Monday, April 03, 2006

The Times they were Changin'

Long, long time ago, before grunge and punk and metal turned rock into the soundtrack of personal angst, before drugs were self-destructive and sex wasn't inextricably linked to violence (sex wasn't even sex, actually, it was free love - a concept tinged with hopless nostalgia in our HIV-positive world) Rock was about overthrowing the establishment, about freedom and Flower Power, about the rebellion of a generation, about Revolution. But it was a Revolution fuelled not so much by ideology as by attitude, its politics fuelled by vision and feeling more than by tactics or realpolitik. "You might say I'm a dreamer" Lennon sang. He was. But back in the 60's there was no contradiction between being a dreamer and being an agent of change [1].

Politics, then, is the real third in the Trinity of Rock (the other two being drugs and sex [2]) - growing up in the shadow of the Bomb and the everpresent threat of the draft [3] a generation of folk / rock artists wrote songs of protest and outrage, songs that became, for a tiny instant in history, the conscience of a generation, its moral compass [4]. We all know these songs. Plain, unadorned, often acoustic, they are products of a terrible sincerity, children of an idealism that we, in our more complicated age, end up either scoffing at [5] or treasuring with nostalgia. Yet to do either is to miss the point of these songs, their threadbare courage, their overwhelming optimism. "And I dreamed I saw the bombers / Riding shotgun in the sky / They were turning into butterflies / Above our nation" Joni Mitchell sings - and such is the power of that voice and the feeling behind it, that you end up almost believing it, end up almost believing in the youthful dream that faith is everything, that indignation will change the world, that all you need is love. What W.H. Auden said of poetry is true of these songs as well: they make nothing happen, but they survive as a way of happening, a mouth. Because no matter what you may think of the naivete of their sentiments or the incoherence of the arguments they made, you have to admit that the people who sang these songs had their heart in the right place.

I'm not going to bother with the numbers this time. But here are some of my favourite memories of protest songs through the ages:

Pete Seeger: Those glorious renditions of Turn, Turn, Turn; We Shall Overcome and the Crow on the Cradle.

Woodstock: Country Joe McDonald singing the I-feel-I'm-fixing-to-die rag (with the F*** cheer to start with), Richie Havens singing Handsome Johnny, Joan Baez singing Joe Hill; and, of course, Hendrix squealing his way through the Star Spangled Banner

Lou Reed: "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll piss on 'em / That's what the statue of bigotry says". The streetsmartness of the anger, the irony laid on with an ten-inch switchblade knife. "Have you ever felt rage in your heart?"

Tracy Chapman: Subcity. Across the Lines. Behind the Wall. Talkin' about a revolution.

The Cranberries: The indignation on Zombie. War Child. The Icicle Melts.

Joni Mitchell: The Fiddle and The Drum. "And so once again / America my friend / And so once again / You are fighting us all / And when we ask you why / You raise your sticks and cry / And we fall"

Joan Baez: Where do I start? So much of what Baez sings are songs of protest: The Prison Trilogy, The Partisan, Song of Bangladesh Las Madres Cansadas, No Nos Moveran, Where's My Apple Pie, Johnny I hardly knew ya, Sagt Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind, Pauvre Ruteboeuf. One single set of concert recordings from 1975 features: Turn me Around, Natalia (about Russian poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya [6]) , Ballad of Saccho & Vanzetti (that haunting line about how "only silence is shame") and Joe Hill. You could argue (with considerable justification) that Baez's idealism is unfocussed and childish, an exercise in protest for the sake of protest. What continues to amaze me, though, is the level of engagement. Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world where the songs that young people sang along to at concerts were songs about the oppression of poets in Russia or the torture of students in Bangladesh, songs about prison reform or against war? [7]

My favourite Baez protest song, btw, is the incredible 21 minute long Where are you now, my son? Recorded in Hanoi in December 1972, Where are you now, my son? is much more than a song, it's a travelogue into the depths of the Vietnam War. Baez intersperses the stanzas of the song (sung as only she could sing them) with sound recordings of the episodes that inspired the lyrics. We hear bombs exploding in the streets of Hanoi, the rattle of anti-aircraft fire, hushed conversations from bomb shelters, the sound of people crying, the song of local folk singers, and most priceless of all - the sound of Baez singing Silent Night to a frightened group of people on Christmas Day, her voice almost drowned out by the explosions of US bombs almost directly overhead. Agha Shahid Ali writes: "Yes, he is here / He who, people said /could dissolve bombs / in mid-air // when he played Beethoven" ('Eurydice'). Baez's voice doesn't quite manage to do that, but as a metaphor for the way in which the songs of her generation stood in opposition to the grim political realities of their time, I can think of no finer example.

