Friday, December 28, 2007

"The Left has the best music..."

So said the Albert Finney character (?) in Under The Volcano (or so I'm told).

I don't know if this line is really in the movie or book, but it sure does sound good. And, when it comes to topical song, the left really does have the best music. I was thinking about this driving back to Dayton, listening to that new Springsteen album (Xmas present).

This goes way back, at least to the old Industrial Workers of the World, who recognized the value of song for propaganda purposes, publishing their Little Red Songbook. In this case it was often radical lyrics set to familiar hymns or secular tunes.

Then, in the 1930s, one sees the more familiar lefty music from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Personally I am not a fan of a lot of this, particularly the singing style. The best covers of Seeger and Guthrie seem to come from across the pond. Examples being Dick Gaughan doing an intense cover of "Ludlow Massacre" , with a steady war-drum bodhran intro, and The Oysterband covering "Bells of Rhymny", with some shouting voiceover.

Which brings to mind some of the differences in how political song is done in the US vs. the UK and Ireland. For me, too often the American singer-songwriter style sounds too plaintive, whining, and mild. The English, Scots, and Irish, however, have a certain bite in their music, a certain fierceness and spleen in the way they perform it and sing it, which appeals to me.

Probably the exception to this are the US coal miner songs. But since these mostly come from Appalachia, they are closer to British Isles sources due to the survival of ballads and sacred music . Sometimes these are taken back across the pond and reinterpreted by performers like Billy Bragg (doing a version of Which Side Are You On, based on an old hymn, which may itself have crossed the Atlantic from England)

Bragg has often dealt with economic or political topics; examples are "Between The Wars" (one of my all-time favorite political songs), a great musical manifesto for the social-democracy mixed with a bit of pacifism, and retooling an old folk song from the Jacobite rebellion to comment current events in 'Thatcherites".

In the UK there seems to a musical interest in economic themes and generalized political comment. Good examples are the work of Ewan McColl, whose Ballad of Accounting (influenced by Brecht) was covered by the aforementioned Dick Gaughan, and more recently by Irish singer Karen Casey. Another political English folky who comments on socio-economic things is Robb Johnson, writing about class issues in the bitter "Boxing Day", and using a shipwreck as a metaphor for the perils of laissez faire in "Herald of Free Enterprise"

You’d even hear this political turn in non-folk music coming from the UK, especially with the advent of punk, the rise of the BNP/National Front, the cruise missile controversy, Thatcher, and the miners strike. Britain was turning into a political pop hotbed between, say, 1976-77 and 1987-88, generating a lot of music hitting on political themes.

The political style seemed to really infuse the music scene: minor acts like the Redskins, post punk music from The Clash, Scritti Politti and Gang of Four, ska bands like English Beat and Specials, early Depeche Mode, folk rockers like Billy Bragg, Oysterband, and The Men They Couldn’t Hang, poppy dance bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Bronski Beat, and so forth. The Bronksi Beat was a particularly interesting case as they were the first (and so far only) band to do alternative/post punk songs on gay political & social themes.

Some of these UK acts didn’t just comment on conditions in Britain, but also on what was up in the US at that time, like Mark Knopfler's Telegraph Road. (though Billy Joel did something similar with the uncharacteristic-for him- Allentown).

This political turn hit Australian music, too, with Midnight Oil and the excellent (and unknown in the USA) Weddings Parties Anything. The "Weddoes" were particularly good, mixing rock, folk, historical themes, and politics.

To be fair most of this was probably just riffing on and playing with political themes and imagery, more a political style, not intended as agit-prop. But that this was happening at all was quite entertaining and interesting.

In recent times one can still here powerful political music coming from the UK, like the excellent Community Music from Asian Dub Foundation, which mixes Caribbean and Indian influences with US rap. Fascinating stuff. And there are the folk-rock Levellers, who have sort of an anarchist angle in their first two albums.

Probably the only way an American could be jacked-in to this sound was via an underground: listening to albums at someone's apartment (which is how I found out about some of it) as it was fairly rare on the radio, unless one lived in a place like Northern California, where one heard a lot of political content via public radio and the commercial FM station out of San Francisco; the late lamented KQAK ("The Quake").

One of things I noticed when moving to Dayton is how this music was mostly off the airwaves here.

An example is the Scots singer/songwriter Dick Gaughan, who has a solid oeuvre of trad Scots and Irish music, but moved well to the left with the outstanding album "A Different Kind of Love Song", one of the best collections of its kind.

I was introduced to Gaughan via a public radio station in Sacramento putting his cover of Leon Rosselson's Stand Up For Judas on heavy rotation…a song you'd never hear on the air in Dayton. Dayton airplay for political folk was relegated to issues long ago and far away, like Jacobite fight songs and Irish rebel songs (which are still pretty good in their own way)

Cityfolk did bring Dick Gaughan to Dayton for a performance at Canal Street Tavern (I guess the audience liked his trad stuff but was unaware of his political turn). Being a big fan I had to go, and was immensely entertained when "Big Dick" opened the evening with a rousing version of the stirring "Revolution", amazingly enough a song written right here in the United States about 100 years ago.

It was a great night at CST

Later, a bit more on US political song.

2 comments:

Bruce Kettelle said...

I think you should add U2 and XTC to the British list even though U2 is from Ireland.

And you seem to have left out the fabulous 60s from the whole list but maybe you are saving that for the next sound bite!

Jeffrey said...

The list could go on and on! But yes U2 is a well known example.

When it comes to political song the 1960s was before my time, and almost a subject unto itself. That would be a good era for US political music.