This Note?s for You
The protest song blues
By Keith Waller
What?s in a protest song? And what role should our musical artists play in advancing social viewpoints or political agendas of the opposing parties? In the heat of the campaign more and more of our musicians stepping forward to try to reach us and to remind us to keep our eyes and ears open.
Forty years ago Bob Dylan told us that the ?times they were a changin.?? He told us that the waters around us had grown; we were all going to be drenched, and we had two choices: sink or swim. It?s almost a little disturbing how relevant that song is 40 years later, but then truth has an infinite shelf life, doesn?t it?
Through the ages artists have been both inspired by the social and political climate and compelled to create some of their best work as a result of that inspiration. But speaking out on social or political themes can have its drawbacks, even here in the land of the free. Musical artists who express beliefs, which are not in keeping with the status quo, are often censored, threatened, or actively opposed in their pursuit of making a living.
The great bluesman, Big Bill Broonzy, wrote a song called ?Black, White and Brown Blues.? The chorus to the song went as follows: ?If you was white, you?d be alright/ If you was brown, stick around/ But as you?s black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.? The intent of the song was to chronicle the artists? experience in seeking employment in America. The white community resented hearing a black man speak out in any form and the black community felt the song smacked of ?Uncle Tomism.? Broonzy could neither sing the song in public, nor would any recording studio take the risk of recording it. Fortunately, the good people at Smithsonian Folkways recorded the song in Broonzy?s living room two years before his death in 1958 and a piece of history was preserved.
A year after the terrorist attacks on our country, Steve Earle released the album ?Jerusalem,? the only recording besides ?The Rising? by Bruce Springsteen that spoke of the tragedy of 9/11 and attempted to understand it in any meaningful way. The songs are neither reactionary nor revolutionary, but they are threatening to many because Earle commits the ultimate subversion, he attempts to understand a viewpoint of the Islamic world that casts the actions of our country in less than a glowing light. And, by the way, it rocks like a sledge hammer. Of course, Earle knew the record would be banned from commercial radio and that his estrangement from the Nashville music industry would only be enhanced, but that didn?t seem to bother him. In fact, he?s still at it, having recently released ?The Revolution Starts Now,? in which he expresses his concern for the invasion of and ongoing war in Iraq.
In August of this year, Bruce Springsteen wrote an op-ed piece published in the New York Times. As Springsteen stated in the article, he has always stayed away from partisan politics in his songs, opting instead to speak toward a set of ideals: freedom, civil rights, economic justice, and what it means to be an American. But now, he finds himself in a position that reflects what many of us are experiencing, an overwhelming sense that the stakes have risen too high recently, and that we all must do something to bring about a change. As a result, Springsteen has organized a group called Vote for Change and is performing a series of concerts along with REM, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and others to inspire people to take action.
Now I would never presume to use this public forum to promote my own political beliefs. It wouldn?t be prudent. Not at this juncture. But before you pull that handle, or connect those dots, or dangle that chad come November, just consider one thing. All of the artists mentioned above and many more are out there right now stumping for the Kerry/Edwards ticket. The incumbents don?t really have any musicians of consequence out there promoting their cause.
Am I saying that people should make a decision as weighty as who should run the country for the next four years based on musician support? Of course not, but if the Democrats win the music during the inauguration festivities is going to be much better. And that is something to think about.