Thursday, October 7, 2010

"There's a protest singer, he's singin' a protest song"

Graham Nash--"Chicago (live)" (mp3)

"Blowin' In The Wind" is not a protest song.

Sure, people may have made it into one, but if you look at it, it doesn't zero in. Here's the most directly critical part:

Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take 'till he knows
That too many people have died?

What is the song protesting? Cannonballs? An archaic notion. Lack of freedom? For whom? For "some people"? Death? Death from war? Is the "one man" JFK, the president at the time? What war had kicked into high enough gear in 1963 to merit a protest?

Taken as a whole, the song seems almost to be arguing in favor of natural law, as if somehow, like nature, we will ultimately realize what should be obvious and true? Perhaps it serves as kind of a precursor to the International Declaration of Human Rights? It is certainly no Common Sense, where Thomas Paine used natural law to argue in favor of revolution so convincingly and metaphorically. No, it's so generalized that seems like it could fit almost any time or any place.

But leap ahead 43 years: Bright Eye's "When the President Talks To God" or Neil Young's "Let's Impeach The President." Now those are protest songs. Consider Connor Oberst's lyrics:

When the President talks to God
Are the conversations short or long?
Does he ask to rape our women's rights
Or send poor farm kids off to die?
Does God suggest an oil hike
When the President talks to God?

Or Young's: Let's impeach the President/ for lying.

Yes, pointed protest songs. But they were oddly ineffective, much as I disliked having George W. Bush as president. Both were so direct, so shrill, perhaps even so obvious, that they didn't carry much of an impact, at least not after the first listening, when you might have been thinking, "Hell, yeah," but without too much enthusiasm. And, already, their moment has passed.

Perhaps that is the genius of "Blowin' In The Wind" or "This Land Is Your Land" or "What's Going On?"

Sing broadly of broad themes and you will always stay relevant. Sing specifically of particular men and actions and flaws and you will seem mean-spirited at first and then, ultimately, dated.

Part of it may be context. If you listened to music in the 60's and 70's, you were likely to hear protest music, heavy or lite, on your radio, on television variety shows, and just about everywhere else. Neil Young's "Ohio" or Graham Nash's "Chicago" (which, hopefully, you are listening to as you read this) or any number of Jefferson Airplane tracks (with lines like "up against the wall, Motherfucker" in beautiful 4-part harmony) were part of the national musical conversation.

And there was actual protesting going on so that the protest music could serve as a kind of soundtrack--swaying people with candles singing "We Shall Overcome" and that kind of thing.

Now, despite whatever anti-government or anti-war or anti-racism sentiments are swirling around, and in some ways, those positions are as strong as they've ever been, protest music has no context in which to thrive or even to survive. Should a protest song even work its way into the rotation, it will spin out just as quickly as any other passing fad.

I really don't know if there's a place for protest, or perhaps even folk, music anymore. Probably, not as genres. But there may be another component that in a songwriter's haste to protest, he or she forgets. There is always a place for a good song, regardless of the subject matter. The modern examples I've cited above, and a myriad other specific protests, fail the cardinal rule of songwriting. They have potent assertions or shocking frankness, but they aren't especially good songs. Dylan and Guthrie and Marvin, and a younger Neil Young on the hastily-written "Ohio" transcend the genre by creating memorable, hummable memories or guitar riffs or harmonica fills. While I like the idea of protest songs, I'd much rather hear a protest SONG than a PROTEST song.

I've always had a lot of affection for Graham Nash's "Chicago," especially sung live with the botched piano notes. Today's listener would probably have no idea that he's talking about the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and the police violence inflicted upon the protestors to that convention under the orders of Mayor Daley, pere. This live version is on CSNY's 4-Way Street.


Billy said...

I get the sense that the best protest music is about a societal conflict more than a political one. The political part is almost secondary, isn't it, to the cultural part? Sure, you're protesting The Man, but more the movements that support The Man.

Either way, demonizing a single individual as the alpha and omega of the reason for a protest song is probably failure on two levels. Get rid of Dubya or whomever, and the reasons for the protest probably don't go away. Protesting a dude who's gone in an election cycle no matter what is also somewhat pointless.

BTW: Is "Sunday Bloody Sunday" a protest song? Is it that different in its message and intent than "Chicago"?

Bob said...

Billy, all I know for sure is that it isn't a rebel song, because Bono says it isn't.

troutking said...

It's an odd balance, isn't it? If the lyrics aren't specific enough they might not spur action or could be misappropriated, but if they're too specific, they risk being transitory. In the end I guess it has to be a good song or it won't make an impact or gain an audience. Good example on Bruce's Magic: Last to Die is too concrete for my taste, I prefer Long Walk Home. Some of my favorite protest SONGS: Little Boxes, Born in the USA, Fortunate Son, War, Revolution.

Thom Anon said...

So, Blowin' in the Wind is not a protest song at this moment, but if someone sang it at a protest rally then it could be a protest song again, as it has been in the past.

I think you're right on about context. That's everything. Lack of specificity allows it to have multiple incarnations as a protest song if context expresses a need for it. Whereas a song like McMurty's "Cheney's Toy" really only has one brief moment in the sun.

troutking said...

Bob has claimed that he "never sang protest songs" and that "they're all protest songs." That pretty much settles it, I think.

jed said...

nice shout out to the underrated Graham.

cinderkeys said...

Agreed. Too much specificity in a protest song turns me off completely.

The one time I wrote a protest song myself, I did have a specific issue in mind, and I threw little references in here and there that might spark some recognition in others concerned with the issue. No one else would get those references, though.

Bob said...

Cinderkeys, why have we never posted any of your music?

cinderkeys said...

Well, it sure isn't because our label would sue you, 'cause we don't have one. :)

Seriously, though, we'd be honored. Shall I send you songs?