And finally, of course, there's Dylan. Dylan singing Blowin' in the Wind. Dylan singing A Hard Rain's A-gonna fall. Dylan singing Hurricane. Dylan singing Chimes of Freedom and Oxford Town and The Times they are a-changin' and The Death of Emmett Till and Only a pawn in their game and With God on our Side and North Country Blues and Dignity.

What made me think about Dylan's more political side (and ultimately led to this post) was reading two news stories on the Blogosphere over the last couple of weeks. This one about Meher Bhargav (via Desi Pundit) and the ongoing story of Abhishek Kasliwal (which Amit Varma helped remind me of). Both stories made me think of the same Dylan song: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll ("You who philosophise disgrace / And criticize all fears / Take the rag away from your face / For now ain't the time for your tears"). Dylan's point in that song is simple: The fact that there are people out there who think they can leverage their wealth / political clout / social position to avoid the consequences of their crimes is no reason to get upset. It's only when their belief proves to be true, if the justice system lets them get away with (literally) murder, that we have cause to protest, cause to worry, cause to feel ashamed. Democracy is not about belief in people, it's about a belief in the People. That's quite a perspective to find casually scattered about in what is, arguably, one of the greatest albums ever made.


[1] Remember Martin Luther King?

[2] Sex, politics and drugs - Creator, Preserver, Destroyer? Not quite.

[3] One of the reasons I think Americans today find it easier to be more apathetic, even complacent about US military policy is that (9/11 notwithstanding) the threat of actual harm to US civilians is so much lower today than it was in the 1960s. Though on the varying impact of the Cold War on national culture, see Tony Judt's piece in last month's NYRB.

[4] I can't help thinking of Zoyd Wheeler in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland.

[5] See, for instance, Tom Lehrer's brilliant take on the folk song army.

[6] A poet I've never read, but who also makes an appearance in Adrienne Rich's Leaflets:

"we will relive this over and over

the banners torn
from our hands
blood flowing
a great jagged torn place
in the silence of complicity

that much at least
we did here"

- 'For a Russian Poet'

[7] Of course, there are plenty of rock artists out there today (Bono springs to mind) who are actively involved in social causes - the point is they're not singing about it. Whatever happened to the artist's belief in the redemptive power of art? What was it Auden said: "With the farming of a verse / Make a vineyard of the curse / Sing of human unsuccess / In a rapture of distress".

N.B. : I'm pretty sure there are plenty of songs I've missed (I just thought of S&G's versions of Silent Night, Last Night I had the Strangest Dream, He was my brother and The Sun is Burning, for instance). And the Stones singing Paint it Black. And there's always Springsteen. But that's what the comments section is for. And by now, you know the drill.



Primalsoup said...

You write fabulously well. How come the Audio Poetry site never features any Ghalib?

They don’t make music or poetry in the quite the same way anymore. They ought to introduce Dylan and some others as part of school text I think!

MockTurtle said...

"Of course, there are plenty of rock artists out there today (Bono springs to mind) who are actively involved in social causes - the point is they're not singing about it."
Are you serious?
I know that you're infatuated with the 60's (can't blame you), but you should step out of that smoke-filled VW van sometime, push the long hippie hair away from your eyes and take a look around.
Bono is perpetually singing political protest songs. (Sunday Bloody Sunday, remember?)
Springsteen is still kicking around. REM recently came out with a CD "For The Lady" about Aung San Suu Kyi and a single "The Final Straw" on the Iraq war.
Also, maybe you should get off your high horse and listen to some contemporary groups before writing about them. Moby (your favourite artist) teamed up with Public Enemy on "Make Love, Fuck War" and he's got a whole slew of other protest songs under his belt. Also, try and listen to the Black Eyed Peas "Where Is The Love". That's modern political protest at its finest.
Check this site out for more:

Brown Magic said...

may i add Elvis Costello - "peace in our time" against the invasion of Grenada, performing which he got booed off stage in America.
on some TV show.

