Though times and topics have changed since the '60s, the soundtrack of protest remains much the same
By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff , 3/9/2003
Go to a peace rally and you'll hear "Blowin' in the Wind," 41 years after Bob Dylan wrote it. You'll also hear "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "We Shall Overcome," and "This Land Is Your Land." All great songs -- and all decades old. Are there any new songs of protest out there?
The answer, my friends, is not many, not yet. Ask people in the music business for examples of songs that protest the US buildup toward war in Iraq, and there's a thoughtful pause. Steve Earle gets mentioned for his song about John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" (who, of course, was in Afghanistan, not Iraq); Billy Bragg's "The Price of Oil" comes into several conversations, too. This week, John Mellencamp announced he will make the antiwar song "From Washington" available on his website.
That's about it.
Musicians are organizing antiwar efforts -- from the Code Pink rally at the White House that singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked planned for this weekend to the full-page ads in The New York Times in which a long list of artists urges the administration not to invade Iraq. So far, though, most seem to be expressing themselves in the media, not in their music.
Some mutter darkly that there are more songs out there but corporate radio is keeping them off the air. The notorious list of "banned" songs -- everything from John Lennon's "Imagine" to the entire oeuvre of Rage Against the Machine -- the radio conglomerate Clear Channel issued after Sept. 11 only adds fuel to such suspicions. But no one names a great song that's not getting played. Joanne Doody, program director of Haverhill's WXRV ("The River") notes with "surprise" that she hasn't heard any, and WBCN program director Oedipus says he hasn't either. (Neither of those is a Clear Channel station.)
"There's not much yet. There's going to be more," says Oedipus. "We will have a new generation of protest songs."
It may just be too early to be looking for great new songs. Maybe this is 1962, when Dylan was singing Woody Guthrie, just as today's artists are singing Dylan.
"The great songs come out of great movements," says singer Barbara Dane -- who should know, because she's been singing since the civil-rights and Vietnam protests. "It's not just an antiwar movement anymore; I think it's a movement of ordinary people everywhere toward life.
"And they'll be singing," Dane says. "They always do."
Shocked -- who noted wryly that she was planning to sing "We Shall Overlap" as a way of encouraging the peace and antiglobalization movements to come together at Code Pink -- also isn't surprised that new songs haven't yet joined the old.
"These things take time to distill and digest," she says. "The kind of art that I like to create takes time."
There may be other reasons, too, that we hear so much from the '60s. "The '60s as a whole exercises this potent mystique on the imagination of youth today," says Nicholas Bromell, an English professor at the University of Mas sachusetts at Amherst and the author of "Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s."
"Their music produces very little in the way of hope," Bromell says. "It's very smart, very sharp, very edgy, very cynical about everything. The kids are very wised up; they're very shrewd. You need to be more than wised up when you decide to protest something. You need to believe that your protest is going to change something."
Newer not always better
It's hard to tell yet whether that kind of protest is building, though the flurry of events that are getting organized via this generation's answer to college radio, the Internet, makes it feel as if, yes, something's changing. But at the protest in New York last month, at various events over the past few days, and at yesterday's Washington rally, you could still count on the singers turning to the old songs for that little jolt of hope.
Oedipus has a simple explanation for the boom in Dylan songs. "They're played because they're good," he says.
And, unfortunately, a lot of new music isn't. Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a flood of, as Oedipus puts it, "really bad" music. "I have heard some horrific 9/11 songs," says James O'Brien, publicity coordinator at Cambridge's legendary folk venue, Club Passim. "This antiwar beast is a different beast. . . . I haven't seen anything groaningly bad."
But there's not much that's groaningly good, either. And what is good, O'Brien says, is coming from less famous artists. He cites the Chicago folk artist Michael McDermott, for example, as someone who's writing "new stuff that sounds very fresh and familiar at the same time. . . . You're getting something that's poetically sound and not just a topical narrative."
Elsewhere, though, O'Brien sees some artists who haven't been writing politically but are suddenly jumping on the bandwagon. "You have to keep a very careful eye on who actually writes useful protest music," he says, "and who is trying to take advantage of this trend."
