Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings Perform “This Land Is Your Land”

sjdknaturallyListen to this track by New York-based, twenty-first century funk-soul standard-bearers The Dap Kings as led by vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones. It’s “This Land Is Your Land”, an American folk anthem as written by fascism-fighting songwriter Woody Guthrie, re-positioned here as a sweaty soul jam in a minor key. The track is featured on their 2005 album Naturally, their second.

Guthrie wrote this song in 1940 in response to a certain strain of American jingoism that papered over the disenfranchisement experienced by many during the years of the Great Depression. Despite it’s jaunty feel and kid-friendly reputation, by the late forties and early 1950s in the McCarthy era, Guthrie’s song was considered dangerous due to some redacted verses that criticized American life directly. This song was about claiming a birthright, and being blocked while trying to do so. It revealed cracks in the facade.

When multi-racial soul band Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings recorded it in the mid-2000s, their version wasn’t entirely removed from the intent of its author during an era of ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and a second term for George W. Bush. How has the politically charged relevance of this song changed since then, stylistic textures aside? Given that it was written by one who stood openly opposed to fascism, the answer is a very discouraging “not very much”. Read more

Jill Sobule Sings “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”

monster protest jams vol 1Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-satirist with a highly developed social conscience matched by a sense of humour, Jill Sobule. It’s “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”, a single as taken from her involvement in the recent My Song Is My Weapon project, and its accompanying album Monster Protest Jams, Vol. 1. The album is a compilation of new protest songs that includes the work of artists like Tom Morello, Todd Rundgren, Amanda Palmer, Wayne Kramer, Wendy & Lisa, and many others.

The project, co-founded by Sobule, is based around the idea that the grand tradition of artistic protest in America needs an online forum. Through Pledge Music, we can help make that a reality particularly during a time when it is very difficult to tell satirical headlines from the actual news. More to the point, it’s a time when also-ran politicians and would-be world leaders seem to deal mostly in ambiguity and emotional button pushing instead of real data, specifically around the nebulous concept of the good ol’ days when America Was Great. No one can quite remember this era in exact detail, but many feel as though they need to replicate it in our modern age by electing repressive and out and out dangerous demagogues.

So, what is the role of the protest song in a socio-political environment such as ours? Does is have the same effect as it once did in the idealistic sixties or even in the jaded seventies? In this age of technological networks, maybe the answer is less about the song, and more about the listeners. Read more

Mavis Staples Sings “Fight”

Mavis Staples Your Good FortuneListen 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.

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McCarthy Play “Red Sleeping Beauty”

McCarthy band group shotListen to this track by Barking, Essex-based left-leaning jangle pop maestros McCarthy. It’s their 1986 single “Red Sleeping Beauty”, the harbinger for their first album that would appear the next year, I Am A Wallet.

The band put themselves across as a sort of politicized Smiths, with jangling guitars and lyrics that alluded to the cracks in the facade where mid-to-late ’80s Britain was concerned. They built their sound around the political lyrics of singer/guitarist Malcolm Eden, and the chiming folk-indie lines laid down by lead guitarist Tim Gane.

McCarthy formed in 1984, just before the height of the unemployment rash and miner’s strike in England, as well as the dismantling of the social safety net at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. Despite their material being very concerned with those particular times, by the time this track came out on the Pink label, they didn’t get much radio play internationally, or even domestically, other than by way of the immortal champion of fringe indie bands John Peel, who hosted several of his famous sessions with McCarthy.

But, they would provide another service to music as a whole beyond their small but vital output by the end of the decade, even if at the time, they appeared not to make much impact. Read more

X-Ray Spex Performs “Plastic Bag”

X-Ray Spex Germ Free AdolescentsListen to this track by class of ’77 London punk band and shouty social commentators, X-Ray Spex. It’s “Plastic Bag” as taken from 1978’s Germ Free Adolescents, their debut full-length which would have no US release until the early ’90s, but helped to document their place in the UK punk pantheon.

The band forming at all was down to inspiration that came out of their regular attendance at shows by the Sex Pistols. But, unlike that band, X-Ray Spex incorporated a few changes to the British punk template by the time they’d put out their first single (“Oh Bondage, Up Yours”), and eventually this song and album.

One was the use of a saxophone, played here on this tune by one Rudi Thompson, giving their sound something of an R&B sort of feel. Another was a more ambitious approach to arrangements that includes changes in tempo and in tone, even if the rawness of punk is very much in place.

And perhaps the most important ingredient sprung from its lead singer, who was also the primary songwriter, Poly Styrene (neé Marianne Joan Elliott-Said).

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Andrew Cash Sings “Trail of Tears”

Listen to this track with Torontonian renaissance man and pop singer-songwriter Andrew Cash. It’s “Trail of Tears” as taken from his 1988 debut record Time And Place.  Hooking into a sort of rootsy pop feel much like Blue Rodeo, and especially like Toronto scenesters The Skydiggers, which his brother helped to form, Cash traded on jangly pop guitar hooks and socially aware lyrics too. The whole concoction fit perfectly on the charts here in Canada at a time when the local scene was beginning to enjoy nation-wide attention.

