Protest songs have always been an essential part of folk music, a seamless tradition that dates back to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and, of course, the man credited with bridging the gap between old school and new, Bob Dylan. Given its rebellious nature, it’s not surprising that disenchantment also became a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll, whether it was the pointed putdown of commercial concerns the Stones shared with “Satisfaction” (“A man comes on the radio, telling me how white my shirts should be”) to the determined defence of the heartland expressed by John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or the various broadsides launched by Neil Young with Living with War and Monsanto.
That admirable blend of rebellion and social responsibility that was recently revived through the Occupy Movement now finds a new rallying cry in the outrage over fracking, a method for extracting natural gas from shale below the earth’s surface. As is so often the case, the voices tend to be strident. However, as demonstrated by the late Pete Seeger in his fragile live rendition of the well suited “This Land Is Your Land”, the passion cannot be questioned.
As Buy This Fracking Album makes clear, a common cause can garner considerable attention if the right mix of artists are involved. A two disc collection, it has its share of big names – Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Merchant, Steve Earle and the Indigo Girls chief among them – but it’s mostly the lesser known participants that carry the banner. All do an admirable job – Mike and Ruthy’s sprightly “Drill on the Horizon” and Kristen Graves’ fetching “The River Song” rank among the best entries of the album – but those without concern for the cause may find that the music takes second place to the message. Indeed, aside from Michael Franti, Rusted Root and the John Butler Trio, disc one lacks an abundance of name value, making it likely many listeners will skip it entirely in favor of the relatively star studded disc two.
That’s not to negate the efforts of Rusted Root, Chris Merenda and the somewhat ubiquitous Pony Boy, but Raitt’s fiery “Hell To Pay” and, alternately, Earle’s touching reprise of “The Mountain” give the album its urgency and appeal. That’s important to note, because as a set of songs, Buy This Fracking Album doesn’t boast the overall accessibility needed to make it more than a single-minded selection of songs serving a common purpose. It’s likely that the presence of a Neil Young, a John Mellencamp or a Bruce Springsteen might have helped boost the favourability factor.
Such arguments are secondary of course. The purpose here is to raise attention for a worthy cause, and in that regard Buy This Fracking Album succeeds for its own purposes. What’s more, until the other side comes along with an album of its own, the only option is to buy the music and buy into the message as well.