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Tradition, Continuity and Innovation in Popular American Protest Song

It is easy to be anti-American right now. Or rather, in certain quarters, anti-Americanism is rife. Upon introduction to any Yank on an overseas sabbatical, in locations as diverse as Ligurian mountain villages, Keralan seaside resorts, or Baltic weekend city-break destinations, it can seem that the only good Americans are the ones who are aware of the disdain in which they are held by most Europeans, and who consequently have the courtesy to apologise self-deprecatingly for their nationality the moment you meet them, or who at least have enough savvy to pretend to be Canadian instead. That increasingly beleaguered minority, the liberal Americans, while perhaps not as much of a minority as you might think, are essentially nervous animals in these times. Depending on your political views, and your reading of current international relations, this blanket attitude to denizens of the Land of the Free is either perfectly comprehensible and justified, or completely over-the-top and knee-jerk.

What I would like to reiterate in this piece is a fact that will be blindingly obvious to some, but which is frequently sidelined in contemporary socio-cultural discourse: to put it country-simple, there has always been another America, a million miles removed from the blue-rinse set, from the corporate values claque, from the haves and have-mores who place their trust in a blunt-speaking, plain-dealing, down-home guy like George Bush Jr. to protect and expand their interests, at the expense of everyone else’s. Just as in the ’60s there was a potent counter-cultural underground movement, which contributed in no small part to the U.S. ending its unpopular involvement in an overseas war, so now also there exist artists, writers and musicians who espouse the same radical, freewheeling spirit, which stretches back at least as far as the backwoods country saloons and big city jazz clubs frequented by the Beat generation, the lonesome roads and crooked highways travelled by Kerouac and Kesey, and then further back to the values explored in Emerson’s Essays and Thoreau’s Walden experiment in communal living, and perhaps even all the way back to the founding of the nation itself, and who provide a focus for an audience similarly disgusted by its country’s foreign policy. In many ways, they represent a vindication of that ’60s utopian exuberance, informed as they are by the same ideals which fed the hopes of a previous generation.




Of course, it has become commonplace to argue that through a conflux of the arch knowingness of the sensibility which has come to be labelled postmodern, and the commodification brought about by increased concentration of media control, that such an overflowing outpouring was a never-to-be-repeated one-off cultural moment, the conditions necessary for a reprise of which simply do not obtain these days. Things were always purer in a prelapsarian past, and we are condemned (out of our own mouths) to inhabit today’s paler, fallen world.

But such a resignedly pessimist view is not only counterproductive in the practical sphere, but may well be erroneous in the theoretical one, since it wrongheadedly fails to take all the circumstances into consideration. True, as with book publishers, so also with recording companies: through a complex chain of mergers, acquisitions, takeovers and subsidiaries, there are really only three or four of them in the world right now, with enough resources to have access to all the developed global markets. Signings are ultimately made by the bean-counters rather than the editors or producers, with an eye to sales rather than aesthetics. The philistines are in charge. This is why so much contemporary literary and musical production, the stuff that winds up on the airwaves and in the high street shops, is – not to put a tooth in it – crap.

But this analysis does not take into account how independent record companies have thrived over the past twenty years, providing a leg-up and an outlet for solo artists and bands that are doing something out of the ordinary. Indeed, being signed to one has become almost a rite of passage for musicians operating at an angle to the mainstream. In many ways, they have no choice but to go indy. Back in the ’60s, not much was expected, either artistically or commercially, from a band’s debut album. They might be getting good by around their third offering, but weren’t really going to deliver until about their fifth. Nowadays, it is often the case that a band’s first album is brilliant, its second alright, and its third dire. Only indy labels give artists the time they need to develop, since they are prepared to nurture talent in a way the majors never do. Sure, you may have to hunt around and keep your ear to the ground a bit more to unearth the offbeat indy stuff that might interest you, but that is all part and parcel of being an informed fan, keeping up with your hobby. Frequently, bands graduate from an indy to a major, when they have secured a sufficient fanbase to be able to call the shots, and not be pushed around by a faceless conglomerate. The role call of American alt.rock or artists, who either started their careers on indy labels, or are still on them – not to mention those who self-finance their own recordings and sell them at gigs – is long, worthy and impressive: Uncle Tupelo, Yo La Tengo, Elliott Smith, Low, Will Oldham, Sparklehorse, Wilco, to name a very few.