Andrew Cash Time and PlaceThis was the lead single on his debut, typical of Cash’s approach of pop smarts and political content. But, it’s also a superlative example of a late ’80s return in Canada to singer-songwriters who had something to say in a global landscape where the protest song was something of a throwback to another era. With this one, a resident in the First World is confronted by how life around him often comes at the expense of those far away, or even those not so far away but otherwise unknown to him.

Despite how the ’80s as a decade is known for dated textures, thematically speaking this song still lives and breathes today, of course.  It also hearkens back to the past as well. Read more

Ry Cooder Sings “John Lee Hooker For President”

pull_up_some_dustListen to this track by guitar virtuoso, songwriter, and John Lee Hooker campaign manager Ry Cooder. It’s his 2011 deep cut track, “John Lee Hooker For President” as taken from his most recent record, Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down.

The record is a protest album, with songs that have a razor keen satiric edge to them that is refreshing to hear in an era that sorely needs songs like that, helpfully presented in a variety of styles including rock/pop,  country, reggae, tejano, and of course, the blues. This song is certainly satirical, providing some comic relief to songs about crooked bankers, Mexican refugees, damaged soldiers, and obtuse politicians.

Ry Cooder has entered a new phase in his career, from guitar slinger, to folk music archivist, to soundtrack composer, to world-music curator, to an artist who has found a voice as a social critic with an eye for historical events informing current ones. More recent albums Chavez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy and I, Flathead, known as his “California Trilogy” all reference sociopoltical themes of the past, tying them to themes today that show that things  haven’t really changed.

As such, this album doesn’t come out of nowhere. And even if this song about John Lee Hooker has some comedy value, complete with a well-observed impression of the late lamented bluesman, there is a strain of truth to this song that makes it more than just comedy relief.

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Rheostatics Perform “Bad Time To Be Poor”

Rheostatics the Blue HysteriaListen to this track by Canadian art-rock doyens Rheostatics. It’s “Bad Time To Be Poor”, a crunchy and ragged Neil Youngian study in short-sighted economic policy on the part of the then-Conservative provincial government around the time the song, and the album off of which it comes, The Blue Hysteria, was released in 1996.

The band was made up of four guys hailing from the outlying Toronto-area, specifically the City of Etobicoke (the “k” is silent for you out-of-towners). As writers, they had always worn their cultural context on their sleeve, even if some of their music explored the gamut of the rock spectrum. Here, it turns to life in the province of Ontario, under the Mike Harris provincial government in the mid-90s.

This was not an era (1995-2002) known for support of the arts or social welfare to say the least. It was a time when policies arising out of right wing ideological stances (known in this context as the Common Sense Revolution) were beginning to run rampant internationally, even before the age of George W. Bush. This was certainly the state of affairs in Ontario, in Canada, a country known for its sturdy social safety net held, very simplistically, in opposition to American neo-conservatism.

It was clear that the safety net was wearing thin, or more to the point it was being worn thin by a government who wasn’t interested in funding it. The Rheos submitted this song to address that trend, during a time when writing about oppressive policies was a matter of course. And they even got radio play! But, where did it lead them otherwise? Read more

Jarvis Cocker Sings “Running The World”

Jarvis Cocker
Photo: Jeremy M Farmer

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 securityand 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

Tom Waits Performs ‘Day After Tomorrow’

tom-waits-real-goneHere’s a clip of Brechtian barfly and junkyard poet Tom Waits with his 2004 track “Day After Tomorrow” from his  most recent disc, Real Gone.  Once again, Waits shows his ability to put across an affecting, humanized portrait of a figure which is often dehumanized by context – the soldier away at war.

In 2004, commentary about the realities of war remained to be an important message, with many soldiers and their families wondering how long the war in Iraq, and the conflicts in Afghanistan would continue.   Of course this still remains true four years later. Yet, this song isn’t about those specific conflicts so much as it is about one of the many casualties of war – separation from those who love us and are loved by us.  As far as songs about war goes, this one packs a punch, and could really be about any war, past, present, or future.

Tom Waits’ delivery suits the material here, with the sound of a man who is buoyed up only by the last shreds of hope that the war will not consume him before he is able to return to his loved ones.  There is a sense too that innocence has been lost, that “they fill us full of lies/Everyone buys/of what it means to be a soldier”. The impossible task of trying to reconcile the images of heroism and glory to the grubby, mundane, and terrifying realities of war that is left to each soldier, giving way to disillusionment and spiritual emptiness.

And further to that, the song evokes the ultimately confounding idea of an enemy who ‘prays to the same god we do’ and also the idea that if there is a god, how is it that only the prayers on one side are valued?  So many questions which arise against the idea of a just war, even a holy war, so as to make the entire exercise one of absurdity rather than nobility.

Ultimately as the song points out, the only real fight that means anything is the fight a soldier puts up for life, for the chance of going home to loved ones.  This of course is the prayer for every soldier, regardless of their culture, political position, or religious faith.  They all want to go home.

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