To those that read in on my July post many thanks. From comments on Frank Sinatra to the consideration of what it means to be a writer in Canada, your voices are much appreciated as this discourse on protest in the arts continues. Pride in work and joy in living to all, as summer moves towards the day our labours are celebrated! The harvest lays ahead!
September, The celebration of work. The season of harvest and bounty, comes with its complexity. With many a union decimated at the cost of greater corporate gain, the virtue of work seems to have changed face. In many instances, work does not exist. With the repression and disappearance of work (jobs) comes idleness and idleness of this manner is not self-inflicted. Be it the contemporary voice of Senator Bernie Sanders or the riling of Christ in the Temple, the voice of protest is as given a part of living in the twenty-first century as it has been across history. Artists have rendered Christ's seminal moment. El Greco, Jheronimus Bosch in visual art. De Mille, Scorsese in film. In song, injustice towards workers finds its voice in everything from the French National Anthem to ballads dedicated to Joe Hill, the Swedish immigrant who joined the Industrial Workers of the World, and to union anthems in as many languages as exist on the planet.
Initially there is the work song. The one that you associate with grease and coal on the face and sweat on the back. Where you heard the first one as such. In a trench, on a scaffold, across an open field where women and men bent over a farmer’s field? Probably not. More likely, the work song was taught to you in school, church or someone could actually sing one by a camp fire. How did those songs come into being?
And protest songs? Where did they originate? How did you know it was a song of protest and not merely a sing-a-long work tune? What makes up the difference in distinguishing the two? How did the two come together?
Most protest songs of the twentieth century came to us through folk music. Instrumentally acoustic songs with a simple verse /chorus structure. For the most part, the words were essential to participation. The music? As long as you could hum the tune there would always be someone capable of setting out the two or three chords required to move the song along. Even songs in a foreign language could be sung as long as they were phonetically uncomplicated. But when (in personal experience) were they clearly informed by a full understanding of what the ‘poetic’ nature of the lyrics intended or expressed? ie: What makes one listen and accept the universal message in a protest song? Is the collective consciousness there or is it driven by the courage of the writer? How do we come to recognize the importance? What cultural circumstance or background makes the conscience shift? Move to a higher level of awareness?
Many a protest song was corner-stoned by either an external or personal factor of desired or needed change. The expression of hope. The hope of an expression. Some songs only expressed archetypes of oppressors and those desiring liberation from oppression. Some songs were specific in their intent, with a clear and contemporary journalistic like rendering of news with real live recognizable characters and current events. Yet differentiating the point of singing along from a greater awareness of the world around us was (is) a more enigmatic and elusive process. A shift in consciousness and conscience? How can a song with simple musical structure and words cause this?
With this post I explore the songs of four singer-songwriters by looking at their backgrounds, the current events and life experiences that surrounded them : the artists that influenced them, in relation to ’protest’, rock and roll and the power of song to shape and sit at the forefront of how we relate to the world we live in.
The Working Blues ( Mind Your Dylan)
In his autobiographically poetic memoirs, Chronicles (Volume 1), Bob Dylan, arguably the greatest English-speaking songwriter/poet from nineteen-sixty-one onwards, goes to some length to articulate his experience growing up near the Mesabi Iron Range of Northern Minnesota. Dylan keeps returning ‘home’ to this point of reference to underline the tenacity that will stay with him through a long and celebrated career. His natural empathy with his early cultural surroundings, ie: the brutal weather of winter, the isolation, the hard-edged faces of mine-workers and the radioed-in voice of Woody Guthrie and American blues led him to conceive of a dream to be a part of the music that reflected and in many instances, led to a greater awareness of injustices in American life and culture.
Why this constellation occurred is worth viewing given the political climate of the early years of the twenty-first century. Given the influence of America in the world, it is natural to explore one of the strongest voices that America has produced in the realm of protest. Besides Dylan’s personal intent, what existed before him to allow him to approach his canvass? In Chronicles 1, Dylan uses the term ‘folk’ music repeatedly after many years of eluding, admitting its worth. It is not his denial and elusiveness that this work is about, but his focus and determination to make the voice of protest, both personal and political, relevant subject matter for popular song.
However, let us sidetrack for a moment before we approach more Bob Dylan. Let us consider the term ‘protest’ and the nature of the songs that embody the essence and the movement of this word. And the Blues.
So The Blues and nothing but The Blues. And Work and nothing but Work, whether indentured slavery or low-wage existence, both agrarian and early industrial. Piano strings taken from the refuse of plantation landowners by slaves and strung to a piece of board. How does one make music of this? What is to be sung of? Whipping. Lynching. Rape. Murder. Religion. Birth. Death. Joy and Celebration at times. And Work. The birth of the Work Song. The birth of The Blues. And then the effect of no work at all. The margins as in Dylan’s classic North Country Blues.
'Come gather ‘round friends
and I’ll tell you a tale
of when the iron-ore pits were run plenty.
But the cardboard filled windows
and old men on benches
tell you now that the whole town is empty.'
‘North Country Blues’
Bob Dylan (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
Present Day Mine Mesabi Iron Range, Minnesota
By the time Bob Dylan had left his Minnesota home in nineteen-sixty-one, the soul of The Blues had made its way up to the northern most end of the Mississippi, and his destination of New York City was rife with an intellectual activist sensibility. Home to many Jewish-Americans, New York, and more specifi