Listen to this track by South African horn master and jazz crossover champeen, Hugh Masekela. It’s “Part Of A Whole”, the opening track on his 1972 landmark album Home Is Where The Music Is.
This cut is practically seething with joy, full of his own lilting trumpet, the energetic and versatile drumming of Makaya Ntshoko and the playful alto sax lines of Dudu Pakwana, along with American jazz musician Larry Willis on Fender Rhodes, and Puerto Rican-born bassist Eddie Gomez filling out the lineup.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of joie d’vive coming out of musicians that hailed from a region of the world that suffered under the oppression of Apartheid. As a musical figure, Masekela rallyed against this dangerous and oppressive political climate that also housed a hotbed of musical delights. In this way this is music that is, in its own way, very political. Further to that, I think that political reach extends outside of South Africa to regions closer to home, too. Read more
Listen to this track by American folk music dynasty member and Brooklyn NY born storytelling singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. It’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, an epic length story-song that appears on his 1967 debut album, appropriately titled Alice’s Restaurant.
This song is his most famous even now, based on real people and real life events, and delivered in a “talking blues” style made popular by his legendary dad, Woody Guthrie. It would prove to be an enduring song even if it is longer than most; 18 minutes and change, depending on the version, of which there are now quite a few. Most of that running time consists of a spoken-word delivery with a circular ragtime style finger-picking vamp behind it. Unconventional as it is, it got Arlo Guthrie a recording contract after his live performances of the song caught the attention of underground radio, who got a hold of a live recording. It was even adapted into a full length feature film in 1969 directed by Arthur Penn, and starring Arlo Guthrie playing a version of himself.
Because the story initially takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s now often given airplay during that time of the year, having celebrated it’s fiftieth year this past November. But, the themes the song deals with go beyond a single time of year or occasion. Maybe that’s why it was such a hit, despite the level of commitment it asked of listeners during a time when three minute songs were the order of the day. Read more
Listen to this track by message music maven and one-time Staple Singer Mavis Staples. It’s “Fight” a brand new single as taken from her 2015 EP Your Good Fortune. The EP was produced by none other than Anti-Records labelmate Son Little, also an artist with a feel for music with a message. This song is a kind of artistic mobius strip, with one artist who followed in the footsteps of another making footsteps of his own for her to follow. Saying that, there is more than just a turnaround between two artists with a similar set of motivations.
“Fight” seems to capture the anger related to any number of systemic aggressions against black people specifically and poor people in general as perpetrated by those who’s job it is to protect them. These events have alerted us to a social crisis that is not isolated to a few areas in our society. Songs about struggle and rage are appropriate in 2015 to say the least. I think essential may be the more precise word.
Listen to this track by politically motivated globetrotting singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call it Democracy”, a song as taken from his 1986 album World Of Wonders.
Cockburn had spent the 1980s making albums and writing songs while also making personal trips to points on the map where the negative effects of Western economic policy was making the most impact in that era. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continued their “aid” to Third World countries, lending them the funds to manage their economies effectively (read: in line with Western corporate agendas) in exchange for turning over their right to self determination in support of private interests. This was, and is today, generally done by way of huge rates of interest on loans that are designed to never be paid off. Certain people might say this is nothing less than economic imperialism. People like me, say.
Heavy stuff, I know.
So, how does Cockburn make this into a compelling song, and not just an over-earnest polemic? Because when it comes to writing political songs, this is what separates the big dogs from the furry fashion accessories. Read more
Listen to this track by long-standing four-cornered Irish arena fillers U2. It’s “Red Hill Mining Town”, a high point song as taken from their epic-scale 1987 album The Joshua Tree. This song stands in the shadow of some bigger hits on that record, a part of an album that would put them into the stratosphere before the end of the decade.
Among the songs on the record that evoked lofty spiritual quests (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”), the all-consuming turmoil of love as it intersects with pain (“With Or Without You”), and apocalyptic visions that sound like the end of the world (“Bullet The Blue Sky”), this one is a down to earth portrait of a town full of hard-working people in trouble.
And yet, this song by known politically motivated U2 turns out to be not your standard political song at all.
Listen to this track by multi-platinum one-time primal screamers and pop song craftsmen Tears For Fears. It’s “Sowing The Seeds of Love”, the title track from their 1989 record Sowing The Seeds of Love.
The immediate reaction to it at the time was to acknowledge its tie to the Beatles, particularly the “All You Need Is Love” era. This song certainly references that earlier song thematically, as well as sonically, with a bit of “I Am The Walrus” thrown in for good measure.
I think too it was a reaction against the loss of political conscience of nations, and their people. This was also a marker of the era, when songs on the radio were no longer making comment on the state of the world. This one was a notable exception.
So what made a big-selling pop band turn in a statement that ran so contrary to the approach of most pop bands looking to trouble the charts? Read more
Here’s a clip of left-leaning young soul rebels and bona fide pop collective The Style Council. It’s “Shout To The Top”, a single which appeared on the UK album Our Favourite Shop, and on the US album Internationalists, both released in their respective markets in 1985. The single appeared in October of 1984 on the British charts where it reached a respectable top ten showing.
