Apolitical Blues

By Rob Patterson

The most fitting comment on where political music in 2009 might be that it’s the year we got, of all things, a Bob Dylan Christmas album. Not to in any way blame or put any burden on the master of the topical song for how things stand, mind you. He did more than his bit on the political front and set the standard ages ago, and also put out another fine album of new and original music this year.

But the issue is: Where the hell is the political music in 2009? There have been ebbs and flow of musical commentary on the state of the nation and the world as well as the issues that we face in this era for as long as I’ve been ending each 12 months with a look back. And I can only come to the conclusion that political songs, albums and artists have become marginalized. And it’s at a time when we need them maybe as much as we ever did.

I don’t blame the music community, or at least not too much, because the problem is systemic. The most active contemporary musical artists in both political music and also non-musical activities — I’d cite U2 and its singer Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young as notable superstars who have done their due part — do their part and even more. But without a supportive community of music-loving leftists and major media that gives significant play to political music, it’s become largely preaching to the choir.

I would also cite a current day cynicism within the public — both those that support their efforts and are fans as well as those who disagree with those who oppose their politics and aren’t into their music — as a sad factor in the whole equation. Too often people on all sides are ready to see musical activism as an image and/or career move, even if the truth is that, in today’s climate, making political music doesn’t seem to yield any substantial benefits other than maybe some credibility with the core believers already in agreement.

The times they have a-changed indeed from when music could help rally political protest and social efforts back in the 1960s. It’s not the fault of the music and its makers but rather, as I see it, the world we live in today as much as anything that has relegated activist music to the margins. The solidarity and common sense of purpose on the left back then made the music part of a larger context, one that has now splintered and lost a good bit of its fire. The fractured state of media outlets for music with tight genre-delineated radio formats and a recorded music industry in free fall hasn’t helped matters either. And even with some standouts in recent years, political songs don’t often seem as artistically strong as they once were.

The state of political music in 2009 parallels the overall political situation on the left. In 2008, progressives and leftists joined with what I still believe is the left-of-center American mainstream to elect Barack Obama President, an event that was accompanied by genuine feelings of the hope and potential for positive change from many Americans that he evoked in his campaign.

But then the reality of where things stand sunk in. Despite the economic stimulus and bail out efforts (that began when President Bush was still in office), the nation remains mired in a slump. As I write this, the effort to reform health care is sill struggling its way through Congress and will undoubtedly be not even half a loaf when it comes to universal coverage for all Americans as well as improving the affordability of care for those with coverage, and the fate of the continuing occupations and warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan are unresolved.

At the same time, the angry and often factually incorrect rhetoric of the right wing continues to dominate the public debate while the town hall and tea party protests go unmatched in public displays of solidarity from the left. As noted in a column earlier this year, the vital health care debate elicited no notable musical support, and after anti-Bush and pro-Obama music sprung up in the last few years, in 2009 musical protest was as absent from major cultural impact as was continuing public shows of support from the coalition that brought about a Democratic President and majority in Congress.

There’s much within the current context that could provide fodder if not red meat for musical political commentary. But they can’t do it alone. To have anthems that have an effect, we all have to band together and become a chorus for a better world, social and economic justice, a green and clean environment, and an American nation that lives up to truly democratic ideals.

There wasn’t one full album by a significant musical artist that addressed political and social issues that came across my desk or caught my attention this year other than, to at least some degree, Bruce Springsteen’s good yet hardly great Working on a Dream, which has some political echoes while U2’s fuzzy No Line on the Horizon find both acts eschewing any outright activism and only at the middle of their artistic game.

The closest thing might be ¡Let Freedom Ring! by Chuck Prophet, which does offer a cool bit of musical agitprop on its title tune and the track “American Man.” The disc also offers a sharp overall look at how we live today and is one of the most musically cool and inventive rock records I heard this year, and by an artist who makes the case on it to be heard more widely.

