By Greg Quill Entertainment Reporter
Sometime in the late 1960s, Pete Seeger — in his prime with just a banjo and a 12-string guitar — stepped up to a single microphone on the concert stage of the Sydney Town Hall in Australia, and started singing.
One after another, the simple yet profoundly affecting songs that moved a generation — a couple of generations, actually — poured forth like some kind of healing sacrament.
“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” “Turn, Turn, Turn.” “We Shall Not Be Moved.” “Amazing Grace.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Little Boxes.” “Guantanamera.” “If I Had a Hammer.” “Joe Hill.” “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy.” “Bring ‘Em Home.” “Irene Goodnight.” The hymns filled the 3,000-seat auditorium.
Audience voices raised in unison, in harmony, in joyful dissonance, accompanied every one, with Seeger’s energetic encouragement. This was the soundtrack of an era, accompanied with his musical contemporaries Joan Baez, Bob Dylan.
Two hours later, the exhausted but jubilant folk singer made his final exit, waving his instruments above his head. The crowd dispersed into the warm night, still roaring out the songs we were convinced could and would make the world a better place. Maybe they did. For a while.
The protests accompanying this weekend’s G20 summit in Toronto might be remembered for their noise and fury, but probably not for songs.
Protest songs — at least the kind that galvanized thousands at a time during the labour struggles of the 1920s and ’30s, anti-nuclear and civil rights marches in the 1950s, the anti-Vietnam war rallies in the 1960s and the economic upheavals in Britain during the Thatcher years — seem to have disappeared from the landscape.
At least they have from the commercial airwaves. But their spirit drives much of the best contemporary music, Bruce Cockburn says.
“They haven’t disappeared, we just have to hunt them down,” argues Cockburn, who has never wavered in a 40-year career from an almost obsessive devotion to taking on war-mongers, empire builders and environment polluters with narrative-based songs of often brutal outspokenness.
Protest songs are alive and well, he says. They are just hiding in plain sight. “We just don’t hear them. We don’t hear anything worthwhile these days unless we go looking for it.”
The erosion in the Internet age of conventional mass media may have given everyone and everything a chance to shine, adds Cockburn. “But there are so many kinds of exposure, so many formats, and so many different ways to find an audience, so many places you have to look.”
He isn’t keen on reviving protest songs as a niche genre.
“The words ‘protest songs’ give me the willies,” Cockburn says. “They conjure up the worst music of the 1960s – songs like ‘Eve of Destruction,’ which I hated when I first heard it. It’s pretentious posturing, manufactured nonsense, bad songwriting and just plain ignorant, compared to Dylan’s work in the same period. ‘A Hard Rain’ and ‘Masters of War’ are beautifully constructed and artfully created. They hit the right emotional buttons and they nail their targets.
“To have value, a song has to impact its topic. It can’t be propaganda or exploitative pop music.”
Cockburn singles out American songwriter and activist Ani DiFranco for special praise.
“She’s a beautiful singer, a great guitarist and a brilliant lyricist. She doesn’t close her eyes to what’s going on around her, and she’s not afraid to speak up. And I don’t discount punk and reggae as breeding grounds for some of the best politically intense songs ever recorded — from the Clash and Bob Marley right up to the present.
“Some people say songs and politics don’t mix. I don’t agree. It’s an artist’s job to talk about his or her life, unless you live in a place where your neck is on the line. War and politics are part of life. Nothing is taboo.”
Even so, the absence in the public arena of songs of conscience may well be an effect of the wired age, along with so many previously cherished forms of social interaction, suggests guitarist Brian Gladstone, the proudly unreconstructed hippie founder and artistic director of Toronto’s annual Winterfolk Festival and its non-profit offshoot, the Association of Artists for a Better World. The association encourages, compiles and distributes collections of contemporary protest songs to radio stations and activist organizations around the world.
“People concerned about the issues that have always troubled us are more likely to turn to Facebook to find a like-minded community than to sing songs in the streets, the way we did in the 1960s,” he says.
“There are plenty of protest songs out there, but they just aren’t part of the cultural mainstream any more. Radio doesn’t play them, and people don’t seem to do things together, as a community. We’re all connected individually to some kind of device, working alone, amusing ourselves alone, enlightening ourselves alone.”
Gladstone started the association 10 years ago — the effort has since been replicated in half a dozen North American cities — because “not enough young songwriters were using their voices for the common good.
“We’ve issued eight or nine compilations since we began, and the response has been intense and gratifying.”
Neil Young came to the same conclusion after the release of his 2006 album, Living with War, a toxic indictment of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, when he complained publicly about the lack of contemporary songwriters willing to step up to the protest plate. At 64 then, he felt forced to do their work for them.
He was subsequently inundated with recorded proof to the contrary and now runs a page on his web site, Living with War Today, that has links to some 3,280 songs and 630 videos answering his original challenge.