The indy ethic would appear to be catching on in publishing too, with more small presses springing up in the last couple of years than has occurred in a generation. Nor can the democratising role of the internet be ignored in this phenomenon. It is now easier than ever to distribute books and music all over the world, without having to go through the usual channels and deal with the standard outlets, simply by selling online. Indeed, major record companies are now apoplectic at the thought of thus having control wrenched from their grasp. The Arctic Monkeys were a word-of-mouth, MySpace MP3 download success before they ever had a CD in the shops. Finally, on a more abstract level, is not every lurch to the right followed, pendulum-like, by an equal and opposite swing to the left? If contemporary Ireland is roughly analogous to ’50s America, in terms of rapid industrial expansion and massively increased prosperity, aren’t all those kids now stuck in the crèches just ripe for rebelling against their parents’ materialistic values, a la ’60s American flower children, in about ten or fifteen years time, safe in the knowledge that they can always fall back on their trust funds and inheritances, should they tire of the rock’n’roll (or whatever it’ll be called then) lifestyle.

But where, exactly, is this groundswell of dissent located in American popular music, past and present? And how has one generation inspired its successor, forming an unbroken chain of influence continuing from the ’30s to the ’60s to the present? And has rock’n’roll ever actually helped to change anything politically – like ending the Vietnam War – much less changed the world?

From here on in (in a survey inevitably constrained by available space), I’d like to concentrate on two established figures in the rock pantheon, who have been around since the ’60s: Bob Dylan and Neil Young; then discuss more truncatedly two more who rose to prominence in the ’70s: Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith; and finish by looking at an outfit who, although they have been on the go in various incarnations for over twenty years, have only attained big time critical adulation and commercial success in the last six: The Flaming Lips.

If, as Billy Bragg has written, Woody Guthrie was the first alternative musician, out there telling the ’30s Dustbowl and Depression era like it was while the masses were in thrall to the escapism of Hollywood musicals and the Tin Pan Alley cats, then Bob Dylan learned a lot from him, just as he learned from Hank Williams (particularly in the latter’s Luke the Drifter persona), and from bluesmen like Sleepy John Estes, Jesse Fuller and Blind Willie McTell. But he did absorb these formative influences from folk, country and blues music, and take them to places no one else had ever gone before, not merely tearing up the rule book, but changing the whole game. This process is chronicled in Dylan’s thoroughly absorbing 2004 volume of imagistic autobiography, Chronicles; and, to a lesser extent, in last year’s excellent Martin Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home.

But, while Dylan is perhaps most acclaimed today for the genre-busting mid-’60s trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and the naked intensity of 1974’s finest hour, Blood on the Tracks, it can easily be overlooked that he started his public professional life as a protest singer, idolised by the folksy set, and given the imprimatur of that genre’s elder statesman, Pete Seeger. This period reached its apogee with his third album, The Times They Are A Changin’, although its predecessor Freewheeling’ and its successor Another Side also contained songs of direct political comment, although leavened with the interiority of more personally emotional material. But even The Times showcases the break-up song, ‘One Too Many Mornings’, and anyone who thinks that the near-hillbilly folk-punk roughness of The Times socially concerned songs have a short shelf-life beyond the political ferment which inspired them should check out The Neville Brothers’ sublime cover versions of ‘With God On Our Side’ and ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ on their 1989 offering, Yellow Moon. With Dylan, the political has always been personal (even if the opposite only sometimes holds true). If Dylan’s radical roots as an angry young man are sometimes neglected these days, this is not only because it was eclipsed by the aesthetically revolutionary impact of what followed, but also because he has distanced himself from it, claiming that, while he is proud of the songs, he never went looking for the ‘Spokesman for a Generation’ tag, and that it had nothing to do with him. Still, the consternation and sense of betrayal felt by his early audience when he moved on to pastures new speaks for how much it meant to people back then, even if he never deliberately provoked it. We’ve all heard the stories about Pete Seeger cutting the electricity cable when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and the cries of ‘Judas’ that were heard during the following year’s British tour with The Hawks (latterly renamed The Band). Today, Dylan again pleads bafflement at the brouhaha, opining, ‘Country music’s electric.’ Besides which, electric rock’n’roll music can certainly be protest music too, and Dylan has had several subsequent forays into social comment, with songs such as ‘George Jackson’ (1971) and ‘Hurricane’ (1975). It will be interesting to hear how his new album, Modern Times, due for release at the end of July, balances this age old, though often dubious, aesthetics/politics dichotomy.

