Expressing political views through music is nothing new. You can find examples of it going back hundreds of years. But in this country you can pretty much start with Woody Guthrie. Every time I hear “This Land is Your Land” sung by some country artist who usually demonstrates extreme right wing views I have to wonder if he ever bothered to read the third or fourth verses of that great song? Likewise, whenever I play and sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” and I get to the part about “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can?” I can’t help but see an image in my mind of Lennon driving his Rolls Royce – or performing that very song on his white Steinway grand piano in his mansion in the idyllic English countryside. Please excuse my cynicism.
Woody Guthrie DID live the words of his songs. So did other folk singers with deeply held beliefs such as Pete Seeger and Oscar Brand. Their legacy was continued into the 1960s with the advent of “protest music.” But staying absolutely true to your beliefs and expressing them in music is not an easy thing. Bob Marley, whose message of universal love and acceptance tempered with the need for change lead to him taking a bullet that almost ended his all-too-brief life. On a slightly lesser plane, the Dixie Chicks were on the top of the country world until they expressed their opposition to the policies of George W. Bush and the ensuing outrage from their right-wing fans all but destroyed their careers.
Dylan is something else again. His early songs of protest are some of the most insightful, poignant and searing of any ever written but before long he stopped writing those types of songs. He basically said: here they are. Do with them what you will. But do not expect me to lead the charge. I have other places to go.
This amazed and even angered many people at the time but Bob couldn’t have cared less. You have to respect that.
But on a personal level as players of music on a much smaller scale, what value do politically charged songs really have? My opinion is that if they make you feel good to play them, fine. Don’t expect to change anyone’s mind. The biggest danger is a “protest song” becoming a thinly veiled ego statement: If you are as smart as me, you will agree with what I’m singing. If not, you’re just not well informed, or dumb, or both.
The bottom line may be that there is a basic human need to let out ALL our emotions, and deeply held political beliefs are a very emotional thing. Some performers and writers of songs just can’t help themselves. Like so many other emotions they don’t know any other way to express those emotions in a way that is both unmistakable and immediate. Some people care about the reaction they get from that expression, some really don’t care at all.
Today is the day after the anniversary of the most tragic event in modern American history. I will never forget the concert that was televised soon after featuring the New York Philharmonic playing Barber’s Adagio for Strings, perhaps the most heart-rending piece of music ever written, in honor of the lives lost. The effect was life-changing, as was the terrible event it framed. On a deeper level, I have to believe that hearing that music helped people search into their hearts to begin to find some meaning in what had occurred. And that is the ultimate and perfect effect of political music.
Peace & good music,