You know of his face from PopTeeVee’s That Effing Show, and if not that, you’d have heard his voice on BFM at least. Being one of the few rational voices in broadcast media (new and old), JUICE decided that Umapagan should bookend our August issue with a platitude-free cogitation on the nature of independence by way of popular music. Turn up that protest song, hiyo!
It’s that time of year again, overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness as to our national direction, when we think about who we are and where we’re going. It’s that time of year again, when we are suffocated by opinion and pseudo-patriotic poppycock. It’s that time of year again, and I promise to provide you with no more platitudes. No more bland and insipid intellectual fare. No more moral judgement, the kind that has been fed to us so often, and for so long, that it has become neither interesting nor insightful.
No. All I have are these songs in my head. An inevitable byproduct of being part of the MTV generation. Every image has an anthem, every circumstance a chantey. To which I am an old soul. My musical taste lies in that generation born and bred when pop was something more than saccharine sweet and confected in candy, when rock’n’roll stood for something, when r’n’b actually meant rhythm and blues. Tra-la-la. All I have for you are these strains in my mind. The melody from those hurdy-gurdies playing in the streets.
And so, as we remain hunched in our self-inflicted hell, trying desperately to recapture our lost teen spirit, all I can provide you is a playlist for our current condition. In four part harmony, and with a little feeling.
Because in my head, I can only ever hear Buffalo Springfield. “What a field day for the heat. A thousand people in the street. Singing songs and they’re carrying signs. Mostly say hooray for our side.”
Because in my head, I can only ever hear Bob Dylan. “Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government.” I hear his insistent metre and moody delivery, his rolling rhymes, half spoken and free in form. “Look out kid, you’re gonna get hit. But users, cheaters, six-time losers, hang around the theaters. Girl by the whirlpool, lookin’ for a new fool. Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.” For surely there is a Dylan song for every occasion. A lyric for every situation. Whether you’re blowin’ in the wind or otherwise.
I can only ever hear Arlo Guthrie and his 18 minutes and 34 seconds of musical monologue. How you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. I hear his condemnation of the moral hypocrisy that overwhelms us as a society. “I’m sittin here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug?”
In my head I hear trumpets. I hear Billie Holiday singing. “Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” I hear the words of a Blind Alfred Reed song. One that Ry Cooder made great and Bruce Springsteen made relevant. I wonder how a poor man can stand such times and live?
But there is some consolation, because if there is one show biz rule to live by, it’s to keep them laughing at the end. It is a comfort that comes to me via the vocal stylings of Billy Joel, where Gilbert & Sullivan meet rock and roll, in a not so subtle reminder that “we didn’t start the fire. That we didn’t light it, but we’re trying to fight it.”
It comes to me in Pete Seeger’s reassuring drawl: “We shall overcome”. Deep in my heart. I really do hope. I can only hope. Because our current condition has all the makings of a protest song. And I don’t freestyle as much, but I try to write them as such.
Because we’re bruised and battered, our faces, our spirits, the bluish-black of sloes. Our money woes as the market slows. There are buy ins and buy outs. There are government takeovers and the takeover of governments. There are kickbacks and crookedness. How much on payola? Nobody knows. But speculation grows. Deaths in custody. Refrain. “Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation to our nation.” Police shootouts. Protests in the streets. Unrestrained. The public smearing of a female. There are bullets in the mail. The powers struggle. Vive le Roi! Long live the King!
And the band played on…