Stephen Deusner of Salon quoted 33 Revolutions in a piece he wrote over the weekend about the role of music at Occupy Wall Street, leading with Jeff Mangum’s surprise performance a week ago. Deusner makes the point that during the Bush years protest songs became more oblique: “Instead of vocalizing opposition to the war, they worked more to document life during wartime and to examine their own uncertainty and alienation.” Similarly, he sees the economic crisis tackled indirectly in observational narratives by the likes of the Drive-By Truckers and tUne-yArDs, smartly describing the latter’s My Country as “a breakup song with a nation”. I think he’s far too harsh on Steve Earle’s John Walker’s Blues but otherwise he’s right about the way that politics is more likely to hum in the background of songs than punch through to the front. When he writes “The lesson of the 2000s seems to be to approach politics obliquely instead of head-on, to make it one concern among many,” I immediately think of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible or Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One. The term “protest song” has always been flexible but it is becoming ever more elastic, which is only right considering that OWS represents a new form of protest itself.

That said, never underestimate the power of an old-fashioned clarion call. Indirect is fine when you’re listening at home. When you’re shivering in an encampment night after night, there’s still a desire for music to stir the blood. When Tom Morello sang Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, the message of this 70-year-old song, written in a different America – “This land was made for you and me” — seemed unimprovably relevant to the argument of the 99%. And Morello’s unamplified performance, relying on the crowd rather than a microphone to carry the song, would be familiar to Pete Seeger. So yes, new artistic strategies are always welcome but what’s interesting about the current moment is how readily protesters turn to methods which mobilised people before even Bob Dylan was born.


What the left needs to do next

Last night Massive Attack posted on their Facebook wall a brief statement about the recent riots. There followed the biggest shitstorm I’ve seen on a band’s Facebook since Coldplay had the temerity to show support for the Palestinian people. The statement read like so:

In context with the complicit support of the government, the banks looted the nation’s wealth while destroying countless small businesses and brought the whole economy to its knees in a covert, clean manner, rather like organised crime.

Our reaction was to march and wave banners and then bail them out. These kids would have to riot and steal every night for a year to run up a bill equivalent to the value of non-paid tax big business has ‘avoided’ out of the economy this year alone.

They may not articulate their grievances like the politicians that condemn them but this is absolutely political. As for the ‘mindless violence’… is there anything more mindless than the British taxpayer quietly paying back the debts of others while contributing bullets to conflicts that we have absolutely no understanding of?

It’s mad, sad and scary when we have to take to the streets to defend our homes and businesses from angry thieving kids, but where are the police and what justice is ever done when the mob is dressed in pin stripe.

The previous evening Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, made these remarks to Rock Sound:

I have been following matters in the UK rather closely and I think it’s no accident that over the course of the last year we’ve seen this kind of social unrest around the globe from the Arab Spring, to the riots in Spain and Greece caused by the austerity measures and the 100,000 people seen on the streets of Wisconsin as working class people stood up for their union rights…….. Something’s got to give and I would not exempt what’s happening in the UK from the rest of the world. The circumstances are different in each place but the overarching desire of humanity to stand against tyranny and want a decent life for themselves and their family in universal.

Now I like Morello and Massive Attack’s 3D very much. They’re clever, principled people who were good enough to spare some time to be interviewed for my book, and I think they make many valid points. But I think the balance of their comments typifies how the left could botch this, and here’s why.

Right now many people are rightly angry with the looters. Friends of mine tut at people they known on Facebook or Twitter suddenly having reactionary spasms: going “a bit Daily Mail.” I don’t want bullets, curfews, the death penalty or tanks on the street either but when you see the centre of gravity moving right you don’t shake your head condescendingly — you try to mount a persuasive counter-argument. Most people in deprived areas didn’t commit any crimes and many were victims of crime. They are furious – not just hang-‘em’-flog-‘em Tories in the shires — and they want to see justice done. As Owen Jones points out in a sobering piece on Labour List, the backlash in the US during the Nixon years could happen here.

To not even give people a few days to feel like this betrays a certain deafness to human emotions. I keep seeing spurious moral equivalencies being drawn by people I like and respect. Of course it’s amusing and ironic that in David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s time at Oxford the elite Bullingdon Club had a habit of trashing restaurants but it has no real bearing on the riots. And of course the reckless, greedy bankers are the prime culprits behind the financial crisis that drags on and on but calling them “looters” is too glib. You often find the obligatory handwave followed by a change of subject: Of course x is terrible but what about y? An extreme and idiotic example is Morrissey’s recent comment that the Norway massacre wasn’t as bad as an average day at KFC. Massive Attack’s whataboutery is much less offensive but still wrong. I think most people in Britain would tell you that they were angry with bankers and rioters. There’s no pressure to choose one or the other.

