"The next couple of years should be good for folk music," quipped singer-songwriter Peter Case at a recent show. The comment was pregnant with ironic implications as well as directly expressing, one might assume, a hope that recent political and social events will spark a resurgence of politically charged and socially conscious music. So far, the jury isn't even out on that point, and is in fact barely into voir dire.
The last two years certainly offer a rogue's gallery of happenings that any musical artist with leftist and populist sentiments should find downright inspirational: the seeming theft of the American Presidency via what smelled like election fraud followed by a questionable Supreme Court decision. The tragedy of 9/11 as well as the message it carried (unheeded by too many Americans) about how our country is regarded in much of the rest of the world, and the way it has served as a Reichstag Fire to help enable the Republican administration to consolidate power. The specter of war with Iraq. Massive high-level corporate fraud and theft and a shaky economy. An executive branch hell bent on unfettering American business from environmental regulations at a point when the health of the planet is in crisis. And the near-fascistic implications of Homeland Security, to name some but hardly all of the threats to the freedom and economic well being of all Americans if not the world at large.
Yes, the times they are a changin'. Yet the musical world at large remains mired in pop pabulum and escapist good time fantasies, shaking its booty for cash while Rome burns. In whatever passes these days for a folk music movement, the one realm where one might expect to find some pointed and cogent commentary, far too much of the music remains mired in mawkish and maudlin sentiment and narcissistic navel gazing.
As would be only natural with such an earthshaking event, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have been addressed in song by a number of artists. The country music industry rushed to the forefront to comment on 9/11 with what almost seems like capitalizing on a tragedy and its aftermath with fervent flag waving and near-crocodile tears, being the voice of what was once called "the silent majority." The most unctuous and troubling example was Toby Keith's jingoistic "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue," a song mired in archaic knee-jerk America first sentiments, reflecting the far too common American ignorance of the world we live in and the blowback that 9/11 represents. To country music's credit, Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" did offer some simple eloquence and succor from the point of view of the common American.
Kudos go to Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks for courageously speaking out against Keith's dim-witted version of patriotism. And even though her superstar group's new album Home may not be politically relevent, it is a wonderful and warm set of acoustic, bluegrass-inflected music.
The most high-profile album addressing the aftermath of 9/11 is Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, his first album with the E Street Band in years. It certainly expresses well the genuine emotional conundrum of facing the collapse of the twin towers, as well as being one of the finest works from our nation's best blue-collar, populist musical poet. Independent alternative folkie Ani DiFranco more pointedly looks at 9/11 on the song "Self Evident" on her new double live CD, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, a fine retrospective if also introduction to one of the most socially and politically committed artists of our day.
But only one artist takes on recent events and the mood of the country with true leftist insight and outrage -- country rocker Steve Earle on his album Jerusalem. Right wingers slammed Earle for his song "John Walker's Blues" (which is written and sung from the point of view of American Taliban John Walker Lindh). And while such folks might find his song "Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" downright seditious, it's the one lone voice of liberal thinking and wisdom in a roar of silence.
Earle is also one of the many alternative country artists who join up with Jon Langford and The Pine Valley Cosmonauts on The Executioner's Last Song, a collection of country death songs that benefits The Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers take on the corporate consolidation of radio as well as big money malfeasance on The Last DJ, but alas, one of the best superstar rock acts falls prey to polemics on this disappointing set.
Two fine albums from little-known but superb contemporary singer-songwriters do contain songs that speak well to what is needed in the American spirit. Superb newcomer Alice Peacock identifies the source of true social change on "Ill Start With Me" on her excellent eponymously titled debut major label album, while David Baerwald issues a call for "Compassion" on his smart and sharp Here Comes The New Folk Underground. And visionary roots singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo explores the social and familial implications of Mexican-American migration on By The Hand of the Father, which features songs and stories from the acclaimed theater piece inspired by his music.
Let me tout a few non-political delights this year that should appeal to lovers of quality music. The self-involvement of far too many singer-songwriters not withstanding, Patty Griffin's 1000 Kisses is a treasure trove of emotional honesty and depth. If you, like me, are waiting for genuine 1960s soul to finally be revived, the return of soul master Solomon Burke (singing songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello) on Don't Give Up On Me proves this music's enduring appeal. And a tip of the hat is due to the above-mentioned Peter Case, whose Bee Line is a fine example of smart modern folk-rock.
Though the times call for music that speaks to the situation at hand, we also cannot forget food for the heart and soul.
What the American left needs musically is much the same as it needs politically -- voices that can fearlessly and cogently challenge the swing to the right arising from post-9/11 fear. Or in other words, an artist as fierce and eloquent as the young Bob Dylan, who all but invented topical songs for the modern era. His contribution to the year's music, Bob Dylan Live 1975 (The Bootleg Series Volume 5), revisits his Rolling Thunder Revue. A listen to that collection's take or any version of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" reveals how timeless the best political music can be, applying as much to our age as the one in which it was written. We can only hope that in the coming year that today's musical artists can address the issues facing us with such depth, insight and poetic resonance.
Rob Patterson is a music writer in Austin, Texas.