Also, mockturtle makes a vald point- Green Day got a Grammy win for American Idiot - an entirely political album.

Eminem cursed at a sitting president in Mosh.

And that's mainstream money makers, not coffeeshop crooners with something to say.

km said...

When did "Paint it Black" turn into a protest song?

Actually, most of punk is protest music first, and "soundtrack of personal angst" later (unless you meant emo.) Then again, the personal is the political.

Obligatory name-checks: Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie, Bob Marley, Peter, Paul & Mary, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield etc etc...

(and way too many rap/hiphop artists, all fiercely political: Public Enemy, Kanye West, The Roots and of course, NWA - can't forget them!)

Heh Heh said...

Here's some more of my favorites:

1. Holiday in Cambodia & Chemical Warfare (The Dead Kennedys). Come to think of it, pretty much every one of their songs.
2. Civil war (Guns and Roses)
3. Here comes the Man (Pixies)
4. Bloodstains (Agent Orange)
5. Peace Attack (Sonic Youth)
6. War? (System of a Down).. mmm.. angry music.

Tabula Rasa said...

Check out Dan Bern ( and David Gans ( for starters. The problem isn't that such songs aren't being written or sung -- it's that they're not finding a place on the airwaves. Not many radio stations - even the so-called liberal ones - will put out stuff like this:

"Bush says world wide protests
Won't change his approach to Iraq
Well what a surprise
I thought he listened to the people of the world
I thought he woke up every day and
Asked his secretary
What are folks protesting
Who should we be listening to besides ourselves"

- Tyranny, Dan Bern


"I'm not saying I know better
I'm just saying we don't know
Til the day we get an answer
I go where my heart says go
It's a narrow-minded Jesus
I see reflected in your eye
He was all about compassion
If he knew you, he would cry"

- Who Will Save Us From The Saved, David Gans

There are many many others below the radar.

Tabula Rasa said...

And how could I forget Donna The Buffalo, one of the three best bands going round today.

"Bright eyes square shoulders
In uniforms of powder blue
All the children made to suffer
For the deeds of a few

It's an exciting day out on the sidewalk
Running, kicking cans, found a piece of chalk
Heard the air raid siren, running legs
Trapped in bad dream glue
All the children made to suffer
For the deeds of a few

The masters of war are reconvening
Their greasy chins dropping up and down
Weaving justification
For murder on the ground"

- Deeds of a Few, Jeb Puryear

Falstaff said...

primalsoup: Thanks. And as for Ghalib - patience, patience.

mockturtle et al: Ya, ya, all right. Can't a chap even indulge in a little harmless nostalgia without everyone jumping down his throat anymore. Geez.

Seriously though - you're all right of course. I need to emerge from my neanderthal cave and listen to more contemporary music. I guess I was just letting a whole day spent listening to Dylan and my reluctance to praise U2 (a band I consider extremely overhyped - okay, so Joshua Tree was a decent album - but still; it always feels to me that U2 is our premier big name big band only because there's no one else around who wants the job) that led me astray. My apologies.

In my defense (okay, I'm trying very hard not to be defensive here but still) - a) I did list a number of new bands, including nods to U2 and Springsteen b) This is a post about Rock, so Eminem and co. don't count. I never said there wasn't popular music that didn't look at social issues (whether rap / hip-hop is music at all is another debate - one that I'm going to leave for another day), only that rock bands don't do as much of it as they used to. I may be wrong about that - but Moby / Black Eyed Peas are not evidence against my stand.

tabula rasa / heh heh: thanks for the cites; listening to rock music is like doing laundry, you think you've got it all and then you come back and find the sock lying under the bed.

km: Ah, Woody Guthrie - yes, yes. Actually seemed to remember thinking adding Dylan's tribute to Woody Guthrie to the post at some point, but I guess I never got around to adding it in. Agree with the other names you mention as well.

I suppose technically Paint it Black is not a protest song - but it's the way I've always heard it - a fact that probably has a lot to do with the Full Metal Jacket connection. And I'm hardly alone in making that connection. See the Wikipedia entry:

The Black Mamba said...

primalsoup: not to be a nitpicker... but we did start Audio Poetry with a Ghalib - and true, never followed up with more..