Musings On Protest Music (Part Three)
Pearl Jam has written a number of songs over their 20+ year career that deal with political themes, among them “Bushleaguer,” “World Wide Suicide,” “No More,” “Inside Job,” ‘Gimme Some Truth” and “Wishlist.” In “Wishlist” Eddie Vedder sings “I wish I was a neutron bomb, for once I would go off” although the lyrics are often changed in concert to say “and I would never go off.” On the 2004 Vote for Change tour as well as at recent shows, Vedder would change the lyrics in “Corduroy” to reflect his position on war”: “can’t buy what I want because it’s peace.” “Bushleaguer” takes aim at President Bush,
A confidence man, but why so beleaguered?
He’s not a leader, he’s a Texas leaguer
Swinging for the fence, got lucky with a strike
Drilling for fear, makes the job simple
Born on third, thinks he got a triple
moe.’s “George,” jabs at President Bush in a salient and blunt method, giving him a dose of anger with potential justification for his actions and inaction, but expressing an overall disappointment with his presidency.
It doesn’t give you the right to
Co-opt my existence
So anything that you might do
Feeds into my own resistance
Could you be a little more concerned
with the simple things like my life
maybe think a little less short term
I’ve got enough going on in my life and I don’t want to get burned
Prior to the election in 2008, famed soul singer Solomon Burke recorded the song “None of us are Free” for his album Like a Fire. Singing “We’ve got to get the message, send it loud and clear … We’ve got to join in spirit, heart and mind … None of us are free, in one of us in chained, none of us are free,” was a collective cry out to unite and help those who are suffering lest we are all brought down as a result
With the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008, numerous songs were written and recorded that captured the hope of the era. Among these those who performed such selections included Spearhead (“Barack Obama”), Steel Pulse (“Vote Barack”), Will.i.am and Friends (“Yes We Can”) and Ani DiFranco (“November 5, 2008”). Great pride was taken not only in the election of the first African-American president but also for the ideas he had for America to move forward.
Shortly after Obama’s inauguration, Pete Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday in style at Madison Square Garden with a packed house and star studded lineup. Commemorating Seeger was overdue, and many of the artists that he inspired were in attendance to sing his songs, including Morello, DiFranco, Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Joan Baez and many more. Springsteen and Morello sang “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which updated Seeger’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad” (although both draw on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath ). Springsteen later released the album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions in 2006, interpreting thirteen songs long performed by Seeger.
As for Morello, he is one of the most active and committed protest singers today. Morello’s songs with Rage were full of angst and struggle, common themes of 90s protest music. This decade however, The Nightwatchman sings of togetherness and freedom and in support of the opponents against the overreach of the right-wing agenda following the last election cycle. “It is a global social justice movement to invert the pyramid of inequality. It’s already had great successes in that it has politicized a generation” Morello told Rolling Stone this past October regarding Occupy Wall Street. An EP, Union Town, was released earlier this year, drawing on the protests against Gov. Walker of Wisconsin and his anti-collective bargaining bill and anti-labor actions.
His latest album Worldwide Rebel Songs has the signature of the Occupy movement in its title, despite being recorded and released before the movement had begun in earnest. Songs such as “Speak and Make Lightning” have a hard, gritty feel to them, similar to the folk of Seeger and Guthrie. With each refrain you can picture a group crowded around The Nightwatchman echoing the lyrics and refrain, just as the folk movement singers once did and continue to do. The title track features the sing-along style again, “Worldwide revel songs, Sing out loud all night long, hang on man, it wont be long, worldwide rebel songs” providing positive feeling to what we are doing through our occupations; the uplifting sentiment these songs provide is enough to help drive us for another hour, another day, another week in the struggle for true freedom and equality. Throughout the album, Morello sings about the hard times Americans face, Worldwide Rebel Songs is the uplifting soundtrack for Occupy Wall Street in New York City and around the country.
Do these songs make a difference? It depends who you ask. For those singing the songs in unity, the music is uplifting and gives energy and drive to keep fighting for rights. Those hearing the songs on the radio may not realize the overt meanings behind the songs – few dancing to Railroad Earth’s “Warhead Boogie” think about the lyrics “Building lots of warheads, Building ‘em real, real nice, Douglas, Grumman. North American, they all get a slice” but know the song has a political tilt from the title alone. And while there are those who question the impact of music on any movement because it is not visible or tangible, an open mind is a wonderful thing to have when it comes to music and ideas.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows, the music that supports and gives voice to it will increase steadily. Musicians were a steady presence performing to those camped out in Zuccotti Park and it remains only a matter of time before we are listening to the latest wave of protest music and with it, the history of popular movements in America springs to life anew.
Thanks to all the musicians as well as Greg Mitchell from Mother Jones for influencing the writing of this piece.
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.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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