Neil Young’s moral universe has always been more elementally black and white than Dylan’s, sometimes to the point of unsubtlety, yet that doesn’t stop him citing both Dylan and Phil Ochs (the ’60s protest singer par excellence, who preferred the term ‘topical singer’, styling himself a ‘singing journalist’) as inspirations in the liner notes to his recently released anti-Bush tirade, Living With War. Indeed one song from the album, ‘Flags of Freedom’, contains lyrical references to ‘…blowin’ in the wind’ and ‘Listenin’ to Bob Dylan in 1963’, while the melody line of its chorus directly echoes that of ‘Chimes of Freedom’.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Young’s decision to wade into the contemporary political arena is that he is not a dial-a-quote radical. This is the man, after all, who alienated some long-time fans by his support of Reagan in the ’80s, judging that the Acting President had given Americans back pride in themselves. Young has also taken his time to come out publicly against the invasion of Iraq in his work, claiming that he was waiting for a younger singer to do it. Admirable though this reasoning may be, it does display his ignorance of recent anti-government albums and statements by Greenday, The Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam, among others. Then there was the bellicose nationalism of ‘Let’s Roll’ from 2001’s underwhelming Are You Passionate?, written in praise of the gung-ho spirit of a passenger on one of the 9/11 planes. But Bush and his administration have since succeeded in squandering much of the goodwill the rest of the world felt towards America then; and maybe Young, though lacerating in his criticism of the current regime in individual songs, has learned from Dylan’s more ambiguous approach. He is not here advocating anarchy or revolution, but the kind of down-home domestic values espoused on a song like ‘Families’. The democratic process can still work in Young’s world, as the lines, Yeah we’ve got our election/But corruption has a chance/We got to have a clean win/To regain confidence from ‘Lookin’ For A Leader’ demonstrate. ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ does not advocate getting rid of revealed religion, but rather, Let’s impeach the President for hijacking/Our religion and using it to get elected. In general, the message is America is beautiful/But she has an ugly side, again from ‘Lookin’ For A Leader’. He even closes the album with a hundred-voice choir rendition of ‘America The Beautiful’, putting one in mind of the last scene of Michael Cimino’s Vietnam movie, The Deerhunter, where the war’s survivors in the small industrial heartland town of Clairton, Pennsylvania start singing a chastened, if not quite defeated, version of ‘God Bless America’ at the funeral of one of their own. So ends what has instantly come to be regarded as Young’s best rock (if not folk) album since 1990’s Ragged Glory, and even if it does not feature one cut as individually strong as Young’s response to the shooting dead by soldiers of four student anti-war protesters at Kent State University, 1970’s ‘Ohio’, it is still, collectively, a powerful batch of songs in the best tradition of American protest music.

Bruce Springsteen is an artist who made his name through giving voice to the many indignities and few moments of transcendence which are the staple experience of blue collar life in America. His many paeans to the possibility of escape offer by the road, and his dissections of how America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict impacted on working class families and communities in the States, have even sometimes verged into self-parody. He has seen his rabble-rousing, clarion call to the futility of that war for the American conscripts who fought in it, the anthemic ‘Born in the USA’, appropriated by Republican Presidential candidates, who clearly hadn’t bothered to listen to all the lyrics.

In 1997 Springsteen recorded ‘We Shall Overcome’ for Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger. In the liner notes to this year’s acclaimed The Seeger Sessions, he writes: ‘Growing up a rock’n’roll kid I didn’t know a lot about Pete’s music or the depth of his influence. So I headed to the record store and came back with an armful of Pete Seeger records. Over the next few days of listening, the wealth of songs, their richness and power changed what I thought I knew about “folk music”.’ Despite being a Johnny-Come-Lately to the folk tradition, on The Seeger Sessions he manages to dig back into this rich vein of influence in homage to one of its embodied custodians, in a more oblique, but no less resonant, reaction to the prevailing American scene as Young’s.

In a recent public interview in Sligo, Springsteen’s fellow New Jerseyite, Patti Smith, spoke of how one of the things she valued about being an American artist was the freedom to be a political activist in her work, no matter what difficulties she might encounter through being outspoken. Never a Year Zero new waver, wanting to disavow everything that went before her time, Smith has written of the liberating effect of hearing Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ on a jukebox, as a sixteen-year-old on her way home from school in her hometown, and spoken of the lasting impression left by meeting Jimi Hendrix shortly before he died. Smith also has a direct link with the furthest reaches of ’60s rock’n’roll radicalism, through her now deceased, much-loved husband and father of her children, Fred Smith, guitarist with Detroit’s legendary MC5, the house band of the White Panther Party, an insurrectionist political faction espousing ‘…total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock & roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.’

