October issue 2004

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 20 years ago

At a concert in Washington DC on October 11, a broad range of American popular musicians will seek to bring down the government of the United States of America.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. If music were the fuel of revolt, chances are there would be far fewer bad governments around. As a statement of intent, however, it isn’t inaccurate. What will bring the likes of Bruce Springsteen, REM, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, The Dixie Chicks, John Mellencamp, Keb Mo1 and The Dave Matthews Band together on the MCI stage is an overwhelming desire to see the back of George W. Bush and his neoconservative babysitters.

There is a rich vein of dissent running through American political culture, stretching back at least as far as Thomas Paine. Over the past half-century or so, dissent has frequently found expression through popular culture, especially music. Initially, the establishment found it relatively simple to put the kibosh on artists who challenged its priorities. The exquisite jazz singer, Billie Holiday, for example, had a tough time obtaining a commercial release for her sublime version of the anti-lynching poem Strange Fruit. The inimitable bass-baritone Paul Robeson and the popular folk quartet, The Weavers, saw their careers disappear when they were dismissed as un-American during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

During the 1960s, however, the cultural descendants of Robeson and The Weavers were able to make themselves heard, loud and clear. Pete Seeger — who has thrived as a left-field singer-songwriter since helping to found The Almanac Singers in the 1940s — quotes the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr as saying the Civil Rights movement was sustained by its songs. Prominent among them was We Shall Overcome, an old hymn that Seeger played a role in rewriting and secularising.

That period witnessed the emergence of a raft of extremely talented performers who were willing, in various degrees, to challenge the verities of the age. They were inflamed not only by the domestic record of sustained discrimination against African-Americans, but also by the expanding aggression against Vietnam. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary sang at the 1963 March on Washington before Dr King effectively rejuvenated the struggle with his powerful ‘I have a dream’ oration. Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton were among the other artists whose fight for civil rights segued into their opposition to the Vietnam War.

Ochs, sadly, committed suicide in 1975. Not long before his death, he issued a reminder that the struggle was far from over, converting one of his best-known civil rights anthems into a diatribe against the perpetrators of Watergate. ‘Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of,’ he sang. ‘Richard Nixon, go find yourself another country to be part of.’

Paxton, meanwhile, continues to entertain audiences with his undiminished sense of humour. Peter, Paul & Mary, reacting to the curbs on civic rights within the US in the aftermath of 9/11, recently united for an album that dusts off several old favourites but includes a new clarion call, Have You Been To Jail For Justice?

Perhaps the most effective song of the Vietnam era was Country Joe McDonald and The Fish’s I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag. Preceded by the then liberating Fish cheer (“Give me an F, Give me a U …. What does that spell?”), and chockfull of potential slogans, it gained nationwide currency following its performance at the legendary Woodstock festival in 1969. The song went something like: “One two three/ What are we fighting for?/Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn/ the next stop is Vietnam,” and included these immortal lines: “Be the first one on the block/To have your son come home home in a box.”

After a hiatus running into decades, Country Joe and The Fish have recently reunited, and their most recent single takes its cue from US presidential adviser Richard Perle’s comment, that the invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk. “Now moms and dads don’t worry ’bout/ Your soldier boys and girls,” it goes. “We’re just sending them cakewalkin’/ Around the world/ When the coffins come home and the flag unfurls/ Cheer for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle.” The song concludes with: “Easy to cakewalk in … not so easy to cakewalk out.”

Pete Seeger recorded a version of Country Joe’s Rag back in 1969, but his recording company, Columbia (now part of the Sony empire), refused to release it. However, Seeger was able to make his point with songs such as Bring em Home. Last year, the now octogenarian folk singer, recorded a revised version of that classic track in collaboration with Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco and Billy Bragg. The year before that, he was justifiably proud of coming up with a brand new anti-war song, Take It From Dr King.

Seeger, who was indicted for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in the 1950s, has lost much of his voice but his abilities as a song-leader, as he demonstrated at last year’s mid-February anti-war march in New York, remain undiminished. More recently, he graced with his presence, the mobilisation against the Republican convention that concluded late last month in the same city.

In an interview about a decade ago, I asked Seeger whether he thought songs such as his served an inspirational purpose. Was he, in other words, chiefly preaching to the converted? His honest response, in effect, was: You can’t really tell, but it’s worth trying nonetheless. Or, as he put it in the documentary, Seeing Red, ‘It’s better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.’

