Musings On Protest Music (Part Three)
In the 1980s, the Cold War and arms race were the driving force behind a new manifestation of anti-war music. A defense shield in space dubbed “Star Wars,” the growth of nuclear weapons between the Soviet Union and America, as well as the threat of World War III via the military-industrial complex was the foundation for protest music. Elvis Costello and the Attractions sang “Peace in our Time” and memorably on Saturday Night Live covered Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”
And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry
What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?
Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was hailed as tribute to American pride when in reality the song’s title was the window dressing on a song detailing the long term effects of Vietnam. The lyrics discuss the lasting problems caused by war on the working class, as well as the lack of economic opportunities in the years following withdrawal from Vietnam. While President Reagan and other conservatives of the 1980s latched onto the song due to its positive, nationalism-boosting title, the lyrics told the story of a nation exhausted from war.
Pink Floyd’s The Wall chronicles the plight of Pink following the loss of his father during World War II. Tones of isolation are referenced in the more than two dozen songs in the rock opera as an oppressive mother, abusive teachers along with the trauma of losing his father at a young age lead to a projection of a metaphorical wall built up around him. The wall separates him from the outside world, similar to that of the Berlin Wall separating half of Europe from the rest. Before the wall could be torn town, the mass hallucination of the arms race and advancing militarism needed to end.
Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” a song that questions the status quo, went to #1 on the US charts in 1986. It protests of the social and cultural morays of the country, suggesting that things will never change. The song laments the struggle between the rich and the poor, the continuance of segregation in new forms and looks back in dismay at how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is already in need of an update.
A unique song that protested protest music “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood was meta before meta was cool. A 1984 country song for the flag waving crowd, Greenwood’s anthem noted that in America, ‘at least I know I’m free’, exploring the country and all that has been done to defend her (and seems to reference Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” without acknowledging the origins of that tune as a protest song). The song found a second life during the first Gulf War in 1990 and again during the second Gulf War a decade later. Greenwood sings in the refrain “and I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today,” leading comedian David Cross to remark “Well, here’s your second chance,” and noting the hypocritical nature of the song.
The 1990s saw some of the loudest sounds of protest since the 1960s. Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” reportedly originated after Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro saw burning flags in Iran and said to Young, “Whatever we do, we shouldn’t go near the Mideast. It’s probably better we just keep on rockin’ in the free world.” And that they did. Making a cutting jab at President George H.W. Bush with the line “a thousand points of light” from his inauguration speech, Young mocked him by saying the thousand points of light were for a homeless man, and that the making the country a better place would happen only under the constant din of war.
Led by Zach de la Rocha and Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine was perhaps the most memorable band to write songs of protest for Generation Xer’s. “Killing in the Name” explores the racism of security and police forces. “Bulls on Parade” discusses the proactive drive of business and industry towards military action and thus towards lucrative contracts. Other songs such as “Without a Face” focus on the government overstepping its bounds.
Carol Lloyd has written that Rage Against the Machine brings Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” to the late 20th century through Rage’s song “Without a Face.” “The lyrics describe the desperate plight of illegal immigrants sneaking across the border to look for work. Without any official status in the United States, they ‘got no soul’ and are ‘born without a face’ — making them easy for us to ignore.” This is an ongoing problem in the country, with misguided policies against undocumented immigrants, the plight continues, as do the power of both songs.
The first decade of the 2000s had a focus on both anti-war as well as against the neo-conservative policies of new American imperialism. Before any protest music could come to light during the presidency of George W. Bush, the events of 9/11 became the focus of protest music to start the decade. Two country singers sang the most popular songs that collectivized the emotional impact of that day, Darryl Worley with “Have You Forgotten?” and Alan Jackson with “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” the latter of which won a Grammy for Best Country Song. Other country artists spoke out in opposition to later wars, particularly in Iraq, including The Dixie Chicks with “Not Ready to Make Nice” and Merle Haggard (who defended The Dixie Chicks) with “That’s the News.” The Dixie Chicks were outspoken (ashamed is the term they used) about President Bush and the drive to war and wrote the song to protest the backlash against them for speaking their minds. Haggard, once upon a time sang against protestors in “Okie from Muskogee” but had now changed his tune (literally and figuratively) and was against the war in Iraq.
The Howlin’ Brothers take to the Relix rooftop and share a song they wrote with Warren Haynes.
Beth Hart shares the opening track from her latest album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, live at Relix.
Jamie Lidell sets up in the Relix boiler room and delivers a tune from his 2005 album Multiply
Duane Trucks is happy to announce his new project, King Lincoln. Watch them perform “Coffee” live and acoustic at Relix’s Online-Video Coordinator’s loft in Williamsburg.
Here’s another song from Crystal Bowersox’s new record All That For This, live at Relix.
WYATT share a song in the famed Relix boiler room.
Goodnight, Texas share a song from their latest studio album, A Long Life of Living, live at Relix.
Warren Haynes performs a solo, acoustic version of “Railroad Boy” and explains how he adapted the traditional Celtic song for Gov’t Mule, backstage at the Hangout Music Festival.
Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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