This was during a time when social and economic issues were particularly polarized in Britain, and in North America as well, which may explain the political undercurrents in this song about being at the end of one’s rope, with nothing left to do but rage against the machine, so to speak. The Style Council helped to pioneer this approach to writing politically informed material as established on their earlier album Café Bleu aka My Ever Changing Moods as it was known in North America. The result wasthe creation of a sort of pop music political manifesto. Our Favourite Shop puts the band into their sharpest focus.
This artistic fluidity of the band was extensive, mixing Northern soul, jazz, mod-rock, and even early hip-hop sounds. Thematically speaking, they’d aim pretty high too, often bordering on the polemical, and sometimes into downright pretension. This would go south for them later in the decade when they strayed a bit too far, and when popularity and sales began to wane. But, in the mid-80s, leader Paul Weller, who had gained some similar thematic traction when he fronted The Jam, demonstrated his full array of pop smarts in this new musical milieu, along with the political content to be found in his lyrics to go along with them.
That’s why this song just zings. This is a bright, bouncy song about not taking it anymore, a shining soul-pop gem about being tired of being oppressed. You might wonder how it’s possible to get a top ten showing on the charts while making such strident statements about society, even if it is wrapped in a stunning pop sheen. But, this was the ’80s, friends!
Does that mean that audiences were more receptive to political messages in their pop at the time? Or did it mean that they weren’t listening very carefully? Was there another reason? Read more
Here’s a clip of erstwhile Pulp singer and frontman, and Sheffieldian folk hero Jarvis Cocker. It’s “Running the World”, a political song in an era when such things are disturbingly rare, that contains a chorus that is equal parts catchy-and-NSFW. The song is featured on his 2006 solo record Jarvis. On that record, it’s added on the CD version as a hidden track, while on the vinyl release, it was added on a separate 45RPM single disc.
A notable instance of this tune in pop culture was the use of it in the closing credits of the film Children of Men, a movie based on a novel by P.D James about a dystopic future where humanity has become sterile. Britain has become the last bastion of civilization, stemming the flow of the rising desperation by placing incoming refugees into concentration camps, including a single woman who happens to be, against all odds, pregnant.
The world in this movie is viciously stark, giving us a vision of what might happen were we to be thrust into the jaws of our own mortality as a species. It shows us what happens when we divide ourselves into us and them, hand over compassion by trading it for false security, and hoard resources in times of crisis instead of sharing them. We find out that these impulses do not keep us safe, and actually become our undoing. Ultimately, I think this is what this tune is about. But, why’s Jarvis Cocker so angry about it? And more importantly, does it really matter? Read more
Listen to this track by 60s Greenwich Village-meets-60s-British-Folk-scene trio The Caretakers, actually a group of musicians from Hamilton, Ontario. It’s ‘Daddy Laughed’, a song about childhood memory, and sourced from the band’s EP of the same name. The track also appears on their full-length debut Unfinished Thoughts.
In our 21st century, when war and greed are still very much active when it comes to the shaping of our times, folk music that connects us to our own experiences, as well as finding commonalities in the experiences of others in other countries, is still very potent. Bandleader and songwriter Jeffrey C. Martin (vocals, guitar) understands this very well, and along with his bandmates Lena Montecalvo (vocals, percussion), and Norm Van Bergen (vocals, 12-string guitar), we’re reminded that this musical connection is still very much alive.
Among other things, I spoke to Jeff about songwriting, the importance of community among musicians, about causes, and about how art and political engagement can still converge in a more jaded and media-overloaded time.
Here’s a clip of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and one of the architects of funk, singing “Say it Loud (I’m black and I’m Proud)” in November 1968. The clip is from Hugh Hefner’s ‘Playboy After Dark’ TV program‘, which featured musical guests, comics, and other celebrity appearances on a set that looks like a bachelor’s pad.
This was an anthem of cultural pride, with not just a bit of the taste of unrest that existed in black communities at the time. The Watts riots had marked a sea change in August 1965, and the pop artists and songwriters of the time began to feel a sense of obligation to their audience to address it. Martha Reeves’ ‘Dancing in the Streets’, Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man’ (a title inspired by graffiti songwriter Issac Hayes had seen on the street), and even Aretha’s cover of “Respect” all had an undercurrent of political protest, fueled by the need to establish a social identity for a community that had been marginalized for hundreds of years. By the time James Brown had taped this appearance, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were dead, both assassinated. Yet soul music as protest music was only to get more mainstream, and more overt, as the 60s faded into the 70s.
The one thing I noticed about James Brown’s appearance here, and his choice of song, is that his immediate audience sitting right there in the room with him are all white people (one of whom appears to be Sonny Bono!). I find it interesting that the smiling faces belie the message of the song. This is no party tune. It’s a song of defiance, as much as it is a song of pride in one’s identity. I wonder how many people there really understood the implications of what James was singing. And I wonder how many of the TV audience understood as well.