Just as "roots" was the buzzword last year, O'Brien says, "protest" is now becoming the folk label du jour. Still, he says, he's glad to see it. "That's something that's been sorely missing from folk music for about 20 years," he says, "and you can't look a gift horse in the mouth."
There's been a small but steady thread of political folk songs for years, O'Brien notes, and it continued long after its heyday -- the '60s of Dylan and Joan Baez (who both played Passim in its earlier life as Club 47) and pre-"Let's Roll" Neil Young. "But they aren't getting played on the radio and they aren't getting noticed at the festivals, because they aren't family fare," he says.
"It's an aesthetic choice that was made by the singer-songwriter folk community sometime in the late '70s. The idea of protest singing was deemphasized because that's confrontational, that's challenging," O'Brien says. "The environment has never percolated the way that it did in the '60s."
'Tired of bling-bling'
There's a particular irony, perhaps, to the idea of an apolitical folk scene -- something that would have sounded like a contradiction in terms in 1968. But folk is hardly the only genre that has shifted uneasily in trying to define its relationship to politics. In hip-hop, to name another, there's been everything from the outspoken political statements of Chuck D to the bedazzled materialism of many current acts. But here, too, the times may be a-changin'.
"People are getting a little tired of bling-bling and `I'm in the club,' " says Tim Linberg, whose Boston-based MetroConcepts manages the Perceptionists (Mr. Lif and Akrobatik) and other hip-hop artists. "People are craving some content."
Rap artist EDO.G sees the desire to engage more with political issues, both in his own music and in others'. "I have kids, so I'm thinking about their future," he says. He's been making political references for a while -- Osama bin Laden, he says, cropped up in his rhymes as far back as 1998 -- but "I really started getting into politics over the last couple of years. The 9/11 thing really opened my eyes." On his next album, EDO.G says, there's a whole song (as yet untitled) that deals with the threat of war in Iraq.
"A lot of the underground and indie cats are talking about it in their music," EDO.G says. "I don't know as far as the commercial artists -- a lot of them are kind of touching on the subject. But not in the music, more through the media."
Indeed, even politically minded musicians like Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine and now with Audioslave, have been expressing themselves more in interviews or ads or on the Web than in song. Morello runs an activist website, axisofjustice.com, and also distributes political materials at concerts, but Audioslave's recent Avalon gig was strikingly devoid of political songs.
And, of course, music stars' attempts to make a statement can end up seeming simple-minded. Madonna's impending video for her single "American Life," featuring models in camouflage, comes to mind. Or look at Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit on the Grammy awards show, saying we're all in "agreeance" against war. Durst got howled at for that one -- almost overshadowing the controversy over whether artists were told not to make any political statements at the Grammys. (Sheryl Crow said she was told to keep quiet; the show's organizers insisted she wasn't. She ended up just wearing a guitar strap that said "No War.")
Then there's Musicians United to Win Without War, the almost absurdly diverse coalition that has been taking out full-page antiwar ads in the Times. Founded by Russell Simmons of hip-hop powerhouse Def Jam Records and David Byrne, Musicians United includes acts as varied as Jay-Z, Wilco, George Clinton, and Lou Reed.
"Some people were real surprises," says Byrne, the musician who's best known as the founder of Talking Heads. On reflection, though, he says it's not a surprise that so many musicians signed up so quickly. "I think they feel like we're being rushed into something that isn't necessary at this point," he says.
"From my side, I just reached a point where I felt that I personally had to do something," Byrne says. "I had to feel that I had spoken my mind about this for my own conscience."
So far it's just an ad, with more to follow in Rolling Stone and elsewhere. What may be more significant about Musicians United is simply the broad swath it cuts across the culture -- the way it brings together performers (and, perhaps, fans) who move in different worlds. But Byrne says there are no plans to perform together or make some other kind of musical statement. And he's not sure that any musical statement will come together quickly over Iraq.
"I myself can't imagine a simple song that makes it all cut and dried and black and white," Byrne says. "The issue is a lot more complex than that."
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.