Against my better judgment, and in spite of anyone’s wishes, I’m going to reveal my political stance.
***Begin Rant of Impotent Rage***
Simply put, I think the ascension of President George W. Bush must have started as a perverted My Fair Lady type of wager that went something like:
Karl Rove: Give me the slackest piss-ant you can find, and I’ll make him President.
Dick Cheney (lovingly baptizing the Antichrist in a barrel of crude oil): OK, well what about George’s boy?
George Bush: Heck, I’d be happy if you could just get him to sound like English is his native tongue.
Karl Rove: Hey, I’m no miracle worker…
From those auspicious beginnings, I’ve watched America’s underlying principles falter in the name of security. Torture? Somehow we must have been naïve, mere international babes in the woods when we prosecuted waterboarders at the end of World War II. Now it A-OK, its acceptability defined not by a sense of right vs. wrong, but via the blessing of soul-sold, sentence-parsing lawyers who make Bill Clinton’s dance around the definition of “is” seem as charming as a schoolboy trying to get out of detention.
Rule of law? Checks and balances? Nothing hundreds of “this applies to you but not me” signing statements can’t clear up. Civil liberties? I think I saw them coughing up blood in a gutter somewhere, arms wrapped around the lifeless remains of habeus corpus. And the Democrat-led Congress that rode in on a mandate, supposedly to work in our interests and clear some of this up? They fold faster than lawnchairs at the end of Summer, seeming more and more complicit in the selling of America’s soul.
From top to bottom, from the highest ranks of our government to our own role as an easily-duped and -distracted citizenry, we’re failing. A lethal combination of chickenhawks and chickensh**s, we’ve allowed the Constitution—perhaps the closest humanity’s come to writing a sacred secular document—to hold as much weight as a bookmark in Bush’s copy of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader.
And I certainly don’t count myself as an innocent. I meant the “watched” part; apart from voting and writing the stray curmudgeonly letter to the editor, I haven’t been very active in actually doing anything about any of these things. Instead, I just seethe with the quiet, helpless rage on which the establishment depends for its continued survival. “The Man” should be sending me a Christmas card every year in appreciation.
***End Rant of Impotent Rage***
Mind you, that’s just my incendiary opinion, but I offer it only as proof that I’m the prime demographic for some good protest music. So why does so much of it leave me cold?
This hit me while listening to Appleseed Recordings’ retrospective Sowing the Seeds: The 10th Anniversary. Consumer rights lawyer Jim Musselman founded folk/world music-oriented Appleseed Recordings in 1997, intending to “explore the roots and branches of folk and world music and sow the seeds of social justice through music”. In the decade since, they’ve released over 80 records driven by a political and social conscience, including three tributes to Pete Seeger.
Sowing the Seeds collects the best of Appleseed’s run so far, including nine new songs in its 2-CD, 37-track span. The set’s divided into two sections. Disc One, entitled “And Justice for All”, focuses on hard-hitting political messages. Disc Two, “Peace, Love and Appleseed”, offers somewhat lighter fare. Populated by the likes of Seeger, Tom Paxton, Donovan, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins, Sowing the Seeds is a strange beast: a collection of modern protest songs that sound like they stepped out of a folk time machine, the garlands of dew-kissed flowers still fresh in their hair. Decades after the heyday of protest folk, this collection of recent work is, ironically, one of the best exhibits you’ll find for this soaring, communal style of musical outreach. It’s inspiring and alien at the same time.
Take, for example, Peggy Seeger’s autoharp-laced, country-choir take on “Sing About These Hard Times”. Or Tom Paxton and Anne Hills’ earnest anti-mining treatise, “There Goes the Mountain”. These are songs that, while they concern topics that are still relevant today (as anyone living in an Appalachian mining town can tell you), borrow their spirit from an optimism that sounds like it comes from another time and place. As a result, it sometimes sounds anachronistic.
Perhaps I’m a cynic. Heck, I know I’m a cynic. But these are cynical times. So the question becomes: is the style of protest music that Appleseed keeps alive worthy of little more than a museum curator’s touch, or does it still hold value for a generation of adults whose first dose of protest music might have been hearing Rage Against the Machine roar “What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive and movin’ / They don’t gotta burn the books they just remove ‘em / While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells / Rally round the family, pockets full of shells” in “Bulls on Parade”.
Is wincing at the earnestness of Seeds’ “Children of the Sun” (in which Tim Robbins, backed by child backup singers, sounds more like Bruce Campbell in full-on ham mode) a necessary reflex that says, “That’s all very nice, but how does it help me in the here and now?” or is it just one more nail in the coffin for the spirit that’s needed to keep civil disobedience and conscientious objection alive?
