By Joan Logghe
Issue 128 - January/February 2005
Hungry for politically charged music? Listen up to a new generation of protest songs.
By Jack Kolkmeyer
It was really two songs that got me started thinking about the power of peace music. First was the plaintive wail of Bob Dylan in his 1964 classic, “The Times They Are A-Changin’. ” The second, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” was equally incisive, but from a different notch on the radio dial, and a different time. In 1971 we had just gone through unbounded civil disturbances. We were still in Vietnam, and many of us were locked in a meandering search for our youthful identities. This poignant song, sung by a remarkably different human being, touched us all, black, white, or indifferent.
Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today . . .
Listening again to both songs recently led me on a journey back through some of my most vivid memories about peace, love, and protest music, and caused me to consider who might be the minstrel prophets of our present global consternation.
But before I talk about the present and the future of “flower power” music, let’s take a brief look back at some of the more thought-provoking moments of this musical genre. Two themes intertwine: music about wartime situations and songs about civil strife.
The most striking starting point might be chanteuse Billie Holiday’s late-1930s classic, “Strange Fruit.” Jazz critic Leonard Feather once referred to the song as “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.” DJ and mixmaster Tricky recently remixed the song for the first Verve Remixed compilation (Verve 314 589 606-2). In this series, classics from Verve Records’ vaults are reworked in modern musical contexts. Including “Strange Fruit” in this 2002 release could not have been more fittingly reflective.
Written by the Jewish communist poet Abel Meeropol, whose pen name was Lewis Allan, “Strange Fruit” is about the lynching of two black men in the American South. The words are metaphoric and pointed:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood
at the root
Black bodies swinging in the
Strange fruit hanging from the
While the song was initially attacked by the press and recording-industry executives, it is interesting, and perhaps fitting, that Lady Day first performed it at the Café Society nightclub, one of the first integrated nightclubs in New York City. It is also fitting that she chose such an allegorical, almost mystical way to present such a brutal act.
As it turned out, much of the peace and protest music of the 1960s was presented in a similar manner. The songs of almost all the bards of the ’60s—Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and most significant Bob Dylan—are lyrical, metaphorical journeys into a realm of questions about societal choices. Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” is a pointed example:
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are
Now wait a minute. Is that song about the early 1960s or the new millennium?
The year 1970 turned a different musical corner. Songs of protest, especially about war and the social order, took a more direct point of view, moving from folk songs to dance tunes. The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” a funky rave against war, unemployment, and racial inequality, is almost eerie in its interpretation of a government unwilling to listen to the voices of ordinary people. This particular genre culminated with Edwin Starr’s 1970 anthem “War.”
Protest music took on a different flavor as the 1970s unfolded. It was called reggae, and its principal international songster, Bob Marley, wasted little time in getting to the political point. His music, from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s, was serious sociopolitical groove thinking. Such songs as “No Woman No Cry,” “One Love,” and “Exodus” have all become musical benchmarks for those interested in social and political evolution.
An entire genre of social protest music was absent from most mainstream American radio throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and that was rap music. Public Enemy’s 1990 masterpiece, Fear of a Black Planet, said it: America is still locked in a black-and-white interpretation of freedom.
By the end of the ’90s, other provocative voices were putting it another way, as Ani DiFranco did in “Pixie,” from 1998’s Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe RBRO 12-D):
Maybe you don’t like your job
Maybe you don’t get enough sleep
Well, nobody likes their job
Nobody gets enough sleep
Maybe you just had
The worst day of your life
But, you know, there’s no escape
And there’s no excuse
So just suck it up and be nice.
But many of these voices of protest raising concern about social, racial, and religious disorder are not easily found in the mainstream media, and as we turned the bend on the new millennium and faced international terrorism on our own turf with the attacks of 9/11, the thought continued: Where have all the flowers gone? Who are the voices of this new time, so racked with fear, paranoia, and despair? My hopes were raised when I listened to singer-songwriter John Gorka sing “War makes war, it won’t bring peace / it just makes war without peace,” on his latest album, Old Futures Gone (Red House RHR-CD-165).
In this meander through the flower garden, here are a few small but significant fragrances.
Iraqi Music in a Time of War:
Live Concert in New York City, April 5, 2003 (Voxlox 103)
In this time of chaotic confrontation with the nation of Iraq, I was curious to know if music from that country might reflect any opinions about peace and provocation. I was delighted to find out that it does indeed, and that a recording was available right here in my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. A live Santa Fe concert afforded an opportunity to hear this beautiful music firsthand.
Rahim AlHaj is from Baghdad and plays the oud, an ancient 12-stringed instrument that has accompanied Middle Eastern bards and poets for centuries. Iraqi Music in a Time of War, recorded live in New York City by Santa Fe ethnomusicologist Steven Feld, includes both music and introductory comments by AlHaj.