So it is only to be expected that the woman with such a strong countercultural pedigree, who once sang ‘People Have the Power’ (1988), should be among the most vocal in her intelligent and trenchant criticism of the present American regime. Even before the current conflagration, she was exploring themes of American use and misuse of power, on albums like Gung Ho (2000), with the song ‘New Party’ exhorting a shift towards a new politics, and the title track a sympathetic portrayal of a young Vietnamese boy growing up during the American occupation. But it is with 2004’s trampin’ that she specifically confronts the consequences of contemporary American foreign policy. For while it has tracks that deal generally with issues of military might and passive resistance, like ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, it is the magnificent long collage jam ‘Radio Baghdad’ that offers the lyrics, Suffer not your neighbours’ affliction/Suffer not your neighbours’ paralysis/But extend your hand, praising Baghdad as, a perfect circle, centre of the world, and, city of scholars, culminating in the enraged chant of, They’re robbing the cradle of civilisation. This is politically-charged rock’n’roll done as well as it can be by anybody, and it is difficult to see what more it could do.

The Flaming Lips are perhaps the first band in the history of rock to combine successfully elements from punk with those from progressive rock, as though the new wavers of the late ’70s have foresworn amphetamine sulphate and started taking LSD instead. They also manage to fuse ideas drawn from psychedelia with tonalities from funk and soul. It’s as though there’s room for The Sex Pistols and Pink Floyd, The 13th Floor Elevators and The Isley Brothers, all on the same record. The greater wonder is that it does not come across as some ghastly Frankenstein’s monster, but is melded into a cohesively innovative whole. They are capacious in their appreciation of the popular music of previous eras, and eclectic in their borrowings, in the same way that Captain Beefheart, himself clearly an influence on The Lips’ best early album, In a Priest Driven Ambulance (1990), was. Their last three albums, The Soft Bulletin (1999), Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (2002), and the recently-released At War With The Mystics, represent a sustained period of creative excellence over three records certainly not heard in American music since Neil Young’s mid-’70s visceral dissection of how the hippie dream went wrong, the so-called ‘Doom trilogy’ of Time Fades Away (1973), On The Beach (1974), and Tonight’s The Night (1975), and perhaps not even since Dylan’s above-mentioned mid-’60s trilogy.

With their cosmic sci-fi leanings, and the urgency of their concern with the duality of love and death, The Flaming Lips, together with kissin’ cousins Mercury Rev, are latter-day hippies, older, wiser and more sussed than their naïve predecessors. They succinctly exemplify my argument for the existence of a distinct lineage in American music from the ’60s to the present. For if Mercury Rev, with whom The Lips formerly shared guitarist Jonathan Donahue, and who now work with the same producer in Rev’s bassist Dave Friedman (perhaps the premier knob-twiddler de nos jours, providing his services to a veritable role call of the more successful alternative bands), are a contemporary incarnation of Dylan’s old backing band The Band, getting their heads together and communing with nature in upstate New York (the circumstances surrounding the making of The Band’s debut Music From Big Pink (1968) in Woodstock and Rev’s most recent The Secret Migration (2005) certainly invite comparison, not to mention the fact that both Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band guested on The Rev’s breakthrough 1998 album, Deserters’ Songs), then surely it is not fanciful to suggest that The Lips, although born, bred and still based in Oklahoma City, represent a current rebirthing of the more tripped-out, West Coast, Haight-Ashbury wing of the hippie movement, as personified by bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead.

But how might they be said to be in any way political? Sceptics could certainly argue, with some justification, that anyone who is obsessed with the cartoon world of aliens, superheroes, and space and time travel, like Lips’ chief lyricist Wayne Coyne, and who has the audacity to put out an album with a title featuring a manga heroine fighting evil pink robots, clearly can’t have a very firm grip on everyday reality, and that his feet must surely be a long way from the ground. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, since The Lips are the most hands-on and user-friendly of contemporary bands, still largely setting up their own stage props and equipment when touring, for example. It is with their last release, At War With The Mystics, that they confront the prevailing situation in America. Songs like ‘Haven’t Got a Clue’ and ‘The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat)’, while they would be applicable to any tyrannical dictatorship, in the present climate invite a direct identification with Bush and his cohorts, the former featuring lines like, You haven’t got a clue/and you don’t know what to do/You used your money and your friends/To try and trick me…, the latter, Time after time those fanatical minds/Try to rule all the world/Telling us all it’s them who’s in charge of it all. Yet despite the directness of these sentiments, and the seeming simplicity of Coyne’s world view in general, this is a record which – like the most potent artistic responses to the political world – does not hit the listener over the head and bludgeon the audience to a pulp with ideology. ‘The Yeah, Yeah, Yeah Song’ questions whether anyone’s behaviour would be above reproach if they were given absolute power, while ‘Free Radicals’ neatly satirises extremists of whatever hue.