It has been said that Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 album Magic, with its hallucinatory vision of an America gone mad with war lust, consumerism and revenge, was the New Jersey rocker’s response to Young’s challenge.
Three years earlier, American punk rocker’s Green Day’s American Idiot album, now also a hit Broadway musical, was praised by many for its brave, satirical take on modern America and its powerful endorsement of love and humanist ethics.
Long before that, roots rocker Steve Earle forsook his chance at country music’s brass ring by writing songs that skewered America’s version of history, many of its icons and values.
“It’s not that the issues needing attention are more numerous or complex than they were a couple of generations ago,” says Canadian folk music veteran Ken Whiteley. He cut his teeth on the anti-war and union songs of Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and on the plaintive blues of American field workers and gospel singers.
“You can look at 150 different issues and reduce them to just two things: greed and the abuse of power.”
Protest songs still have meaning and cachet, Whiteley adds. Many contemporary songwriters — among his favourites are Welsh composer/activist Martyn Joseph, Kingston’s Sarah Harmer and Vancouver-based James Keelaghan — have the ability to create provocative social commentary from simple narratives “and solid, memorable melodies, the key to the survival of any great song.”
The worst protest songs are “simplistic reductions” of complex ideas,” Whiteley believes.
“The best are personalized stories in which you can see the larger picture unfold. Or sometimes they can be nothing more than a simple, resonant phrase. My friend Pat Humphries (an Ohio social activist, singer and songwriter) composed a classic rally song from three words and an elegant little tune – ‘Peace, Salaam, Shalom’.”
Some rap music contains elements of social consciousness, he points out, part of a continuum of commentary and protest that goes back to the earliest blues forms, “but there’s a disconnect between rap and what went on before.
“If you’re my age, you can probably trace a line between (1950s folk group) the Freedom Singers, (American gospel group) Sweet Honey in the Rock, (American R&B/gospel band) the Blind Boys of Alabama and (Canadian rapper) K’Naan. But I don’t think the young people who are rallying around his song ‘Waving Flag’ are conscious of these connections.”
Toronto songwriter Jon Brooks, a winner in this year’s New Folk competition at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, has earned a devoted following among his peers for soulful, topical narrative songs that invoke powerful feelings about the horrors of war, human greed and the absence of the guiding principles — what we called, in another age, peace, love and understanding.
“The closest thing I heard to protest songs in my adolescence were Roger Waters and Pink Floyd,” says Brooks, who gave up his budding musical career in the 1990s after visiting Bosnia, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
“I saw real politics in action after the wall came down and I felt ashamed to be seeking people’s attention behind a microphone in the middle of all that suffering. So I quit for eight years.”
In those days, folk and protest music of the 1960s “seemed laughable, a cliché, something in the back of the record store to be avoided,” Brooks says. “After I came back from Europe, I was convinced songs would work no better now to benefit humanity than they did back then.
“Now I’ve come full circle. In complicated, distracted times, I’ve learned that timely songs performed in the right manner, accompanied by humour and common language, can really get inside people.”
Brooks has studied the work of his predecessors — Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Canada’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, whose bitter indictment of the patriot warrior, “Universal Soldier,” is a standout feature of his performances — and found many of them wanting.
“I think Ochs represented the best and the worst of that era, and Dylan was just too young to have a fully formed world view, but they were capable of writing powerful social and political commentary,” he says, citing Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain” and Ochs’ “Days of Decision” as favourites.
“The purpose of songwriting, for me, anyway, is to unite people through stories, through empathy. Direct, shouted protest has never worked for me as well as indirect story telling.”
Now, that would put a smile on Pete Seeger’s face.
Ten great protest songs
• “Universal Soldier,” Buffy Sainte Marie: For its bravery in laying the blame for the pain of war at the feet of those who make themselves available as weapons and cannon fodder.
• “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival: For smacking privileged Americans in the face for avoiding the draft and forcing those less fortunate to be conscripted during the Vietnam war.
• “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Bob Dylan: The mother of 1960s peace anthems.
• “Shipbuilding,” Elvis Costello: For drawing a line between the economic benefits of war and the end result.
• “Beds Are Burning,” Midnight Oil: For pricking the conscience of imperialist interlopers, not just in Australia, over their abuse of the rights of indigenous people.
• “Brothers In Arms,” Dire Straits: For illuminating the folly of the Faulklands war and inflated patriotic urges.
• “Clampdown,” The Clash: For its empathetic portrayal of the poor as a criminal class on Thatcher’s watch.
• “If A Tree Falls,” Bruce Cockburn: For its powerful indictment of the logging industry’s stripping of virgin rainforests.
• “Lives In The Balance,” Jackson Browne: An acidic account of American meddling in the politics of Central America.
• “If I Had A Hammer,” Pete Seeger: For its inclusive, joyful humanity.