All the News That’s Fit to Sing
“Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now,” goes the refrain of “Christmas in Washington,” the final track on Joan Baez’s 2003 album Dark Chords On A Big Guitar. Though the song was written by Steve Earle, the wistfulness in Baez’s voice as she sings that longing line makes it clear how strongly she identifies with the sentiment.
Songs with political overtones are certainly nothing new to Baez, who helped usher in an era of protest songs as a leading light in the folk boom of the early ’60s. Though Baez rarely wrote herself, her renditions of songs by outspoken masters such as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs helped carry the message of the moment to the masses.
Song, of course, has been used as a vehicle for social commentary for as long as people have been singing. The merging of music and politics peaked in the ’60s, and subsequent decades have paled by comparison. But the increasing volatility of the American political climate in recent years has, not surprisingly, increased responses from artists who feel inclined to address the times in which they live.
Earle, for example, has only grown more politically concerned since he wrote “Christmas in Washington.” He sparked a firestorm of controversy with his 2002 album Jerusalem, which included “John Walker’s Blues,” a song written from the perspective of the notorious “American Taliban” soldier. An outspoken critic of President Bush and the war in Iraq, Earle turned up the heat on his newest release, The Revolution Starts. . .Now.
But it’s not just longtime rabble-rousers such as Earle who are raising questions about America’s place in the world today. As leader of legendary Nashville cow-punk band Jason & the Scorchers in the ’80s, Jason Ringenberg was known primarily for his energetic antics and magnetic stage presence. But on his new solo album, Empire Builders, he ponders the consequences of our country’s actions on such tracks as “American Question,” “New Fashioned Imperialist” and the closing “American Reprieve.”
In that last song, the album’s closing track, Ringenberg reminds, “Now Vietnam is history, and brother that lesson didn’t come for free,” before concluding with a final question that gets to the heart of the matter: “Are we an empire loose and fast, or can we find a peace that’ll last?/ Is the answer here at home, or is it buried in a foreign storm?” Ringenberg is careful not to declare that he knows the answers, but he makes it clear that these are matters Americans should be thinking about.
Of course, political expression in country and folk music travels both sides of the fence, as evidenced by recent mainstream country conservative anthems from the likes of Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgotten”) and Toby “We’ll Put A Boot In Yer Ass” Keith (“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”). While September 11th and the Iraq war have sparked some of these songs, such sentiments are nothing new for Charlie Daniels, who’s been waving that flag since the ’70s. His catalogue includes such patriotic fare as “In America,” “Still in Saigon” and “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” (all available on the compilation album Freedom and Justice for All). Daniels offers none of the thoughtful deliberation found in Ringenberg’s album, but he certainly leaves no doubt as to where he stands.
And then there’s Cledus T. Judd, whose four-song EP The Original Dixie Hick surveys the damage done by mainstream country’s most outspoken act, the Dixie Chicks, when lead singer Natalie Maines dared to criticize President Bush from a London stage during the 2003 buildup to the invasion of Iraq.
On “The Chicks Did It,” Judd sings, “Blacklisted, that’s what you get,” and then, “When you talk about radio, then Toby and Arnold/ Bye-bye girls see you later, you can’t insult the Terminator.” Judd very slyly has found a way to endorse the Chicks simply by making statements that underscore how empty-headed the attacks on the trio were. (Either that, or Judd actually believes the things he sings — but no one could be that dumb. . . could they?)
In the back of my mind, though, that voice still echoes — “Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now.” Indeed, there may never be more formative social commentary in American song than in the oeuvre of folk music’s father figure. One need only to observe that “This Land Is Your Land” is recited and championed by both progressives and conservatives to realize the reach of Guthrie’s impact. Ultimately, he doesn’t really have to come back; his music is still very much with us.