DO PROTEST SONGS HAVE A FIGHTING CHANCE?
Like the vibration from a freight train coming from a long way off, some songs are felt before they're heard. You sense them first in the soles of your feet.
Songs such as "We Shall Overcome," "If I Had a Hammer," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "This Land Is Your Land" don't seem to have been composed as much as discovered, fully formed, ready to change the world. Whether you're 18 or 88, you feel like you knew them before you knew they existed.
Often called protest songs, they are linked to sweeping social movements such as the abolition of slavery, the rise of organized labor, the civil rights struggle and opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as specific topical events-allegedly wrongful executions, mining disasters and the like-that stirred the masses.
They're blunt, sometimes funny, often angry, always powerful.
And, if current trends continue, doomed.
"The reality is that Britney Spears is not doing too many songs about improving working conditions for folks at McDonald's," said Mark Moss, editor and executive director of Sing Out, a folk music magazine based in Bethelehem, Pa., that was founded by Pete Seeger a half-century ago.
"It's about commercialization. The people who package music want you to be happy. Music is something you listen to while you buy Nikes."
Al Rose, a Chicago singer and composer who co-owns Kopi, a coffeehouse in Andersonville, said audiences are as much to blame as record companies. "There's something about contemporary society -- I don't know. You start singing a protest song and people roll their eyes. You can almost hear the collective eye-rolling."
Bucky Halker, a Chicago musician who also is an historian of protest songs dating back to the Revolutionary War, has seen the same waning of interest. "It's a smaller group of people doing it and they sing a lot to themselves," he said. "There's not the movement and culture sustaining it now. People don't get galvanized much anymore."
But back when they did, Chicago was a vibrant stage for the protest song. The city better know these days for its jazz rhythms was, in 1905, site of the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World, nicknamed "Wobblies," and their folk-infused tunes. Seeger, the patron saint of protest singers, dubbed the group "the singingest union American ever had." Each member was issued a union card -- and a songbook filled with ditties in support of workers and contemptuous of the all-powerful, dastardly bosses.
Such passion set to music seems almost quaint today.
Theories abound as to why the classic protest song has faded to a whisper: the galloping commercialization of the music business; the relative prosperity enjoyed by a greater number of Americans than ever before; the lack of a vigorous, engaging social movement such as the battle for rights for traditionally disenfranchised groups such as women and African-Americans; and, as a corollary to all of the above, the widespread sense that all of the great battles have been fought, all of the monumental causes exhausted.
By that line of thinking, we've simply prospered our way past the need for angry, impassioned protest songs, grown too rich and sophisticated for the simplicity of righteous indignation.
Add to that mix the triumph of irony as the default setting for contemporary attitudes, and you have effectively undermined the foundations upon which protest songs are built. They require a kind of anti-irony: a determined naivete, a sustained willingness to believe that a bunch of people singing in unison can change the world.
Not everyone would agree, of course, that the protest song is dead. Some see such hand-wringing as the simple nostalgia of Baby Boomers who, while cleaning out their attics, find dusty guitars and yellowed Woodstock posters and sigh about the days gone by.
Many people argue that music produced in the past two decades has more than its share of political content, from the moody, populist haiku of a Bruce Springsteen lyric to the snarling, insistent poetry of rap and hip-hop artists such as Rage Against the Machine. The band's latest CD, "Renegades" (Epic), is billed as a tribute to protest songs and includes covers of work by Springsteen, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. A recent New York Times article claims that political music is alive and well in the work of younger artists.
But there's a difference. Despite the legions of contemporary musicians such as the Indigo Girls, Eddie Vedder, Ani Di Franco and Tracy Chapman who brandish political causes in their work, those causes typically are manifested in personal terms: How does an injustice feel to me? How do I react to the world's woes? As Limp Bizkit kvetches in "Break Stuff": "It's just one of those days/You don't really know why/But you want to justify/Ripping someone's head off."
Moreover, the political involvement of today's musicians often feels like a public-relations ploy, just another image-building tool. Performers are fully expected to espouse hip political causes. It's part of the act.
The fate of protest songs is a complicated issue for many reasons, not the least of which is the problem of definitions. If you expand the meaning of the phrase "protest song" to include any complaint, any observation that the world is less than ideal, then, yes, contemporary music qualifies. The thrusting rants of rapper Eminem could constitute social criticism as biting as Dylan's "Hurricane" or Guthrie's "Union Maid." But expanding a definition invariably weakens, muddles and homogenizes the thing being defined.
Even the people who believe that the protest song is alive and well agree that its current manifestation is more inward and individual than in days past.
"The protest song has taken on a more personal feel," said Ellen Rosner, a Chicago musician whose debut CD, "The Perfect Malcontent" (No Genre Records), was released last year. "On the surface, they sound like angry diatribes. But if you look deeper, they're much more than that. Who isn't discontented?"
Michael Cameron, owner of Chicago's Uncommon Ground coffeehouse at which new musicians are showcased, concurred. "It's much more personal now. People are focusing on their own feelings."
