As I write this, a song echoes in my brain: "The Revolution Starts Now," by Steve Earle. Ah, don't I wish (Not revolution per se, but a radical change perhaps?) And earlier tonight, at Earle's concert, for about 90 minutes that glimmer of hope for positive and progressive social change, and a sing-along soundtrack to go with it, at least seemed a not impossible goal.
Earle was the one artist I singled out in my year-end political music wrap up a few issues back as an exemplar of an artist willing to consistently address the big issues facing this nation in song. Not long after, I received a letter from a reader, Terre Thaemlitz, taking me to task (very nicely) for focusing on mainstream musical genres -- in which I decried the lack of great political music -- and ignoring more experimental fringe genres where music with political intent and content is being made. He feels "disappointed that your vision of 'political music' remains focused on mass media genres (rock, pop, country, hip-hop, soul, etc.), lyric-based music which gains its 'politics' through conventional verbal narrative."
Point well taken, and I direct readers to Thaemlitz's website (www.comatonse.com) and another offering similar (free) music (www.publicrec.org) to learn more of what's being done of a political nature outside of the big-time music game.
Thaemlitz asked me, "so why keep trotting out the corpses of corporate genres?" This evening, Earle showed me why. Coming out onto the stage to the strains of rap precursor Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" on the PA, Earle and his band The Dukes launched into the first two songs from his latest album.
The title track, "The Revolution Starts Now," as I said above, is playing over and over on my mental tape loop. At a time when catchy slogans like "freedom is on the march" and "the armies of compassion" are being used by the Bush administration to advance their twisted agenda, we need to fight fire with fire. Earle is the closest thing to fire we have: a songwriter at least on the cusp of the mainstream who can make cogent political statements within the three minute or so pop and/or folk song structure that you can sing along with and tap your toes to.
He followed his radical call to the barricades with "Home to Houston," which a friend and editor I work with -- also a Republican, though one who says he didn't vote for Bush -- hails as "the best trucker song I ever heard," even though the highway being driven is in Iraq. Yep, sing-along agitprop followed by the country music staple of a big rig road song -- that's the musical vision with a political slant we need to help leftist and progressive concerns and causes regain national traction (which isn't to denigrate the significance of the avant garde that Thaemlitz is a part of).
Earle's second jab of his one-two opening punch reminded me of Howard Dean's much maligned comment about winning over the NASCAR dads with Confederate flag decals on their pick-up truck bumpers (perhaps the wisest Democratic observation in the whole campaign, and a notion John Kerry might have thought twice about before he went windsurfing). We need musical artists who can write catchy tunes that truck drivers and even my Republican friend can latch onto. In Earle's case, by a genuine good ol' Texas boy no less (and not a faux one born in Connecticut, like the current Resident of the White House).
Sorry, Terre, but the conventional verbal song narrative of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus is what the masses consume, and it's one very effective way our message can best reach them. (Coincidentally, I was also just talking today with another left-of-center country music Texan, Joe Ely, about the gubernatorial candidacy of yet another left-of-center country music Texan, Kinky Friedman. It brought to mind for us the olden days of Texas Gov. W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, who hit the campaign trail in 1938 with his own band, The Hillbilly Boys -- a tradition that, if reinstated, might make the election season at least more palatable.)
And it's not just Earle's putting politics in song that makes him so admirable in his musical activism. His tour logo on the bass drum is a hammer and sickle interposed with a skull -- courageous and provocatively effective symbolism in these re-McCarthyism times. Before his song "Rich Man's War," he spoke about having two sons in their early 20s and the socioeconomic pressures that fill the lower ranks of our armed forces. He introduced his song "Harlan Man" with a cogent talk about what Bob Dylan called "sundown on the unions" and how anyone and everyone with a boss should support the idea of trade unions. And for some comic relief -- because any revolution without humor is ultimately doomed and dangerous -- he led into his reggae love song for "Condi, Condi" by talking about how many of his songs have long and involved reasons why he wrote them, but that he had no idea why he wrote this one.
Playing to some 1,500 music lovers in this particular night, Earle's 11 weeks across North America this winter with his musical calls to arms (and brains) will still only reach a drop-in-the-bucket-sized audience. But he is leading in the right direction. This revolution needs to be televised along with songs that millions will sing along with long after the concert or CD stops playing. Populism may not be about appealing to the lowest common denominator but it certainly is about reaching the widest common denominator, and there's few better ways than a well-crafted three-minute song with a catchy hook of a chorus. We must use the Weapons of Mass Distraction and beat them into our plowshares. And I challenge anyone to cite a better Weapon of Mass Inspiration than a great pop song.
So Terre, my friend, keep working the fringes and trying to get more widely exposed. And I'll keep beating my peace drum for more mainstream activist music. And together, from all sides, we can wage the good fight for what's right.
And if anyone can also now come up with some songs that will rescue Jesus from the evangelical so-called "Christian" right-wingnuts, we just might save this nation.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.