I can still remember the close up of Joan Baez, as she sang “Joe Hill”, in wide-screen cinematic glory, in the film “Woodstock”. It was the summer of 1970, and I was slumped in a seat at the Hyland theatre in London, Ontario wishing that we could skip the socially conscious tribute to a dead guy from the labour movement; and get on to Jimi Hendrix.
Despite my impatience, and disinterest at the time, I now realize that that was the first time I recognized any song as being overtly political. And, as the years rolled on, that moment has popped into my mind on more than one occasion.
It’s not that I hadn’t heard the songs of political protest and commentary before, it’s just that most of them rolled by as songs on the radio; some better than others, as I made my way from tidy trousers with elasticized waistbands, to frayed and faded blue jeans.
I was certainly more than familiar with songs like Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changin’ “, and the Beatles “Taxman”, but I’d never given any serious thought to the events that inspired them, up until that summer. The summer that troops from the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed university students, on the campus of a previously obscure American college called Kent State. By the time that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released “4-Way Street” ten months later, the world was already filled with rage from the events that left “Four Dead in Ohio”.
Suddenly, music as political activism, took on a whole new depth of meaning. Another song from the Woodstock sound-track, introduced a generation to “The Fish Cheer”, and the scathing anti-war parody of “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag”, with lyrics such as ” be the first one on your block / to have your boy come home in a box.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival exposed the hypocrisy of the American political elite, who painted Viet Nam as a noble conflict and a patriotic duty, while protecting and shielding their own children from the military draft. With a weekly “body bag” count filling the network news reports, the refrain from CCR’s “Fortunate Son”;
” It ain’t me. It ain’t me. I ain’t no Senator’s son. No. It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one…”
proved to be a powerful rebuke to the Hawks of the political establishment.
But the futility of the conflict was laid out in the most stark terms possible, by a moderately successful soul singer, who launched the most incendiary assault against the Viet Nam conflict, ever committed to vinyl. Edwin Starr’s “War”, rocketed to the top of the music charts and held the number one position for three weeks with Starr’s overpowering, guttural voice screaming the simple question that became a cultural milestone:
” War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’ “
While the anti-war movement drove much of the political protest musically, it also opened the door to a wider frontier of social commentary. Never a fan of Elvis, I was nevertheless drawn in, to the portrait of cyclical poverty and struggle in black urban America, through ” In the Ghetto “ , which closes with a haunting image;
” as the crowd gathers round an angry young man / face down in the street/ with a gun in his hand.”
It took a white, mainstream pop star, to open our eyes to the burden of deprivation and racism, in Black America.
Quicksilver Messenger Service challenged the validity of the societal status quo, asking “What About Me?” Stating flatly the disillusionment of a generation, facing of legacy of pollution, war and inequality.
” … and most of what I do believe/ is against most of your laws. I’m a fugitive from injustice, but I’m going to be free / for your rules and regulations, they don’t do the thing for me…”
That disillusionment grew into cynicism as the Who sarcastically vowed, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
And then came, what I have always believed to be the most under-rated, and under-recognized protest song of the ’70’s, from the most unlikely source: Grand Funk Railroad.
The group, known for its kick-ass, party sensibilities, released “We’re An American Band”, a paean to excess on the road. On the ‘B’ side of the single, however, was a slow, thoughtful ballad that mourned the apparent loss of social consciousness. Given what was on the flip-side, it’s no real surprise perhaps that “Creepin'” was virtually ignored. But Mark Farner clearly recognized that the high-water mark of sixties social activism had passed, and the youth of the day had fallen into a coma of disinterest.
“Open eyes, but you’re sleepin’ / You’d best wake up ‘fore tomorrow comes creepin’ in. “
For myself at least, that somnambulant state lasted for more than a decade. And then raw, powerful anger, and a raging guitar, woke me with a start.
” We’ve got a thousand points of light / for the homeless man./ We’ve got a kinder, gentler, machine-gun hand.”