Furthermore, there is a thin but crucial line between understanding the many and varied causes, some going back decades, for such a violent outbreak, and comparing the participants to those opposing “tyranny” in Tahrir Square. As the Guardian’s Zoe Williams argues: “A violent act by the authorities, triggering a howl of protest – that bit is as old as time. But crowds moving from shopping centre to shopping centre? Actively trying to avoid a confrontation with police, trying to get in and out of JD Sports before the ‘feds’ arrive? That bit is new.”

Morello and 3D both know what genuinely politicised unrest looks like. Morello was living in LA when the outrageous Rodney King verdict provoked six days of violence in 1992, and was part of the anti-globalisation movement when protesters targeted specific brands during the so-called Battle of Seattle in 1999. Massive Attack were teenagers when the first major disturbance of the Thatcher era took place in St Paul’s, Bristol in 1980, in response to racist policing and the sus laws. These were overtly political actions; the recent unrest was not. That’s not to say politics is irrelevant but we have to draw distinctions. If the mainstream left can’t provide a better reading of the situation than that, then the upper hand will go to the authoritarian right, the frothing pundits, the sinister, self-appointed voices of the people.

What gives me hope is the fact that the real argument is not as divided as it seems. Firstly, looters will be prosecuted whenever possible and justice will be seen to be done. But then the underlying problems will be considered because they have to be. Despite what you’d think from listening to some pundits, understanding causes is not an optional lefty indulgence — it’s essential for any government that doesn’t want to have a portion of its population volatile and alienated for generations to come. We need to keep saying again and again that to understand is not to justify, and that social justice should run alongside criminal justice. If we don’t want Britain to become a harsher, more divided country we need to insist on both.

There Is Power in a Union

One great thing about researching a book is making yourself study subjects that you’d always been vaguely interested in but never quite got around to. Recent events in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker (not that one) has effectively declared war on the union movement, mean more to me because I know some of the history. Twentieth century protest singing began with the unions, specifically the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies. From the Woody Guthrie chapter:

The Wobblies’ brand of socialism was broad-shouldered, boisterous and uncompromising. Strikes and sabotage were their tools, the formation of One Big Union their goal. And – important, this – they had the songs, too. Fighting to make themselves heard above the right- eous blare of a Salvation Army band in Spokane, Washington, in 1906, the Wobblies began crafting pungent parodies of Salvation Army hymns, which were compiled three years later into Songs of the Workers, popularly known as The Little Red Song Book. ‘At times we would sing note by note with the Salvation Army at our street meetings, only their words were describing Heaven above, and ours Hell right here – to the same tune,’ remembered Wobbly Richard Brazier.

Joe Hill sang union songs. So did Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers. It was the labour movement that transformed old hymns and spirituals into the celebrated protest songs We Shall Overcome and We Shall Not Be Moved. In Satisfied, the Reverend Rosco McDonald, leader of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) Singers in Alabama, even ventured that Jesus’s disciples might have constituted the first ever union: “Christ’s last Passover/He had his communion/He told his disciples/Stay in union.”

The unions sang to rally the troops and stiffen spines in the face of sometimes brutal opposition. In his introduction to the 1939 songbook Labor Songs John L Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, wrote: “A singing army is a winning army.”

The glory days of labour songs were a long time ago but the battle in Wisconsin rouses memories and brings back old tunes. I felt history stirring when I watched Tom Morello and friends perform Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land at a rally in Madison:

And when John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats recorded a version of Billy Bragg’s There Is Power in a Union (named after Joe Hill’s 1913 song) with the message: “Everybody knows I don’t generally do the acoustic guitar guy rocking political jams deal but as a former member of SEIU 660 & the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians & a kid who benefitted from great teachers I wanted to spend tonight saying WE ARE ON YOUR SIDE xo jd ”

Power In A Union from JD on Vimeo.

The unions have lost this battle. I just hope that the anger inspired by this outrageous attack on workers’ rights will roll on into election year and comes back to hit the Republicans where it hurts.

Note: For some quick insight into the historical context of the clash in Wisconsin, this NPR interview with writer Philip Dray (author of a book called There Is Power in a Union) is hard to beat.,