Protest music can go one of three ways: angry, storytelling, or communal. Sowing the Seeds is, by and large, communal. It’s meant to shore up the spirits of people who are locked together, arm-in-arm, to fight for a common cause. Think of the music that fueled and was inspired by the Civil Rights marches of the ‘60s. Music like the type found on Sowing the Seeds is the music of marches and mass movements, and maybe those days are over. Maybe, despite the fact that much of the country thinks Bush is incompetent (at best) or criminal (at worst), things have become too fragmented to properly protest.
I mean, what do you home in on? Laws written by lobbyists? FBI surveillance shenanigans that abuse the already problematic Patriot Act? The politicizing of the Justice Department? Croneyism? The current war in Iraq? The impending war in Iran that can’t quite get off the ground despite rampant fearmongering? The environment? Food safety? Where do you start?
That’s why, at least for the moment, I’m favoring anger in my songs. Useless and unfocused though it might be, it at least seems like an honest early stage of preparation before I get down to the brass tacks of actually doing something constructive. A compilation like Sowing the Seeds is angry, but it’s anger with certain stoic dignity.
A song like Tom Pacheco’s “Indian Prayer”, with its sentiments that as long as Creation exists then it will belong to the Indians, just makes you want to drown your liberal guilt with a few glasses of fair-trade red wine while you feel self-satisfaction for not watching Fox News. Donovan’s “Universal Soldier”, meanwhile, just comes off as hopelessly naive with its utopian claptrap about all soldiers basically being faceless cogs in the same cosmic continuum.
There’s no fire to such songs, only a sense of moral high ground that wafts and billows on clouds of major chords and “why can’t we all just get along” sentiment, that rarely sullies itself or gets its hands dirty with pointing fingers. They’re certainly at odds with many songs that are starting to pop up on albums left and right. Against Me!‘s call-her-out-by-name taunting of Condoleezza Rice in “From Her Lips to God’s Ears (The Energizer)”, for example, really gets the adrenaline flowing with a relentless musical and verbal attack:
After all this death and destruction do you really think your actions advocate freedom?
The President’s giving a speech in Georgia to remember the voice of a slain civil rights leader.
Do you understand what the Martyr stood for?
Oh Condoleezza, do you get the f***ing joke? No!
Photo from College Publisher.com
Similarly, James McMurtry’s “Cheney’s Toy” considers George W. Bush from a less than flattering perspective: “Take a stand / Give ‘em what they paid for / ‘Cause you’re only Cheney’s toy”. McMurtry was even more effective, though, when he examined the American experience in 2005’s “We Can’t Make It Here”, which hit the bull’s-eye even before talk of recessions and mortgage crises hit the mainstream. And it’s interesting to see Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist, Tom Morello, reach all the way back to the spirit of Woody Guthrie for his solo acoustic project The Nightwatchman.
Admittedly, anger is an empty catharsis since as soon as the song ends, things are exactly where they were before. And let’s face it; if you’re connecting with a sermon, you’re probably already part of the choir. For that reason, the most satisfying form of protest music might be the story song. For this listener, the most effective types of protest music invite you to empathize with the song’s subject, or which depict a larger issue in common terms.
A good story song may come at you from a political stance similar to your own, but it might just make you think about things in a slightly different vein. And it’s probably the only type of song that stands a chance of changing someone’s mind completely, because story songs tend to humanize their subjects. Joe Henry’s “Our Song”, for example, depicts an elderly Willie Mays in line with his wife at Home Depot, lamenting the fate of America:
This was my country,
This was my song,
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it’s ending wrong.
This was God’s country,
This frightful and this angry land,
But if it’s His will the worst of it might still
Somehow make me a better man.
The story song also stands the least chance of sounding dated down the line. That’s certainly not a hard and fast rule, though. While Against Me’s indictment of Condoleezza Rice might sound strange ten years from now, a seething track like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” still sounds fresh and relevant, even without the backdrop of Vietnam. Maybe it’s just proof that while the names may change, things just stay the same.
Neil Young made recent headlines by declaring that he wasn’t so sure that music could change the world anymore. Maybe that’s true for numerous reasons. But there’s power in all this still. Otherwise, radio conglomerates wouldn’t make “do not play” lists of songs that might shake listeners’ faith in the rightness of wars. If it didn’t matter, why would Fox News and assorted talking heads have conniption fits when Bruce Springsteen writes a political song? And why would artists from Springsteen to John Cougar Mellencamp to Boston’s Tom Scholz speak up when their songs are used by candidates whose viewpoints don’t line up with their own?
These are tense times. It feels like the lid’s about to blow off the pressure cooker sometimes, and commentary comes from surprising places. Heck, even Tom Waits felt compelled to write “Road to Peace” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s impossible to take it all in. The sheer amount of songs coming out with New Orleans as their subject matter is dizzying enough, without trying to catch up with songs about international strife, wars, or other government policies. I guess we should just be glad that artists are still writing these songs, whether we agree with them or not, because that at least means apathy hasn’t taken over completely.
Still angry? See also PopMatters’ Protest Music special section: Say It Loud! 65 Great Protest Songs