The irony of Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ “, was that for the most part, that’s exactly what America did. The song became a party anthem. Young’s raw excoriation of trickle down economics, and the greed of the Reagan years, was lost in a driving refrain that brought people to their feet, for all the wrong reasons. So dominantly pervasive was the chorus, that the Donald Trump campaign tried to use the song to fire up the Trumpeteers at rallies for The Donald. Young, quickly put a stop to that effort, issuing a statement on his Facebook page, and a loud “F*** You Donald Trump!”, at a recent concert.
A few years before “Keep on Rockin'”, a much quieter, and more desperate ballad had also taken aim at the Reagan years. “Money’s Too Tight To Mention”, by Simply Red featured such provocative lyrics as “that old man, who’s over the hill” (Reagan), and even a shot at the First Lady: “…did the earth move for you Nancy?”
But it was Reagan, and his election team ( including the recently controversial Roger Ailes ), that used music to promote, rather than protest political actions, perhaps for the first time. The team created and released a powerful political ad that came to be known as “Morning in America”, in which carefully constructed music was used to drive a series of “feel-good” visuals, and some powerful rhetoric that asked; “why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?” So effective was the ad, that it is generally credited with pushing the Reagan drive for re-election over the top with voters, and from that time on, music and political campaigning have become inextricably entwined.
It hasn’t always been an amicable partnership. In fact, dozens of artists from Abba, to Van Halen, have had occasion to forcefully disinvite political campaigns from their circle of musical appreciation. In the 2016 campaign alone, at least seven artists have joined Neil Young, in his disavowal of Donald Trump. It’s a record rarely matched.
Surprisingly, one of the politicians who may have bested Trump in raising the ire of superstar artists, is Republican Senator John McCain, who often seems like the Rodney Dangerfield of Viet Nam vets. Despite five long years in a brutal Viet Cong prison camp, McCain gets little respect on the campaign trail. Why, even the innocuous ABBA sent him a cease and desist order, for his use of “Take a Chance on Me.” Also on the “McCain No Fly List”: Heart, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, John Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Tom Petty, and the Foo Fighters.
But is there any validity in believing that politically tinged protest music can actually drive a successful campaign for change?
The Reagan ad might suggest yes; but it was not a drive for change. Rather, it was a re-commitment to the status quo. It proved more about the selling power of strong visuals, married to a carefully crafted score, than it did about politically themed music.
Certainly, some music has been credited with powering a dynamic movement for social change. But did a song like Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” end apartheid, or merely reflect an established international abhorrence for the brutal regime? Did “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil, help return indigenous lands to Australian aborigines, or simply voice the sentiments of a majority of the population? Or what about “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”? Certainly, the U2 megahit voiced the anguish and rage of a population drowning in internecine violence, but did it really turn the tide on “The Troubles”?
The question has been endlessly debated with no definitive conclusion.
David T. Little, a contemporary composer, musician and musical scholar perhaps best summed up the debate in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times in May, 2011. His summation was, as follows:
” It’s impossible to prove whether or not music can be political. Some assert that all art is political, period. Others stipulate that it is only political if it resists direct engagement with society or the vernacular, remaining “autonomous,” and thus earning the right to be called “art.” The personal is political, of course, but does this apply to music? And then there’s the great allegorist George Orwell, who observed, ” The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics, is itself a political position.”
It’s been 45 years since I sat in the Hyland watching Baez on-screen. And since she began my personal awakening to the link between politics, and music, it would perhaps it would be fitting to allow her the last words on the topic, for this post.
” The social change is never really made by music, it has to be backed up by what you do.”
( P.S. I could not possibly cover all of the politically-charged music that registered protest, or inspired a movement for social change, but below are some other songs that I find still resonate with me, today. You too, will no doubt have your own, and if you wish to share them with me in a comment, I’d be delighted to hear from you. Urk. )
“Eve of Destruction” Barry McGuire / 1965
“For What It’s Worth.” Buffalo Springfield / 1966
“How Can I Keep From Singing” Pete Seeger with Arlo Guthrie / 1981
” If I Had a Rocket Launcher” Bruce Cockburn / 1984
” American Idiot” Green Day / 2004
” Race to the Bottom” Dan Mangan /2016