That's a far cry from the protest songs of old, which typically appealed to the sense of a common soul, to a conviction of shared struggle and sacrifice. Classic protest songs are either stories about a tragedy befalling innocents or rousing choruses that speak to a universal cause -- not explorations of a solitary psyche.
The best metaphor for this shift may lie in a story that Seeger related on the liner notes to the 1998 CD "If I Had a Hammer/Songs of Hope and Struggle" (Smithsonian Folkways), a gathering of vintage protest songs.
As near as music historians can determine, the song "We Shall Overcome," which became the major anthem of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and '60s, derived from a blend of a 19th Century hymn ("I'll Be All Right") and an early 20th Century song, "I'll Overcome Someday," Seeger wrote. But it didn't catch on until 1946, when Lucille Simmons, an African-American tobacco worker who was walking a picket line, changed the "I" to "We."
The contemporary protest song has, in effect, changed that "We" back to an "I."
Halker, who has preserved many of the 20th Century's traditional labor songs on his new CD "Don't Want Your Millions" (Revolting Records), traces the shift to the 1970s. "That's when the acoustic musicians -- James Taylor, Jackson Browne -- turned inward. That's how we got into the angst-ridden whining of today."
But one person's angst-ridden whining is another person's eloquent cry of despair. And even some veterans of the storied days of the protest-song movement are reluctant to pronounce the genre dead.
"Yes, the protest song is still there. But it may be harder to find now," said Candie Carawan. She and her husband, Guy, are legends in folk music circles, having devoted their lives to working and singing for social change.
The Carawans live in New Market, Tenn., near the Highlander Center, a non-profit organization that has trained community leaders and social activists since 1932. Those who have taught or attended classes at the center include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Stokely Carmichael.
Guy Carawan, who wrote protest songs with Seeger in the 1950s and '60s, said music has always been instrumental to the work of grass-roots organizing. "Any time there are major movements in the country, they have a body of songs that are being sung by large numbers of people. It lifts people's spirits. But you have to know where to look for it."
One place to look is Harts Creek, W.Va., where singer-songwriter Elaine Purkey carries on the tradition of topical songs. In her day job, she works for the West Virginia Organizing Project, a non-profit group that keeps citizens informed about local issues. But she has also recorded original songs such as "Picket Line Lady" and "One Day More," in support of striking West Virginia miners and aluminum workers.
"I didn't believe I could make anything rhyme like that, but I had something to say," Purkey declared. "I was feeling a lot of anger about the whole situation. In this country, nobody should want for anything. And they wouldn't, if there wasn't so much greed."
"It seems to me that there aren't as many protest songs out there," said Purkey. "You have to listen a lot more. But rock and rap have a lot of protest songs, too. It's about a different kind of war -- the war that people in inner cities are fighting. It's not about labor issues; it's about everyday kinds of issues, living issues."
Some observers maintain that protest songs have never been mainstream, that what seems like a paucity of them in the present day is really just a reflection of the same old marginal status that the genre has always endured. But some protest songs have turned into big hits, such as Tennessee Ernie Ford's 1955 recording "Sixteen Tons," written by Merle Travis. The song is a coal miner's lament about the quiet tyranny of living in a company town.
Likewise for many of the songs by Springsteen, such as the bitter ballad "Born in the USA," which are both commercially successful and redolent with political meaning. Indeed, no one has been truer to the spirit of the protest song than Springsteen, who alternates his crowd-pleasing rock anthems with darker, more poignant songs about an America that is changing, and not for the better.
It is worth noting that Springsteen is a passionate admirer of Guthrie's work. On his CD "Springsteen Live: 1975-85" (Columbia), the rocker calls "This Land Is Your Land" simply "one of the most beautiful songs ever written." He then sings the song -- Guthrie's defiant reply to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" -- to a hushed crowd.
Peter Guralnick, who wrote a multivolume biography of Elvis Presley and edited "Best Music Writing 2000" (Da Capo Press, $14), said many pieces that ended up being protest songs didn't start out that way.
"In many ways, the profoundest protest songs were those written in secret code. Gospel songs, for example, have always been the means of communicating a message as deep and profound as you could have -- but, but necessity, written in code.
"When you hear Aretha Franklin singing, `Respect' or `Natural Woman,' the songs aren't explicitly political, but the way Aretha sings them makes them work that way."
Overt protest songs of an earlier era, such as the anti-war tunes by Joan Baez, Tom Paxton and the late Phil Ochs, quickly become dated. "They're always on the verge of becoming a cliche. It's like a slogan. It only appeals to those who are already true believers."
Any song, be it about striking miners or a failed love affair, can potentially raise a listener's consciousness, Guralnick said. "Protest comes in many forms. All art, to one extent or another, challenges the status quo."
Yet there still is a sense in the air that the contemporary world, drenched in its acid bath of irony, has neither the time nor the desire for the classic protest song. The difference between the protest songs of old and what passes for protest songs today may be understood in light of a sentiment voiced by Heinrich Heine, the 19th Century German poet.
We will have no more great cathedrals, Heine lamented, because it takes conviction to build a cathedral. The modern world has only opinions -- and you cannot, he said, build a great cathedral out of an opinion.
The same may be true for a great protest song.