was living at the time, she co-organized a benefit concert in Brooklyn. “That was fun because it was grassroots, and helped me learn a lot about booking shows from a musician’s standpoint,” she said.

Today, Bell is part of Oxfam’s concert outreach efforts in Nashville. Her knowledge of the local music community helps her recruit fellow volunteers, who host informational tables at select shows and talk with fans about poverty and social justice issues.

“I don’t have a problem approaching people, and I don’t think I’m intimidating, so it’s easy for people to talk to me,” said Bell of these interactions. “It’s a good synthesis of music and activism.”

When she’s not volunteering, Bell works full-time at a music publishing company. She’s also recording a new EP and planning a mini-tour this summer. “As an independent musician, you do it all yourself,” said Bell, who used the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to help her fund her first album. “You have to do everything in between your desk job.”

Though a music career brings its own demands, Bell believes that her fellow artists—whether up-and-coming or well-established—should still use their influence to make the world a better place.

“Sometimes it can be hard. You say to yourself, ‘How am I going to change the world while I go on tour, and do everything I need to do?’” she reflected. “If you work with someone who has a presence, like Oxfam, that makes it easier. … You can educate your fan base about hunger and poverty issues. When [fans] are really into an artist, [they] pay attention.”

Listen to more of Mercy Bell’s music here.