What The Lips do is to encourage resistance through rapture, opposition via wonderment. They are fully aware of the dark side of life and its lure, but rather than embracing it like a Beckett or a Morrissey, a Joy Division or a Radiohead, they want to posit the idea that while there is no end to human greed, suffering, misery and evil, there is equally no end to human love with which to counter it. Beside the black void there is an eternal Yes. And while such an attitude may seem at best foolishly naïve and at worst self-servingly hedonistic, the worst excesses of hippiedom all over again dressed up in fashionable new clothes, it isn’t: because these guys have learned from their predecessors and, in the words of one of their acknowledged influences, The Who, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. If the recordings don’t convince you, go and see one of their uplifting and cathartic live shows.

What all of the above artists (with the possible but debatable exception of The Lips) have in common, ironically, is that although they are fiercely opposed to the current regime and its works, they are all, in their own ways, patriotic, still holding out hope that America can be put right, through the actions of ordinary, decent American citizens.

As for the large question of how practically productive any artistic engagement through social comment can be, while poetry may, as W.H Auden had it, make nothing happen, perhaps the arts can contribute to that hoary old ’60s concept of consciousness raising. Rather than art being contaminated by political concerns, resulting in bad art and worse politics, maybe it functions best in a trickle-down fashion, from year to year and generation to generation. Lou Reed has rationalised his love of rock’n’roll in terms of knowing that, on a personal level, it can change the direct of your life, as it did his; but it was Bruce Springsteen who, when instigating the Chords for Change tour in support of the Democratic Party before the last American Presidential election, spoke of how he knew music could change people’s minds, because he’d seen it happen before, in relation to the Vietnam War. Steve Earle has echoed similar sentiments, in concert, declaring, “I was around the first time, and I’ve seen music help to end one war. I know it can make a difference.” So perhaps it was not for nothing that Country Joe and The Fish sang, Be the first kid on your block/To get sent home in a box at Woodstock, or that Hendrix mangled ‘The Star Spangle Banner’ into submission through layers of distortion, thus purging it of its associations with a drum-beating, flag-waving, cocky imperialism, and reinventing it as an expression of betrayal felt by already disenfranchised inner city ghetto black kids, who unwittingly found themselves ‘in country’.

There are omissions in this article. It would have been interesting to include some discussion as to why it is that Canadians have had such a central influence on the development of American music: Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are both native Canadians who have made their homes in the States, while four of the five members of The Band, who extensively mined the mythology of the old Civil War Deep South to arrive at their sound and ethos, were Canada-born. Also, any article about anti-establishment music in America that makes no reference to black music in the shape of rap and hip hop is in sore need of extension. This lacuna is further accentuated by focusing solely on the international repercussions of the Bush administration’s policies, at the expense of highlighting the internal problems it has caused, for example the lack of foresight in environmental planning, the scant preparation for and tardy response to Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans, a clear demonstration that within the US the white underclass and the black population are just as expendable as Iraqi civilians (presumably because they don’t vote), and a total insult to the city’s rich musical melting pot heritage, which encompasses blues, jazz, Cajun, zydeco and rock.

But these are other articles, for other times, or maybe even for a book. As it is, I hope I have pointed up the congruence through the decades between popular resistance and popular music in America, and helped to put to rest the internal oppositions that have existed and sometimes marred fruitful cooperation, like those between folk and rock in the ’60s, or between hippies and punks in the ’70s, thus overcoming both genre and generational prejudices. As that man who has managed to combine an almost schizophrenic musical output in his long career between pastoral folk and hard rock, and who now in his 60s is dubbed The Godfather of Grunge, Neil Young, has shouted on stage from a maelstrom of Crazy Horse feedback: ‘It’s all one song.’

First published in The Journal of Music in Ireland, September/October 2006












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