Bashment and Bob

Interesting piece by Dan Hancox, who knows more than most about the different kinds of political messages appearing across the musical spectrum in response to government cuts. I think he’s unjustly sniffy about protest songs, making a distinction simply between records he likes and ones he doesn’t — the lyrics in the bashment mix are no more sophisticated than the Agitator’s, albeit usually funnier. But he’s right to challenge Steve Goodman (Kode9)’s absurd claim that overtly political music is just “boring”. Of course it can be boring, it can be bad, and there’s space for all kinds of more subtle, coded alternatives, but I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who dismisses with one sweep of the hand. I’m not even going to start to list all the non-boring political songs — I have a book full of them.

I’ve also been reading Greil Marcus’s new book of essays about Bob Dylan, which celebrates perhaps the longest and most fruitful musician/critic relationship in rock. When he writes about the aesthetic failings of a certain kind of protest song, I tend to pay attention. In a review of a 1998 tribute album to Pete Seeger he writes:

Not all of them are bad, any more than all protest songs are bad.… But the purity of heart, the certainty of righteousness, the inexplicability of doubt, and the smooth, genteel, utterly harmless surfaces of the music, whatever the style, is like a disease. As one wades across this double CD — which has a lot less to say about the indomitability of the human soul than the recently released four-CD set Bird Call! The Twin City Stomp of the Trashmen, a band known only of its single hit, the 1962 “Surfin’ Bird'” — one realizes that Pete Seeger’s songs… really are about one world: his.”

Now that’s how to phrase a critique. “Boring”? Try harder.

1 Comment

  1. Political songs that are written in the Guthrie-MacColl protest folk song tradition will probably always find some kind of audience in every decade. Like Gordon Friesen wrote In the booklet that was included in the 1967 Broadside: Vol. 4 vinyl album: :

    “(It is significant that many of the new young songwriters of the ’60s–Dylan, Ochs, Paxton, La Farge, Chandler, Spoelstra, et cetera–dismissed with disdain the whole era of the 50’s–The Weavers, the Kingston Trios, the Oscar Brands, et. al.–and went back instinctively to Woody Guthrie for their source of inspiration and example).

    “It is this instinct for the real and genuine that continues to give American “folksong” its persistent vitality. Israel Young has recently been giving lectures entitled “Folk Music Is Dead.” Actually it isn’t. It never is. What seems to happen with deadening regularity is this: there is a folk music “boom” which the pressures of commercial success inexorably push in the direction of dilution and artificiality. The music loses its raw earthiness and becomes tinkly and pleasant; and lyrics become sweet–and meaningless. Hundreds of records crammed with “ersatz” material flood the markets; “ersatz” performers crowd the coffeehouse schedules. And Izzy Young announces in disgust that folk music is dead.

    “But all the while, away from the spotlights and the blare of publicity, hundreds of young Americans continue to look life in the eye and write songs about what they seee as realistically as they know how. From among them emerges an almost steady stream of fresh and vigorous replacements for our weary and jaded folk music “stars” mired in the backwaters of success.”

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