In the liner notes to the project, AlHaj says that “music joins people in their souls, and when this connection happens, peace, love and compassion can fill the hands of humanity.” The album has no vocals, but AlHaj’s introductions to the compositions infuse them with images that might otherwise be overlooked. His skillful playing of the oud transports the listener into specific realms, which at first seem exotic but soon embody emotions that are common to us all. AlHaj says that he “wanted to communicate to [his] audience [his] experience of war, the pain and the misery one feels in a hopeless situation where chaos reigns and loved ones die.”
“The Second Baghdad” tells of the death and rebirth of the legendary city in the conflagrations of the recent Gulf Wars. AlHaj says that he fears there might be a “Third Baghdad.” His playing conveys not only the urgency of that thought but also the idea that Baghdad is an ancient place, a city that has changed endless times but that is and was a cradle of the civilization in which we are still rocked. In his music, his hope that that will remain true becomes overwhelming.
AlHaj’s poetic side emerges in “Dance of the Palms,” a reflection on the enormous numbers of trees that have been destroyed in the wars. When a moment of peacefulness finally emerged, he says, he noticed the palm trees dancing; he re-creates this moment in swaying, mirthful, but reflective music.
Iraqi Music in a Time of War is not without humor. As AlHaj begins to talk about “Iraqi Faces,” he tells of his best friend sending him a brand-new oud from Iraq. Imagine the concern of local authorities when a large box arrives in New York from Baghdad, and his attempts to explain that it’s just a musical instrument. In AlHaj’s hands, the oud is not only a musical instrument, it is an instrument of mass instruction.
Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice
Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century
(Silver Wave SD 914)
Joy Harjo is a Muskogee poet and musician from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her books of poems, from She Had Some Horses to The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, have been critically acclaimed around the world and eventually formed the basis for her musical compositions.
Harjo learned to play the soprano saxophone and fell in with a group of wonderfully talented musicians known as Poetic Justice. This evocative recording is their debut album. Harjo’s words and Native American sentiments are set to reggae rhythms that touch hearts and minds regardless of political boundaries.
Harjo is that rare artist who can title a song “The Real Revolution Is Love” and actually mean it: “This is not a foreign country but the land of our dreams.” Her songs are verbal paintings, nurtured by deep roots that prod us in rhythmic ruminations to look deeper into our own interpretations of present and future possibility. Her poetic interpretations of peace and protest seem to have everything to do with the importance of seeing the world in all its mysterious ways, in a manner that makes sense to the listener as an individual, according to how he or she has been placed on this glorious planet.
If these words can do anything
I say bless this house
Speak Your Peace
(Mr. Bongo MRBCD23)
Terry Callier grew up in the same neighborhood as Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, the original Impressions. There must have been a special humanistic flame burning in Northside Chicago that ignited such a poetic fire in the souls of these musicians. Like Mayfield and Butler, Callier has been around since the late 1950s, but he never achieved the popular fame the Impressions did—until now. Long known in cult circles as a unique singer-songwriter whose first recording project, made in 1962, was lost in the Mexican desert a year before it was to be released, Callier is just now emerging as a literal voice from the wilderness.
Even in his earlier years, Callier’s music had magic in it. He was not just a straight-ahead, three-chord folkie, but he created a harmonic fusion of folk, jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul stylings. He has recently been rediscovered by the European new-music set, and his works are now being restyled into nightclub classics. What sets them apart from mere dance vamps are their meanings and intentions.
Speak Your Peace, Callier’s latest CD, ranges from the dark and penetrating dream sequence “Darker Than a Shadow,” which challenges us to consider “what type insanity is this, dancing on a precipice,” to the challenge of “Got to Get It All Straightened Out”:
We are dreamers
We need a light to banish the night away
Heaven help us to see that we can be free
To stand in the light of day
This may not be the tangled-up-in-blue imagery of Bob Dylan, but coming from the deep soul of Terry Callier, it is a similar reminder that we need to think about where we’re going.
Una Sangre One Blood
Finally—at least for now—there is Lila Downs, a talented Mexican American singer who is beginning to reach a larger mainstream audience. Her words are not about “Stop the war” or “Down with so-and-so,” but are subtle proddings of the soul that, like Joy Harjo’s, emanate from a special cultural place—in this case, Oaxaca—and expand into universal understandings. Like Bob Marley’s “One Love,” Downs’s “One Blood” is an eclectic grouping of cultural images that remind us that instead of continuing to find ourselves divided, we can be together. She reminds us that as one blood, we are also one rhythm: the rhythm of humanity.
Bailamos todos al ritmo
Al ritmo de humanidad
(Let’s all dance to the rhythm
The rhythm of humanity)
Where have all the flowers gone? If we put our ears to the heart of the earth and open our minds to voices and inclinations different from our own, we will hear these new flowers blowing in the winds of change. They resonate all the way from the tortured tribulations of Billie Holiday to the immense possibility of Lila Downs.
I’m off now to listen to a brand-new release from rocker Steve Earle, The Revolution Starts . . . Now. I still wonder if it will.
Jack Kolkmeyer is an urban and regional planner and writer who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his partner, Alexandra, their two sons, Nick and Sonny, and their faithful service dog, Kayla. Since 1984, Jack has been the host and producer of Brave New World, currently on KBAC 98.1, Radio Free Santa Fe.