He isn’t by any means the only singer who adheres to that philosophy. One of the first musical responses to 9/11 came from the feisty DiFranco, whose poetic Self Evident offered an unexpectedly powerful riposte to the gung-ho, let’s-fry- ‘em spirit sanctified by the White House. “And we hold these truths to be self-evident,” she whispers, “George W. Bush is not president/ America is not a true democracy/ the media is not fooling me.”

In his own way, Earle was equally strident. In the title song of his album, Jerusalem, he sang of the day “all the children of Abraham/ Will lay down their swords forever.” But what really excited controversy was John Walker’s Blues, in which he tried to look at the world through the eyes of the ‘American Taliban’: “I’m just an American boy — raised on MTV/ And I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/But none of ‘em looked like me/ So I started lookin’ around for a light out of the dim/And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word/Of Muhammad, peace be upon him.”

Earle’s humanism attracted opprobrium, but it was restricted by his reputation as red-neck semi-Marxist (which is why his latest album, The Revolution Starts Now, a more direct but less effective collection of diatribes against the Bush administration, has stirred little controversy). No such description had ever been attached to the wholesome Dixie Chicks, who belong to Bush’s home state and had figured prominently on the country charts, having sold 25 million albums. Shortly before the assault on Iraq was launched, one of them said at a London gig: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

All hell broke loose. Their CDs were burnt in public, in a fury reminiscent of a time when LPs were incinerated after John Lennon’s comment, that the Beatles were, in young people’s eyes, probably bigger than Jesus, was reported out of context in the American press. Most American radio stations promptly removed the Texan trio from their play lists. To their credit, the Dixie Chicks have refused to rescind their opinion. They are a part of the Vote For Change tour, which concludes in Washington on October 11 after a fortnight-long swing through undecided states that will effectively decide next month’s presidential race.

The Chicks are also featured on a compilation put together by film maker Michael Moore, of songs that inspired his groundbreaking Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary. “How wonderfully ironic,” says Moore in the liner notes, “that the first blow against this madness did not come from any of the usual ‘lefty’ places, but rather from three moms from Bush’s Texas. But that is how the revolution usually starts, isn’t it?”

That’s a rather optimistic view, but there can be little doubt that something unusual is stirring in the US of A, given that it’s not just the usual suspects who have been galvanised into vocalising their protests, but also artists who have in the past, never ventured anywhere near partisan politics. Nobody bats an eyelid when Joan Baez dedicates a song to Michael Moore at her concerts, but eyebrows were bound to be raised when Linda Ronstadt started doing likewise. A few months ago, Ronstadt was booed at a Las Vegas engagement for dedicating Desperado to Moore during her encore. Reports suggest that after a small part of her audience walked out, the man who owned the venue not only vowed never to hire her again but also evicted her from her hotel room.

Alarmed but not intimidated, Ronstadt continues to name-check Moore at her concerts. The fact that the likes of her and the Dixie Chicks should feel obliged to publicly adopt a political stance indicates the extent to which American society has become polarised in recent years. Even Springsteen, notwithstanding the working-class sympathies expressed in some of his best songs, has in the past resisted the temptation to take sides. “This year, however,” he wrote in The New York Times recently, “for many of us, the stakes have risen too high to sit this election out …. our American government has strayed too far from American values. It is time to move forward. The country we carry in our hearts is waiting.”

There would be little point in exaggerating the likely effects of ventures such as the Vote For Change extravaganza and other attempts by performers to swing the tide against the Bush clique. Seeger, Springsteen and all the rest of them are well aware that, by and large, their message is absorbed only by those whose minds are already made up. Yet it is not inconceivable that exposure to lines such as “We can chase down all our enemies/bring them to their knees/we can bomb the world to pieces/ but we can’t bomb it into peace” (Michael Franti) and “You sent your lights, your bombs/You sent them down on our city, shock and awe/ Like some crazy TV show/ They’re robbing the cradle of civilisation….” (Patti Smith in Radio Baghdad) could at least persuade a few people to put in an appearance at the polling booth, which they might otherwise have avoided. And in a closely fought election, a few votes can make all the difference.

Should John Kerry make it to the White House, he’ll have a lot of musicians to thank. And if he loses, let us hope America’s minstrels won’t stop excoriating, for perfectly valid reasons, the president they love to hate.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.