Americana icons Son Volt also scan the national landscape on American Central Dust. And as mentioned earlier in my Picks column, Canadian John Lefebvre made a forceful and musically rich work of political and social commentary on his collection Psalngs, which is available for free download at www.psalngs.com.

There were also some individual tracks that hit the right note. Roots rockers The Bottle Rockets lamented the fate of the regular American guy who went off to the current wars with “The Kid Next Door” on the excellent Lean Forward album. I spotlighted in Picks the video clip of the old topical song “The Ballad of Martin Luther King” by the Nashville-based pop rock band Daddy, and its studio recording can be heard on their cool CD of music for the mature set For A Second Time. And Neil Young gave us his track for the financial crisis and the culture of greed that brought it about with “Cough Up The Bucks.”

This year saw the release of Amchitka, the 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs. The DVD/CD Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound recounts her lifelong commitment to folk music and political causes. And even if they aren’t political albums, folk veterans Ramblin Jack Elliot’s A Stranger Here and Tom Rush’s What I Know are notable offerings from both.

In the reissue department, the Nigerian Afrobeat rebel Fela’s full catalog of 45 albums will be released on CD and vinyl from now through 2011. The series starts with The Best Of The Black President, which compiles 13 of his best recordings, and its deluxe edition includes concert footage as well as an interview with Bill T. Jones, the director and choreographer of the new Broadway show FELA! that’s gotten good notices and looks like a hit — one sign of life for political music this year. For cool world music also check out the Cambodian pop-rock of Dengue Fever on the CD/DVD Sleepwalking Through Cambodia as well as all their releases.

The Woody Guthrie box set My Dusty Road is a superb collection that came out in 2009 from the man who all but invented the American topical song. Of course, for perfect holiday gift giving there’s The Beatles box set and the long-awaited remastered CD reissue of all their albums, as well as Neil Young’s The Archives Vol. 1 1963-1972.

Dylan’s Together Through Life is a worthy addition to his considerable canon, and the deluxe edition includes a disc with the “Friends & Neighbors” edition of his Theme Time Radio Hour show and a DVD interview with his first manager Roy Silver (ephemera perhaps, but for us Dylan followers still worth a viewing). And his Christmas in the Heart may be odd yet it’s also rather wonderful and genuinely heartfelt.

Country music leftist Steve Earle still holds the title for best agitprop song in recent memory with “The Revolution Starts Now,” and this year he saluted his old pal and mentor Townes Van Zandt with his tribute album Townes. And if you want country music that’s genuinely soulful and real (as opposed to the travesty most of it has become), Written In Chalk by Buddy & Julie Miller is a gem. And some of the top artists from the late 1960s, when politics and music were powerfully united, who made cool music of a country stripe this year were John Fogarty’s The Blue Ridge Rangers Ride Again and Electric Dirt by Levon Helm.

As for my most intent personal listening this year, the winner from 2009’s releases was Man Overboard by former Mott The Hoople front man Ian Hunter, which led me back to his just-as-great 2001 release Rant. Otherwise I was absorbed in rediscovering the three wonderful albums made with his band The Mescaleros by the late Joe Strummer of The Clash. Even if there’s not enough new great political music, let’s not forget that the past still offers treasures to be rediscovered and even heard for the first time.

And it’s not that some people aren’t at least trying. And the most ardent and dedicated artist who has made topical songs his cause celebre is Paul Hipp, whose 2008 disc Blog Of War deserves another plug. Hipp regularly posts videos of his politically pointed songs on The Huffington Post, YouTube and his website, and is well worth following. And my friend Sara Hickman sent me a nifty number she wrote about the nadir of the current political scene, “Palin By Comparison,” which puts the rogue in rouge up against Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller and other grand dames of good works and activism and shows just how much Palin pales. She hopes to have a video of it on her website soon.

The raw material is there and there are those ready to take up the political music cause. And I certainly don’t want to wish for times to grow tougher — which it appears they might — for music that addresses pressing issues to rise again and maybe even make a difference. But I sure hope that 12 months from now that my report will be more positive and fruitful than 2009’s rather slim and sad yield.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2010


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