I’ve noticed that Colin often kicks off these Saturday TV Party Tonight! Rabbit Holes with the exhortation to “forget politics” and listen to some music. But I’m having a difficult time shaking politics from my mind lately and it got me thinking about some powerful music that may not even exist if the music itself were not a political statement.
My daughter Caitlin and I were at Nelsonville Music Festival a couple of years ago and experienced watching Mavis Staples perform as we waited for the Flaming Lips to take the stage. Caitlin asked me who Mavis was and I was able to offer only the briefest sketch of the Staple Singers and their involvement with civil rights before consulting Google to fill in the gaps. Martin Luther King attended a Staple Singers concert in 1963 and, after the group met with him backstage, they were inspired to dedicate all of their songwriting efforts to the civil rights movement for the next several years.
I dive down the rabbit hole and listen to "Freedom's Highway," about the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches, "Washington We're Watching You," "Long Walk to D.C." and "Why Am I Treated So Bad," in honor of the Little Rock Nine.
Mavis Staples and Bob Dylan were an item for seven years until she declined his offer of marriage. Dylan, of course, more than held his own in the protest music arena, with songs against the Cold War, the Vietnam War and racial injustice. I start with the venerable “Blowin’ in the Wind” (“How many times can a cannonball fly / before they're forever banned?“) and then listen to his songs telling the story of true events, “Oxford Town,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Hurricane,” but framed in a way that the newspapers of the time were not framing them – exposing the underlying racism and social injustice. I find an intense 1972 cover of “Oxford Town” by Richie Havens, a Steve Allen Show performance of “Hattie Carroll” in February 1964 following an insanely uncomfortable interview of Dylan by Allen, and a 1975 version of “Hurricane” with Emmylou Harris on background vocals:
While lyrically Dylan was an amazing poet (and this has been officially confirmed now that the Swedish Academy awarded him last year’s Nobel Prize for literature), the political protest song that packs the most powerful lyrical punch in my view is Neil Young’s “Ohio,” written in reaction to the May 4, 1970 killing of 4 and shooting of 12 other students at Kent State by the National Guard. The students had gathered to protest President Nixon’s announcement of the invasion of Cambodia and expansion of the Vietnam War. Neil uses sparse prose, “soldiers are cutting us down” over a relentless beat to drive home that it is time to stop the madness and asks, “what if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?” In that one chilling question I think he cuts to the heart of it all – what if you knew her? What if you were not behind those gas masks and riot gear so that you were removed from, and thus dehumanized, those students? I am deep down this depressing rabbit hole and play different versions of the song, but share a raw, live version from Toronto in 1971.
But for all the underlying darkness that spurs their creation, the upside of protests songs is they drive positive change. “Ohio” may have been shunned by popular radio but it got airplay from underground FM stations and became an anthem for the anti-war effort, helping to lead to the withdrawal from Vietnam.
I was too young to protest Vietnam, but I got my chance to see a protest song in action when I was in college. In 1986, I was President of the Boston University chapter of Amnesty International. On the morning of November 17th, Amnesty joined eighteen other campus groups to stage a walk out of classes in protest of BU’s decision to award Chief Buthelezi, a political rival of then jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela, an honorary law degree. Nearly 500 of us crowded onto Marsh Plaza to demand that BU divest of its investments in companies doing business with the apartheid-supporting government of South Africa. We awarded a mock honorary degree to Mandela and marched down Commonwealth Avenue singing the “Free Nelson Mandela” song and chanting “Amandla … Ngawethu.”
I search for Little Steven’s “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” and, as I watch, I take heart in the fact that less than four years later, Mandela was free and Boston was one of the first cities in the US to divest of investments in South Africa, which economic pressure led to the dismantling of apartheid.
I think about the protests that have taken place over the past few weeks and the fact that more citizens seem engaged in our democratic process than in any period during my adulthood. News reports have described the “tsunami” of calls that have flooded legislators’ offices since Trump took office, jamming phone lines for hours and days at a time.
I turn next to some new Run the Jewels. While my music tastes are fairly eclectic, rap and country are usually where I hit my limits. But Killer Mike cuts to the heart of issues in an unsettling way. If you are up for the challenge, watch “Reagan” (but know that he was already dead, this was not inciting). This is about using strong imagery to express protest. It is freedom of expression through music and it definitely pushes buttons. I find a recent Run the Jewels Tiny Desk Concert, which ends (starting at 8:10) with the song “A Report to The Shareholders” (“You talk clean and bomb hospitals / So I speak with the foulest mouth possible“). Click here to listen
Finally, I find videos of the protest song “Quiet” by the artist who goes by MILCK and Fiona Apple's "Tiny Hands" that went viral at the recent post-election Women’s Marches. IMHO, it is a good thing that people are not quiet and complacent in a Democracy and that protest music is not just a relic of the ‘60s. I look forward to the protest music that is sure to flourish as we enter month two of this administration and artists continue to offer resistance through song. #DissentisPatriotic