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 specifically, Greenwich Village was the hub of American political conscience. Phil Ochs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Dave Van Ronk, Jack Holtzman at Vanguard Records, singer songwriters and record producers following in the dustbowl tradition of Woody Guthrie, Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly) and The Weavers. With the early documentation by Alan Lomax at Folkways Records, field recordings of deep south Blues singers became available to the connoisseurs and followers of ‘folk song’. A folk song was qualified by it’s musical accessibility and theme. Usually of a three chord structure, folk songs were either century old ballads from abroad or old songs re-interpreted with a contemporary spin. Often, the case was that the skeleton of an old ballad would be used to write a new story line. Ochs and early Bob Dylan were masters at this technique. And Guthrie, who was on the scene through the Oklahoma dust bowl of the thirties, had designed a genre of expression that reflected the back porch melodies of white working poor migrants, displaced and exploited by landowners of their same color yet of a different class. This political dynamic spawned the ever-increasing theme of ‘work’ in a significantly oral culture. The ‘work song’ was of two ilks. One, a lyric in the first person expressing the pain of labour and the injustice of the conditions one found him or her self working in, and two, a third person narration of the same thematic. Both effective conjugations, the work song found its greatest force when a story was told. The force of utilizing the third person gave these songs a sense of history, re-enforcing age-old archetypes of the oppressor and the oppressed, allowing for the recognition of the lot and circumstances of the protagonists or major players in real life dramas.
Bruce County (Bruce Springsteen)
The Catholic in Bruce Springsteen comes out playing hard and moving fast through New Jersey shores and streets. Failure, sin, desire and the quest for redemption and atonement pack his first four full length recordings like an open secular Mass. Saints and Marys and Jesus. Petty thieves, life’s losers and switchblade Romeos chasing down their Juliets and sneaking around the corner for their next ecstatic moment of innocence and experience. Of an Italian-American Catholic mother, Springsteen’s streets tell tales of woe with a drive that underlines one of the true secular values of Catholicism. Expression of feelings unbounded. A trait that can get you in a whole lot of trouble or make you millions. Or, give voice to the spirit and heart of millions of working and non-working Americans across a substantially wider age-range than most rock artists manage to address.
Bruce Springsteen with Peter Seeger
Yet as Springsteen developed his career towards the late-nineteen seventies, particularly with the recording The River, and song of the same name, he turned a corner from an amicable juvenility to a distinct loss of innocence. In turn, a remarkably mature and insightful voice emerged to fill out the frame of his music’s musculature. A song about a working man out of work and the effect of a construction layoff on his life moved to the front of the line ahead of British Punk and the fraying sound of seventies disco, techno-rock and heavy metal bands across the airwaves. Reganomics just around the corner, with the coming of the nineteen-eighty presidential election, Springsteen by his own organic development stood in the right place at the right time to sing of disillusionment. And ahead of him lay a gold mine of real life raw material to draw from, react and respond to. Cautiously uncommitted politically, until his open support of Senator John Kerry in the two-thousand and four presidential race, early Springsteen learned the aesthetic craft of non didactic and nuanced empathy for an America increasingly moving towards a ‘have and have not’ polarity. It is noteworthy that in all his work not one song attacks any given oppressor directly but instead empathizes with marginalized characters struggling for hope. In fact, the greatest social status any of his characters have is union membership or war veteran. By default, his music and more so his lyric, fell into the lineage of Whitman, Sandburg, Guthrie, Ginsberg, and Dylan. Of further note, at this juncture in American popular music, Bob Dylan appeared to make a swing to the fundamentalist right with his Christian Slow Train Coming and the mantle of protest was left open for Springsteen to assume.
Rastafarian Grace (Bob Marley)
In the nineteen seventies and early nineteen-eighties, spirituality and politics in popular song found their most natural grace in the voice of Bob Marley.
'Ole pirates, yes they rob I. Sold I to the merchant ships.
Minutes after they took I from the bottomless pits.
But my hands was made strong by the Hand of the Almighty.
We (move) forward in this generation, triumphantly.
Won’t you help to sing these songs of Freedom.
‘Cause all I ever have (is) redemption songs.'
Some twenty years after North American audiences were first introduced to Jamaican folk song by Harry Bellafonte, a true son of Ja with a pop-reggae fusion band, put a spotlight on the Rastafarian system of belief. Followers of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, Rastafarians lived as a people in exile, their history marked by centuries of oppression and slavery. A seminal moment in rock and roll history pointed to Marley’s spiritual and political heft and insight. At a concert in Kingston during a period of high civil strife and crime both Jamaican President, Michael Manley and opposition party leader, Edward Seaga were called to the stage at the One Love Peace Concert by Marley to shake hands in an attempt to ease rising tensions.
Jamaican history had been rife with civil strife throughout its history and Marley with a true moral authority few rock stars possessed, knew full well the symbolism of his gesture, reminding his people and the world watching that oppression can not be neutralized if those oppressed are fighting amongst themselves. At this period in Jamaican society only Marley could have weighed in with such influence. It is difficult to think of another example or culture where an artist’s spiritual clout came into play to bring polarized political factions together.