Rob Patterson

Music and Politics Intersect

Yet another squirrelly year in politics has passed. And yet again I find myself looking back at the year's music with a political eye and lamenting that topical music, years ago such an integral part of pop music, remains marginalized.

There is, after all, much fodder for political music of outrage, zeal, hope and cutting humor. But as James McMurtry, writer of perhaps 2005's best topical song, sagaciously observed, when asked why he hadn't gotten political before, "I was afraid it would screw up my art and I would end up writing sermons instead of songs."

Great songwriting is the prime directive for genuine songwriters, not selling concepts. And these days truly great songwriting is hard enough to find, while setting out with the intention to write topical material can be the biggest enemy of doing so well.

And as my old friend Jon Pareles noted in the New York Times, "2005 was a year for unheroic, unambitious pop with little more to say than 'Play me on the radio.'" We live in a time when notable music with a purpose is a rarity. But for those who achieve, I offer some personal awards.

McMurtry -- the songwriting son of novelist Larry McMurtry -- earns his props for deciding right before the 2005 election that he "had to risk it" and write topically. "The situation is too dire." He wrote and recorded "It Can't Happen Here," a scourging seven-minute Streets of the Union address that surveys the devastation wrought by the Bush junta and their capitalist cronies. He first made it available on his website and it was released last year on his fine Childish Things CD. The song wins my first annual Woody Guthrie Award for finest political song of the year.

The 2005 Bob Dylan Award for reaching the level of The Master goes to Rodney Crowell, the onetime country hitmaker Rodney Crowell, who has a trifecta going with his third album of brilliant socially-conscious songwriting and roots rocking, The Outsider. It's sharp and literate musical populism at its best.

Winning the John Lennon Memorial Award for Best Chance At Peace for the second year in a row with the same album is U2. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, like the album that preceded it, rocked with humanity and holy rolled with spiritual uplift enough to resonate across two years.

The Ry Cooder "Buena Vista" Award for Distinguished Ethnomusicological Achievement goes to its namesake, Ry Cooder, for Chavez Ravine. This time the musician who revived classic Cuban music unearths the wondrous Latin music of his home turf of Los Angeles by summoning the ghost of the Los Angeles barrio bulldozed in the 1950s to make way for Dodger Stadium.

This year's Robert Nesta Marley Award for Righteous Outsider Reggae is shared by two artists, Sinéad O'Connor and Willie Nelson, both of whom cut credible reggae discs. O'Connor's Throw Down Your Arms finds her covering songs by Jamaican heroes like Burning Spear and Lee "Scratch" Perry and produced by the too reggae team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Her take on the big Bob Marley number "War" resonates in this time of conflict. Nelson, on the other hand, sings Jimmy Cliff songs like "Sitting In Limbo" and "The Harder They Come" like they're his own on Countryman and recasts old songs of his in the reggae style with just as much authenticity.

Merle Haggard takes the Johnny Cash Memorial Award for Confounding Country Music Preconceptions with Chicago Wind. The Hag was always misunderstood on "Okie From Muskogee," and his new song "Where's All The Freedom" sure sounds like it's questioning the PATRIOT Act and other current internal threats to the true American way.

The George Harrison "Bangla Desh" Memorial Award for Best Music for the Best Cause was earned by Our New Orleans, a 16-track recording of top Louisiana musical acts put together by Nonesuch Records. Featuring Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Beausoleil, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and others, and capped by Randy Newman singing his "Louisiana 1927" with the Louisiana Philharmonic, this wonderful set of music benefits Habitat for Humanity's rebuilding efforts in the Big Easy.

The Lifetime Achievement Award goes -- as it does every year -- to Bob Dylan. Live at The Gaslight 1962 captures the budding folk genius about to change the world. The No Direction Home CD set and DVD of the Martin Scorsese detail Dylan's wild ride through the early to mid 1960s, when he didn't so much as abandon folk and topical music as follow his muse as a true artist should. And the contributions that he made back then to political songwriting - certainly enough to earn him a lifetime's credit for doing so, especially since all those songs still resonate with meaning, power and relevance today -- still set the standard for greatness.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 1, 2006

Home Page

Copyright © 2006 The Progressive Populist