LOS ANGELES — There’s nothing like a big political rally to get the creative juices flowing for a politically progressive rocker. That’s just what happened after guitarist, singer and songwriter Tom Morello took part in demonstrations at the state capitol in Madison, Wis., recently to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to strip the state’s public workers of the ability to engage in collective bargaining.
The results can be heard imminently in Morello’s new eight-song EP, “Union Town,” a collection the Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave/The Nightwatchman musician summarizes as “fighting songs.” The title tune became available Thursday as a free download at SaveWorkers.org. The EP will be released in digital form on May 17 and on CD and vinyl on July 19 under Morello’s new deal with New West Records. Proceeds from sale of the album will go to the America Votes Labor Unity Fund.
“I was so inspired by what I saw in Madison,” Morello said this week. “It seems very much like we’re at an important crossroad, and that this movement was not just about stopping some bad legislation, but possibly harnessing the energy of 100,000 to 150,000 people who were in the streets and want to put some teeth back in the labor movement in the U.S.”
Morello is an unapologetic labor supporter, citing both his own two decade-plus membership in Musicians’ Union Local 47 in Los Angeles and that of his mother, a public school teacher and active member of the teachers union.
Morello returned from the February rally in Madison and wrote “Union Town” and two other originals — “A Wall Against the Wind” and “Which Side Are You On?” — and recorded the whole thing over a period of just four days. Among the other songs on the EP are his renditions of the Merle Travis-Tennessee Ernie Ford country coal-mining anthem “16 Tons,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the folk standard “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and a rally-ready chant titled “Solidarity Forever” that borrows the melody of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
In his version of “This Land Is Your Land,” Morello turns the tables on tradition, ignoring the first couple of verses of the song that are typically taught in elementary school and focusing instead on the politically charged latter verses usually ignored in the public arena.
“That’s a conscious choice,” he said. “Ninety-nine times out of 100, in the third-grade classroom or sung at a ballgame, they exclude the class-warfare verses. What this song is really about is which side are you on?”
The large turnout in Madison made Morello think there’s critical mass building in support of workers’ rights in the U.S.
“The powers that be in Wisconsin picked the wrong place to start that fight,” he said. “Clearly, the right-wing governors in this country have an agenda to make this a nation of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations. But I’ve talked to workers across the country, and I played a rally in Los Angeles months ago, and I can tell you that working-class people are not taking tyranny by the teaspoon and they’re not taking it by the pound. My great hope is this record can put some wind in their sails.”
He’s moving full steam ahead with “Union Town,” even though later this summer he’s also releasing “Worldwide Rebel Songs,” a long-planned new album under the name of his solo alter-ego, the Nightwatchman.
“The Walmart-ization of the world will occur unless we stand together,” he said. “What can the Nightwatchman do about it? I can make these songs.”