Populist music, or lack of it


One might think that music with a populist or political bent would get a boost here at the dawn of a new century, and in a major election year, no less. Fat chance. Popular music is in one of its worst throes of deep genuflection to the almighty dollar right now, although, as I write this, the specter of a Bush presidency may augur well for activist music if he pisses off enough of us leftists that people might start singing about what's wrong with this world again. But for now, the pop pandering of today's superstars like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys sets a tone that seems to permeate contemporary music, even in its more liberated and politically-savvy fringes.

That point was reiterated in stark relief for this music maven when The Best Of Broadside 1962-1988 arrived in my home about mid-year. The five-CD, 89-song box set chronicles the bold rise and sad fall of the topical song on the American cultural scene, drawing from the recordings made by Broadside magazine, which, along with Sing Out!, was the major house organ of the modern folk revival. Wonderfully packaged by Smithsonian Folkways, it is a genuine slice of history, featuring early songs by Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Phil Ochs, Eric Anderson and Lucinda Williams, as well as contributions from such longtime folk stalwarts as Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton, and a host of worthy lesser-knowns. The fact that the topical song is almost dead within the contemporary music scene makes this set sound less archaic than downright foreign, but the vitality of what Broadside captured and disseminated still hollers with the spirit of a call to action. This is the soundtrack to the movement -- whatever movement you pick: civil rights, workers rights, feminism, anti-war -- and an essential musical document for anyone who values music with a message.

Some message music does still reach the masses, thanks to rock superstars Rage Against The Machine, who actually released two albums in 2000 -- a live disc early in the year, and Renegade, a set of songs by other politically-minded acts ranging from Bob Dylan to hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa to punk rockers Minor Threat. The recent departure of singer Zack De La Rocha from the group gives one pause about the future for the sole star rock act making politics their mission. But Rage have certainly bucked prevailing trends, and reached millions in the process, so perhaps there is hope.

After all, few areas of modern music are as genuinely incorrect about populist and humanist politics as hip-hop, a genre plagued by misogyny, glorified violence, and crass capitalist sentiments. Yet there are those rap acts who make conscious music, and the best one to debut this year is Spooks, whose album S.I.O.S.O.S. has not only a delightful mix of musicality and B-boy poetics, but also one of the most truly real ghetto songs in some time, "Things I've Seen."

Nonetheless, the days when Woody Guthrie was a beacon for artists to follow have faded, even though Guthrie remains with us rather strongly. His work continues to be repackaged on CD, with his most important single album, Dust Bowl Ballads, being re-released in 2000, some 60 years after it first hit the streets. It goes without saying that Guthrie, like many of the artists on the Broadside box, still sounds bracing and inspirational after all this time, especially since what he addresses is so divergent from modern music's usual concerns. Yet Guthrie also remains part of the contemporary scene, thanks to Billy Bragg & Wilco, who this year released the second volume of their Mermaid Avenue collaboration on which the artists composed new music for Guthrie lyrics from his archives. Both discs show other sides of Guthrie less known to the public, yet his militancy can also be found on a track like "All You Fascists." Another artist who set a Guthrie lyric to new music is singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, whose own words on his Broke Down album explore the lives of the common folk with compassion and eloquence on one of the best neo-folk records this year.

Another stand-out folk album for the Year 2000 was actually cut by a rocker, Dave Alvin, who draws from the American song tradition on the beautiful and stirring Public Domain, aptly subtitled "Songs from the Wild Land". But by and large, today's folk scene suffers from the same malaise that Tom Wolfe bemoaned in contemporary literature two years ago or so when he published A Man In Full: a navel-gazing concern with the personal and internal rather than observations and commentary on the world at large.

Hence my annual populist music plugs here become, at least in part, touts for music I suppose someone with a populist or political bent might enjoy, even if the themes are not specifically conscious or committed. One act which imbues personal songs with almost inherent politicism is Indigo Girls, who also give as much of themselves and their commercial power to as many causes as any act in the upper reaches of popular music. And their first best-of album, Retrospective, is as humane and compassionate as any music made by a best-selling act.

Similarly, country-rocker Steve Earle's Transcendental Blues is pretty much all about Steve Earle, with the exception of the last track, "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," which is written from the point of view of a man facing the death penalty, the abolition of which is a cause Earle devotes much time to along with the global land mine crisis. But Earle's about as good as it comes in the American roots singer-songwriter department, making even his self-absorption worthy indeed of our attention. Other similarly gifted artists of the same ilk whose work in 2000 is worth hearing are John Prine, who redoes 15 of his classics on Souvenirs, and John Hiatt, whose Crossing Muddy Waters is a masterful return to form for the gifted songwriting talent. The far-less-known David Olney came up with a minor masterpiece on his Omar's Blues, based on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, while Neil Young, perhaps the only Sixties survivor still firing clean and fast on all pistons, bookended the year with a new studio album, Silver & Gold, at the beginning, and a live album, Road Rock, at the end.

For me, ethnic music is inherently populist. And 2000 does have a big tally in the credit column with the release of the Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000, The Journey Of Chris Strachwitz. The five CD box set follows the founder of the finest and purest American traditional music label through his field and studio recordings of some of the most important blues music, country, zydeco, Tex-Mex, Cajun music and more. Like the Broadside set, this is a benchmark of American musical history. The label also put out another essential collection this year, albeit on only one CD: The Devil's Swing/El Cumpio Del Diablo, Ballads from the Big Bend Country of the Texas-Mexican Border, documenting a fascinating regional musical phenomenon of the sort we are losing rapidly with the chain-store malling of America.

And there are even those popular acts who strive to keep tradition and regional music alive. Most notable for not just the effort but also their profound musical accomplishments is Los Lobos, who this year re-released their very first album of Mexican-American pachanga music, Los Lobos Del Esta De Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East L.A.), recorded 23 years ago, and rich with folkloric pleasures. Another stand-out ethnic recording from this last year is Mardi Gras Mambo: ¡Cubanismo! In New Orleans, which finds the popular Cuban act in the Crescent City, where they tie together the music made in both their native land and America's funkiest and most soulful city.

And lest we forget that Caucasians have ethnicity too, especially when they happen to be from the American South, the soundtrack album to the new Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a bracing reminder. Featuring country, mountain music, black blues and black and white gospel from a stunning array of fine artists, it's one of the finest original works of film music in some time, and a piece of art that stands all on its own apart from the movie. And after all, what could be more populist than people's music from the rural South?

So even if it wasn't the best year for music with a populist and/or political bent -- and maybe one of the worst in some time -- the spirit wasn't just preserved brilliantly in the two aforementioned box sets, but also still simmers if not burns in a select number of acts. The suggestions I offer are but a starting point, signposts, if you will. Because genuine people's music, like kindred spirits who still believe in the great movements for humankind, must be actively sought out. Hope this launches you on that journey.

Rob Patterson writes on music from Austin, Texas.

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